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

Beware of His False Knowledge: It Is More Dangerous Than Ignorance

George Bernard Shaw? Alexander Pope? H. W. James? Thomas Henry Huxley? Paul Janet? George Pellew? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Recently I saw a tweet with a quotation attributed to the famous playwright and intellectual George Bernard Shaw:

Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance.

I haven’t been able to find a solid citation. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: In 1903 George Bernard Shaw published “Man and Superman: A Comedy and a Philosophy”. The book included a section titled “Maxims for Revolutionists”. One of the adages closely matched the statement under analysis. Yet, it did differ slightly. Here are four of Shaw’s maxims. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.

A learned man is an idler who kills time with study. Beware of his false knowledge: it is more dangerous than ignorance.

Activity is the only road to knowledge.

Every fool believes what his teachers tell him, and calls his credulity science or morality as confidently as his father called it divine revelation.

Shaw’s comment about false knowledge has close precursors, and QI suggests a possible lineage for the remark by presenting selected citations in chronological order below.

Continue reading Beware of His False Knowledge: It Is More Dangerous Than Ignorance

Notes:

  1. 1905 (1903 Copyright), Man and Superman: A Comedy and a Philosophy by Bernard Shaw (George Bernard Shaw), Section: Maxims for Revolutionists, Start Page 226, Quote Page 230, Brentano’s, New York. (Google Books Full View) link

It Is the Customary Fate of New Truths to Begin as Heresies and to End as Superstitions

Thomas Henry Huxley? George Bernard Shaw? Garrett Hardin? Caryl P. Haskins? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: An influential idea passes through three stages:

1) Begins as heresy
2) Turns into orthodoxy,
3) Ends up as superstition.

I cannot remember who said this. Can you help?

Quote Investigator: There are several different quotations that describe the reception of new ideas via a series of stages. A partial match with two stages instead of three was spoken by the scientist Thomas Henry Huxley during a lecture delivered at The Royal Institution of Great Britain. Today Huxley is best known as “Darwin’s bulldog” because of his vigorous defense of the theory of evolution. Huxley’s speech was printed in the journal “Nature” in 1880. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

History warns us, however, that it is the customary fate of new truths to begin as heresies and to end as superstitions; and, as matters now stand, it is hardly rash to anticipate that, in another twenty years, the new generation, educated under the influences of the present day, will be in danger of accepting the main doctrines of the Origin of Species with as little reflection, and it may be with as little justification, as so many of our contemporaries, twenty years ago, rejected them.

In 1961 Huxley received credit for a version with heresy, orthodoxy, and superstition, but QI has not yet found substantive evidence that he actually employed a tripartite expression.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading It Is the Customary Fate of New Truths to Begin as Heresies and to End as Superstitions

Notes:

  1. 1880 May 6, Nature: A Weekly Illustrated Journal of Science, Volume 22, The Coming of Age of the Origin of Species by T. H. Huxley, (Footnote: A lecture delivered at the Royal Institution, Friday March 19, 1880), Start Page 1, Quote Page 1, Column 2, Macmillan and Company, London and New York. (Google Books Full View) link

Science Is Organized Knowledge

Immanuel Kant? Herbert Spencer? Thomas Henry Huxley? R. Strachey?

tree10Dear Quote Investigator: The following two part adage is usually attributed to the famous 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant:

Science is organized knowledge. Wisdom is organized life.

I have not seen any citation in German or English showing that Kant ever wrote or said this. Would you please explore this saying?

Quote Investigator: This entry examines only the first sentence of this two sentence quotation, and a separate entry explores the full quotation.

Immanuel Kant died in 1804, and the earliest evidence found by QI appeared many years later. In May 1854 the prominent English philosopher and sociologist Herbert Spencer published an essay titled “The Art of Education” in “The North British Review” which included the adage. Boldface has been added to excerpts. 1

A leading phenomenon in human progress is, that every science is evolved out of its corresponding art. It results from the necessity we are under, both individually and as a race, of reaching the abstract by way of the concrete, that there must be practice and an accruing experience with its empirical generalizations, before there can be science. Science is organized knowledge; and before knowledge can be organized, some of it must first be possessed. Every study, therefore, should have a purely experimental introduction; and only after an ample fund of observations has been accumulated, should reasoning begin.

QI believes that Spencer should be credited with this definitional phrase. The statement has been ascribed to him in multiple reference works, e.g., “A New Dictionary of Quotations” compiled by H. L. Mencken 2 and the “FPA Book of Quotations” selected by Franklin Pierce Adams. 3

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Science Is Organized Knowledge

Notes:

  1. 1854 May, The North British Review, Article 5: The Art of Education by Herbert Spencer, Start Page 137, Quote Page 152, Published by W. P. Kennedy, Edinburgh, Scotland. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1942, A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources, Selected and Edited by H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken), Topic: Science, Quote Page 1065, Column 1, Alfred A. Knopf. New York. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1952, FPA Book of Quotations, Selected by Franklin Pierce Adams, Section: Science, Quote Page 703, Funk & Wagnalls Company, New York. (Verified on paper)