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.

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

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