R.M.Alger

Scientific Skepticism of Old

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Here are some good quotes of technological/scientific skepticism from the past:

“..so many centuries after the Creation it is unlikely that anyone could

find hitherto unknown lands of any value.” - committee advising Ferdinand

and Isabella regarding Columbus’ proposal, 1486

“I would sooner believe that two Yankee professors lied, than that stones

fell from the sky” - Thomas Jefferson, 1807 on hearing an eyewitness

report of falling meteorites.

“Drill for oil? You mean drill into the ground to try and find oil?

You’re crazy.” - Drillers who Edwin L. Drake tried to enlist to his

project to drill for oil in 1859.

“Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction.” - Pierre

Pachet, Professor of Physiology at Toulouse, 1872

“The abdomen, the chest, and the brain will forever be shut from the

intrusion of the wise and humane surgeon.” - Sir John Eric Ericksen,

British surgeon, appointed Surgeon-Extraordinary to Queen Victoria

1873.

“Such startling announcements as these should be depreciated as being

unworthy of science and mischievious to to its true progress” - Sir

William Siemens, 1880, on Edison’s announcement of a successful light bulb.

“We are probably nearing the limit of all we can know about astronomy.” -

Simon Newcomb, astronomer, 1888

“Fooling around with alternating current is just a waste of time. Nobody

will use it, ever.” - Thomas Edison, 1889

“The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have

all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the

possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new

discoveries is exceedingly remote…. Our future discoveries must be

looked for in the sixth place of decimals.” - physicist Albert. A.

Michelson, 1894

“It is apparent to me that the possibilities of the aeroplane, which two

or three years ago were thought to hold the solution to the [flying

machine] problem, have been exhausted, and that we must turn elsewhere.”

- Thomas Edison, 1895

“The demonstration that no possible combination of known substances, known

forms of machinery, and known forms of force can be united in a

practicable machine by which men shall fly for long distances through the

air, seems to the writer as complete as it is possible for the

demonstration of any physical fact to be.” - astronomer S. Newcomb, 1906

“Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value.” - Marechal

Ferdinand Foch, Professor of Strategy, Ecole Superieure de Guerre, 1911

“Caterpillar landships are idiotic and useless. Those officers and men

are wasting their time and are not pulling their proper weight in the war”

- Fourth Lord of the British Admiralty, 1915, in regards to use of tanks

in war.

“Professor Goddard does not know the relation between action and

reaction and the need to have something better than a vacuum against

which to react. He seems to lack the basic knowledge ladled out daily

in high schools.” - 1921 New York Times editorial about Robert

Goddard’s revolutionary rocket work.

“The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who

would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?” - David

Sarnoff’s associates in response to his urgings for investment in the

radio in the 1920s.

“All a trick.” “A Mere Mountebank.” “Absolute swindler.” “Doesn’t know

what he’s about.” “What’s the good of it?” “What useful purpose will it

serve?” - Members of Britain’s Royal Society, 1926, after a demonstration

of television.

“This foolish idea of shooting at the moon is an example of the absurd

lengths to which vicious specialisation will carry scientists.”

-A.W. Bickerton, physicist, NZ, 1926

“There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be

obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at

will.” — Albert Einstein, 1932

“The energy produced by the atom is a very poor kind of thing. Anyone who

expects a source of power from the transformation of these atoms is

talking moonshine” - Ernst Rutherford, 1933

“The whole procedure [of shooting rockets into space]…presents

difficulties of so fundamental a nature, that we are forced to dismiss the

notion as essentially impracticable, in spite of the author’s insistent

appeal to put aside prejudice and to recollect the supposed impossibility

of heavier-than-air flight before it was actually accomplished.” Richard

van der Riet Wooley, British astronomer, reviewing P.E. Cleator’s “Rockets

in Space”, Nature, March 14, 1936

“Space travel is utter bilge!” -Sir Richard Van Der Riet Wolley, astronomer

“Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.” - Popular

Mechanics, forecasting the relentless march of science, 1949

“I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked

with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a

fad that won’t last out the year.” - The editor in charge of business

books for Prentice Hall, 1957

“Space travel is bunk” -Sir Harold Spencer Jones, Astronomer Royal of

Britain, 1957, two weeks before the launch of Sputnik

“There is practically no chance communications space satellites will be

used to provide better telephone, telegraph, television, or radio

service inside the United States.” -T. Craven, FCC Commissioner, 1961

“But what… is it good for?” - Engineer at the Advanced Computing

Systems Division of IBM, 1968, commenting on the microchip.

“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” - Ken

Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp.,

1977

Of course, there are many good skeptics, and good things to be skeptical about (in fact. I am willing to say that most new ideas are not completely valid, if at all.) Many will be surprised to find many great thinkers and scientists listed above (Thomas Edison, Jefferson, Einstein); just shows us that bad skepticism is not only the purview of the unthinking and unimaginative (The fact that these men where wrong in these instances didn’t take away from their virtues, by the way. Some of the quotes above, in fact, are legitimate skepticism taken somewhat out-of-context)

One thing that is not legitimate to do with this information, claim something is possible simply because people where wrong about past possibilities: claiming, “People though flight wasn’t possible, and they don’t thing cold fusion is possible; therefore, there doubt is invalid and cold fusion is possible”; doesn’t fly logically.

By the way, I found all these quotes at Accelerating Future.

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Here are some good quotes of technological/scientific skepticism from the past:

...

“Professor Goddard does not know the relation between action and

reaction and the need to have something better than a vacuum against

which to react. He seems to lack the basic knowledge ladled out daily

in high schools.” - 1921 New York Times editorial about Robert

Goddard’s revolutionary rocket work.

...

A Correction. On Jan. 13, 1920, "Topics of the Times," and editorial-page feature of the The New York Times, dismissed the notion that a rocket could function in vacuum and commented on the ideas of Robert H. Goddard, the rocket pioneer, as follows:

"That Professor Goddard, with his 'chair' in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution, does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react - to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools."

Further investigation and experimentation have confirmed the findings of Isaac Newton in the 17th Century and it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.

New York Times

July 17, 1969

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Here are some good quotes of technological/scientific skepticism from the past:

...

“Professor Goddard does not know the relation between action and

reaction and the need to have something better than a vacuum against

which to react. He seems to lack the basic knowledge ladled out daily

in high schools.” - 1921 New York Times editorial about Robert

Goddard’s revolutionary rocket work.

...

A Correction. On Jan. 13, 1920, "Topics of the Times," and editorial-page feature of the The New York Times, dismissed the notion that a rocket could function in vacuum and commented on the ideas of Robert H. Goddard, the rocket pioneer, as follows:

"That Professor Goddard, with his 'chair' in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution, does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react - to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools."

Further investigation and experimentation have confirmed the findings of Isaac Newton in the 17th Century and it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.

New York Times

July 17, 1969

Well, if it only takes them 49 years to acknowledge a mistake, I ought to be hearing apologies for all the garbage they spew these days...sometime after I'm dead. :)

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One thing that is not legitimate to do with this information, claim something is possible simply because people where wrong about past possibilities: claiming, “People though flight wasn’t possible, and they don’t thing cold fusion is possible; therefore, there doubt is invalid and cold fusion is possible”; doesn’t fly logically.
But the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.

Carl Sagan

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I am trying to spot what unites these proclamations. What I come up with is this; no allowance was made for a lack of knowledge on their part. That lack, was simply filled by an extension of their existing references. For example, citing the limitations of heavier than air flight, or the size of future computers. Given their premises, these were fair assessments. Most of these cases show a failure to examine their premises, and add the the caution "Given what we now know".

Some of these quotes show a dreadful lack of imagination, and reflect minds solidified in their culture. For example, not being able to see the desirability of the radio or TV to communicate what the music hall could do, or books could tell.

Others, like Jefferson's comments about stones from the sky, are forgivable. Perhaps he was not told of the context of 'shooting stars'.

So how is one to avoid ending up on the list in the first post, at the same time knowing there is a limit to everything?

I believe it is by always stipulating the context in which one's proposition hold true. That is the common failure I see in the list above.

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Well, if it only takes them 49 years to acknowledge a mistake, I ought to be hearing apologies for all the garbage they spew these days...sometime after I'm dead. :)

Forget current garbage. When are they going hand back Walter Duranty's Pulitzer Prize? As the article said, Duranty was "under Stalin's spell." And the NYT, from boardroom to copy desk, remains so do this day.

But hopefully their days are numbered. Link. When the Grey Lady finally swirls into the NYC sewage system, I hope it won't back up every toilet from Baltimore to Bangor.

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But hopefully their days are numbered.

I hope so too, but there are so many wealthy altruists such as Soros and Gates that I can easily imagine that one of them will buy it and prop it up just so that a major source of intellectual poison (which of course to them would be "objective reporting") doesn't disappear.

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Reply to post #1.

There is doubt and there is doubt. Radical doubt or skepticism which denies the possibility of knowledge is trivially self contradictory. Doubt based on lack of evidence is reasonable. Claims of rocks falling from the sky (iron based meteors) are prima facia doubious. Why? Because very few heavy meteors or comets ever make it to the surface. One would need some rather convincing evidence to support the claim.

The claim that a large celestial body crashing to earth eliminated the dinosaurs (and most other land species) was doubted until:

The iridium layer was found world wide with geological markers indicating a single time which indicated a single catastrophic event. Even so, lingering doubts remained until the crater was discovered underwater near the Yucatan Peninsula.

Some of the other doubts in the original posting concerning heavier than air flight. Lord Kelvin, one of the great British physicists denied the possibility of -practical- heavier than air flight using man made vehicles. He never, ever denied heavier than air flight in principle. The existence of birds not only provied heavier than air flight exists, but was an -inspiration- to reproduce the flight of birds using a man-made machine. So much so, that Lilienthal, in Germany designed the first heavier than air gliders (circa 1895). They flew reasonably well, but they were unpowered. The doubt centered around engines and motors providing the necessary lift (airfoils were known since Bernouli). The engines available in the late 19th century were mostly steam engines (way too heavy) and internal combustion engines which were underpowered and had carbueration problems at any significant altitude.

Congress awarded Samuel Langley $50,000 to develop a flier using an IC engine. That was a LOT of money (at that time). Langley did make IC powered fliers just about the same time the freres Wright were working on the problem (between 1900 and 1903). Langley's fliers were disappointing failures. Since Langley was a top of the line engineer and scientists it was felt (and not unreasonably) that the problem of sufficient power to weight ratio was insoluble, but also the power of control.

But two bicycle builders from Dayton Ohio accomplished the following:

1. The showed Lilienthals lift tables were in error and they designed the world's first working wind tunnel to determine the correct lift factors.

2. They designed the warped wing which solved the problem of making turns. The prior attempts at control of fliers were based on the boat in the water model (rudder only). The Wrights favored banking turns (what else would bicycle engineers favor!).

3. The designed propellors that could generate sufficient airflow for both lift and thrust.

4. And most important, they developed the first IC engine that had sufficient power (around 20 hp) and very low weight.

This combination lead to the worlds first successful controllable IC powered heavier than air machine. BTW the total cost to the Wrights, was $1200 (compare this to Langley) and it came out of their own pocket. It was not only a triumph of sound engineering, but of Good Old Capitalism.

Predicting technological progress is a very dicey business. Even in 1948 when Bell Labs came out with the Shockley-Bardeen point contact rectifier there was a density limit to what could be done with individual transistors. It was the -integrated circuit- that made transistors the break through invention it is. No one could have reasonably predicted that prior to 1940. There wa not a hint of the the technology.

Predictions about the future of technology or more often wrong than right. As the actor Avery Brookes said in the t.v. ad, - where are all the flying cars?-

Peace and blessings,

ruveyun

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