The Great Tragedy of Science—The Slaying of a Beautiful Hypothesis by an Ugly Fact

Thomas Henry Huxley? Charles Darwin? Herbert Spencer? Benjamin Franklin? John Dougall? John Tyndall?

Dear Quote Investigator: An elaborate and magnificent scientific theory can completely collapse if a contradictory fact is uncovered. A prominent scientist called this methodological occurrence one of great tragedies of science. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In 1870 biologist Thomas Henry Huxley delivered a speech to fellow scientists in Liverpool, England. The text appeared in the leading journal “Nature”. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

But the great tragedy of Science—the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact—which is so constantly being enacted under the eyes of philosophers, was played, almost immediately, for the benefit of Buffon and Needham.

Huxley used a different phrasing for the expression during a personal conversation with philosopher Herbert Spencer according to statistician Francis Galton. See the 1908 citation presented further below.

This thought has displayed a powerful cultural resonance, and Huxley’s phrase has been repeated, modified, and propagated up to the present day. Here is a sampling with dates:

1870: The slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact
1871: Here is a beautiful hypothesis slain by an ugly fact
1878: A beautiful theory killed by an incontrovertible fact
1886: The slaying of a beautiful theory by an ugly fact
1890: The slaying of a beautiful theory by an awkward fact
1891: The murder of a beautiful theory by an ugly fact
1908: A beautiful theory, killed by a nasty, ugly little fact
1911: A beautiful theory killed by a wicked fact
1912: A beautiful induction killed by a nasty little fact
1918: A beautiful theory killed by a devilish little fact
1920: The murder of a beautiful theory by a gang of brutal facts
1922: A murder of a lovely theory by a gang of brutal facts

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1871 John Dougall M.D. published an article in the medical journal “The Lancet” which contained an instance of the saying with a slightly different phrasing without attribution: 2

These facts prove that the vapour of carbolic acid, even when most concentrated, fails to arrest putrefaction, and to prevent the appearance of germs; indeed, as seen with the beef juice, it does not even delay those phenomena, the portion suspended in the carbolised atmosphere putrefying as quickly as that kept in ordinary air. “Here is a beautiful hypothesis slain by an ugly fact.”

In 1878 an instance using the words “theory” and “killed” instead of “hypothesis” and “slaying” appeared in an Hawaiian newspaper. The words were attributed to “Tyndale”. QI suspects that Irish physicist John Tyndall was being referenced: 3

It reminds one of Tyndale’s definition of the “tragedy of science.” What is it? “A beautiful theory killed by an incontrovertible fact.”

In 1886 George S. Merriam published “A Living Faith” which contained the following passage. Huxley received credit for the remark, but “hypothesis” was changed to “theory”: 4

We may see repeated in its case what Huxley calls “the tragedy of science—the slaying of a beautiful theory by an ugly fact.”

In 1890 “The Glasgow Herald” of Scotland printed an article crediting Tyndall with an instance using “awkward fact” instead of “ugly fact”: 5

Tyndall somewhere remarks that there is no more characteristic tragedy in all the domain of intellect than the slaying of a beautiful theory by an awkward fact. Such a fate befell the views of Claude Bernard.

In 1891 a participant in a meeting of the Wisconsin Dairymen’s Association of Madison, Wisconsin employed an instance. The word “murder” was used instead of “slain” or “killed”: 6

A theory is only good when it is true. An English philosopher said that there was no tragedy in nature more terrible than the murder of a beautiful theory by an ugly fact.

In 1897 the weekly journal “Public Opinion” of New York published another variant with crediting Huxley: 7

One ugly little fact, as Huxley says, will destroy the most beautiful theory ever constructed by a physical scientist.

In 1901 a newspaper in Dayton, Ohio attributed an instance to Charles Darwin: 8

Darwin has called the slaying of a beautiful theory by an ugly fact one of the tragedies of life.

In 1908 Francis Galton published his autobiography “Memories of My Life”, and he presented an anecdote he heard from Herbert Spencer. No date was specified for the episode: 9

Spencer, during a pause in conversation at dinner at the Athenæum said, “You would little think it, but I once wrote a tragedy.” Huxley answered promptly, “I know the catastrophe.” Spencer declared it was impossible, for he had never spoken about it before then. Huxley insisted. Spencer asked what it was. Huxley replied, “A beautiful theory, killed by a nasty, ugly little fact.”

In 1911 “The Outlook” of London printed an instance with the word “wicked”: 10

Huxley said that Herbert Spencer’s idea of a tragedy was a beautiful theory killed by a wicked fact; and from that point of view the work before us is entitled to rank with the greatest of tragedies.

In 1912 Karl Pearson presented a slightly different version of the anecdote. The quotation attributed to Huxley used the phrase “beautiful induction” instead of “beautiful theory”: 11

‘You fellows would little think that I wrote a tragedy when I was young.’ Huxley said promptly: ‘I know what it was about.’ Spencer declared it was impossible as he had never shown or even spoken of it to any one before. Huxley persisted. Spencer put him to the test. Huxley replied: ‘It was the history of a beautiful induction killed by a nasty little fact.’

In 1918 an article in “The Ottawa Naturalist” credited Herbert Spencer with an instance using “devilish little fact”: 12

Herbert Spencer’s friends said that the philosopher’s sole idea of a tragedy was a beautiful theory killed by a devilish little fact. In my case the little fact was that the quills were not held more firmly in one position than in another.

In 1920 a piece in “Reedy’s Mirror” of St. Louis, Missouri printed a instance with the phrase “gang of brutal facts”: 13

Herbert Spencer upon a memorable occasion was asked for a definition of tragedy. He replied that a perfect one was exhibited by the murder of a beautiful theory by a gang of brutal facts.

In 1922 a book by Edward H. O’Hara used an instance with the phrase “lovely theory”: 14

If ever there was a “murder of a lovely theory by a gang of brutal facts,” it was in the apparent doing in of the adage that the pen is mightier than the sword.

In 1948 the saying was implausibly assigned to U.S. statesman Benjamin Franklin during a speech in the U.K. Parliament in London: 15

May I remind hon. Members opposite of a famous saying by Benjamin Franklin: “Life’s greatest tragedy is the murder of a beautiful theory by a gang of brutal facts.”

In conclusion, Thomas Henry Huxley deserves credit for the statement “the great tragedy of Science—the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact” which he used publicly in 1870. Afterwards there was an efflorescence of variant phrases employed by many people.

In addition, in 1908 Francis Galton presented an alternative phrase: “a beautiful theory, killed by a nasty, ugly little fact”. Galton stated that he heard this version from Herbert Spencer who heard it directly from Huxley, but it was unclear when Huxley made the remark to Spencer.

Image Notes: Illustration of Thomas Henry Huxley by Theodore Blake Wirgman circa 1882. Image has been cropped, resized, and retouched.

(Great thanks to Vanina whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1870 September 15, Nature, Section: The British Association – Liverpool Meeting, 1870, Address of Thomas Henry Huxley, President, Start Page 400, Quote Page 402, Column 1, Macmillan and Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1871 December 16, The Lancet, On Chromic Acid as an Antiseptic, Disinfectant, Etc. by John Dougall M.D., Start Page 847, Quote Page 848, Column 1, London, England. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  3. 1878 June 22, The Pacific Commercial Advertiser, Letter from Hampton by W. N. A., Letter date: May 30, 1878, Quote Page 3, Column 7, Honolulu, Hawaii. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1886, A Living Faith by George S. Merriam, Second Edition, Chapter 5: Christianity and Natural Science, Quote Page 41, Geo. H. Ellis, Boston, Massachusetts.(Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1890 April 26, The Glasgow Herald, The Liver, Quote Page 9, Column 6, Glasgow, Scotland. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1891, Transactions with Accompanying Papers and Discussions of the Wisconsin Dairymen’s Association at Their Nineteenth Annual Convention, Held at Berlin, Green Lake Company, Wisconsin on February 11, 12, and 13, 1891, Article: Theory and Practice in the Dairy by Hon. H. C. Adams of Madison, Wisconsin, Start Page 17, Quote Page 18, Democrat Printing Company, Madison, Wisconsin. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1897 June 24, Public Opinion: A Weekly Journal, Volume 22, Number 25, Section: American Affairs, Debs’s Co-operative Commonwealth Scheme, Acknowledgement: New York Journal (Silver Dem.) Quote Page 773, The Public Opinion Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1901 January 1, The Dayton Evening Herald, The National Period of American Literature by Lorenzo Sears, Litt.D., Start Page 4, Quote Page 5, Column 1, Dayton, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1908, Memories of My Life by Francis Galton, Second Edition, Chapter 17: Anthropometric Laboratories, Quote Page 257 and 258, Methuen & Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  10. 1911 June 24, The Outlook: A Weekly Review of Politics, Art, Literature, and Finance, A Tragedy of Evolution (Book Review of Arthur Willey’s “Convergence of Evolution”), Start Page 826, Quote Page 826, Column 1, The Offices of The Outlook, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  11. 1912, The Groundwork of Eugenics by Karl Pearson, Quote Page 18, Dulau, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  12. 1918 January, The Ottawa Naturalist, Volume 31, Number 10, The Canada Porcupine by Charles Macnamara (Arnprior, Ontario), Start Page 113, Quote Page 114, Published by The Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club, Ottawa, Canada. (Google Books Full View) link
  13. 1920 May 27, Reedy’s Mirror, Volume 29, Number 22, The Baby on the Doorstep by Histor, Quote Page 428, Column 2, St. Louis, Missouri. (Google Books Full View) link
  14. 1922 Copyright, World War at Its Climax: Being Personal Imprints of the Great Conflict and Close Up Glimpse of the World Tragedy by Edward H. O’Hara, Chapter 22: An Unique and Scientific Stunt, Quote Page 139, (Printed for private circulation Number 250 of 500), Printed by The Roycrofters, East Aurora, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  15. U.K. Hansard, U.K. Parliament, Commons Chamber, Orders Of The Day, Date: November 2, 1948, Topic: Nationalisation, Speaker: Mr. Gammans (David Gammans, Hornsey). (Accessed via hansard.parliament.uk on December 26, 2020) link