The Scientific Method: It’s OK to Blunder

In this guest post, NYU PhD student Minjung Kim reviews Mario Livio’s book on the blunders that shaped science. 

Image by hobvias sudoneighm

Image by striatic via Flickr

What do Charles Darwin, Lord Kelvin, Linus Pauling, Fred Hoyle, and Albert Einstein have in common? To use Mario Livio’s term, they blundered.

“[B]lunders are not only inevitable but also an essential part of science,” says Mario Livio in his latest book, Brilliant Blunders: from Darwin to Einstein: Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe. The book has two theses: (1) that mistakes are a necessary part of science, and (2) not only are they necessary, they are the core of the scientific process, seeding new debates and allowing ideas to flourish. The latter is a more specific form of the former, and I will refer to these two theses as being “weak” and “strong,” respectively, borrowing terms from philosophy.

The meat of the book is a description of the successes and failures of the five great scientists named above. Through these stories, Livio develops the weak thesis, setting up the historical and scientific contexts that led these scientists to blunder. For the purposes of the review, I will focus on the chapters on Darwin.

Darwin’s blunder was his theory of pangenesis—a floundering footnote to his beautiful theory of evolution. He had originally assumed that inherited traits are blended: like mixing paint, one red flower in among 99 white flowers would, over time, yield 100 faintly pink flowers with none of the original red. But blending is wrong: as Gregor Mendel demonstrated, uncommon traits are restored after skipping a generation—that is, red flowers return in the grandchildren’s generation. This is because, during sexual cell division, genes cross over in discrete chunks such that the offspring either do or do not receive redness genes. Of course, Darwin and his contemporaries did not know about genes. Even so, they soon realized that blending could not be right. Darwin, for example, observed that interbreeding different species of snapdragons did not yield increasingly blended plants over generations, but rather, restored uncommon traits in the grandchildren’s generation.

Herein lines Darwin’s blunder, according to Livio. To account for the shortcomings in the blending theory of inheritance, Darwin took an even further misstep, proposing pangenesis, whose Lamarckian mechanisms of inheritance were later shown wrong. Worse, Darwin became obstinate, convinced that pangenesis must be right.

Indeed, nobody is perfect. One of the most important lessons that I am learning as a graduate student is that scientists make mistakes: we fail to see the inconsistencies in our theories, fail to see full implications of our findings, and—the worst of all—fail to accept that we are wrong when we are wrong, sometimes out of stubbornness rather than out of scientific conviction. Thus, I was looking forward to reading about evidence for the strong thesis—that mistakes can be the driving force behind scientific revolutions. Did pangenesis instigate a flurry of scientific investigations that led to the modern understanding of inheritance? From the book, I got the impression that it was Darwin’s initial work on The Origin of Species, not his later work on pangenesis, that propelled science forward.

Overall, I felt that Livio failed to demonstrate that new scientific theories arose as a direct result of the blunders. I was somewhat disappointed by this, as I was hoping to read about how blunders initiated an explosion of creative efforts, thrusting the scientific community into a new area of study. It seemed that Livio himself wanted to make an argument for the strong thesis, but could not find enough evidence to support it: “Despite [the scientists’] blunders, and perhaps even because of them, the five individuals […] have produced not just innovations within their respective sciences but also truly great intellectual creations.”

Nonetheless, Brilliant Blunders is an excellent, entertaining read. It is not an overview of the latest findings in scientific phenomena, but rather, about the humanity of the scientific process. The stories are peppered with interesting anecdotes and quotations. For example, it was not Darwin but Herbert Spencer, a philosopher, who coined the term “survival of the fittest,” and it was Alfred Russell Wallace, a naturalist, who suggested that Darwin adopt the term for describing the principle of evolution. General readers should be aware, however, that Livio unfolds the stories chronologically, meandering through historical debates and competing hypotheses. While the language is accessible and appropriate for the general audience, readers unfamiliar with current theories may find themselves lost in the winding history of scientific discovery.

One of the book’s key strengths was Livio’s dedication to reporting the history of science. For example, there has been a debate since 1982 on whether Darwin was aware of Mendel’s work on inheritance, and if so, why Darwin had not discussed it with anyone. Livio describes how this debate was settled in Darwin’s favour by Andrew Sclater of the Darwin Correspondence Project: Darwin owned a book in which Mendel’s work was mentioned, but the pages containing the description were “uncut.” In the bookbinding style at the time, books were printed with pages connected at the edges, and had to be cut open at the time of reading. Since the pages were uncut, Darwin must have never read about Mendel. To prove this, Livio includes a photograph of these uncut pages, which he obtained specifically for Brilliant Blunders. This is one of many instances in which he works with primary sources to examine the truth behind rumours in history of science.

“No scientific theory has an absolute and permanent value,” says Livio. Science is inherently a human endeavour, riddled with egos, feuds, and most of all, blunders. As a scientist-in-training, I found it heartening that even the most renowned scientists were flawed human beings, and moreover, that their blunders did not take away from their monumental discoveries. Erudite but accessible, Brilliant Blunders will engage and entertain both novice and experienced scientists alike.

On the book author:

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Mario Livio is a senior scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), the home base of the Hubble Space Telescope in Baltimore, MD, and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS); with such extensive scientific background, the reader can be assured that his explanations are accurate. He has written books such as The Golden Ratio: The Story of Phi, the World’s Most Astonishing Number (Broadway Books) and The Equation That Couldn’t Be Solved (Simon & Schuster), of which the former has won the Peano Prize in 2003 and the International Pythagoras Prize (2004). He also maintains a popular science blog, A Curious Mind.

Photo credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mario_Livio_(3260009936).jpg

 

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Photo by Karen Meberg

Minjung (“MJ”) is a PhD student at the New York University Department of Psychology, Cognition and Perception Program. She studies the visual perception of light and colour, with a keen interest in material perception (e.g., what makes glowing objects appear to glow?). 

To read more about MJ’s work, go to https://files.nyu.edu/mk3817/public/

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