Just a quick note to welcome back David Dobbs to the blogosphere. He’s a fine, fine journalist and I’m thrilled that he’s realized that long-form reportage can co-exist with blogging. I look forward to reading his future posts over at Neuron Culture.
Also, a quick endorsement that’s long overdue: if you’re looking for a way to celebrate the upcoming Darwin anniversary, I highly suggest Dobb’s Reef Madness, which is a fascinating account of an important 19th century scientific paradox: where do coral reefs come from? The book is also a tale of empiricism and the scientific method, and you might even find yourself rooting for Darwin, just this once, to be wrong. Here’s the potted summary: Darwin’s theory of coral reefs and atoll formation, which he developed while on the Beagle, was contested by Alexander Agassiz (son of Louis), who argued that Darwin’s reliance on intuition was dangerous, even reckless. So Alexander poignantly embarked on a tour of the world’s reefs, accumulating a vast data set on reef development that seemed to refute Darwin, even if Alexander never published his findings. Alas, the data was misleading, Darwin was right, and Alexander is an obscure footnote in scientific history.
What’s the moral? If you’re Charles Darwin (or Ramon y Cajal, for that matter), you don’t need to do experiments. Just look and think and trust in the genius of your theorizing. The rest of us, however, are forced to engage in painstaking negotiations with reality, and pray that our data bears the test of time.
Update: I didn’t mean to suggest that Darwin or Cajal didn’t do experiments. They did (I’m especially fond of Darwin’s work with primroses). It’s just that both men were primarily inductive theoreticians – they carefully observed and then constructed theories to explain their observations. I quote Cajal in my book: “No one without a certain intuition – a divinatory instinct for perceiving the idea behind the fact and the law behind the phenomenon – will devise a reasonable solution, whatever his gifts.”