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   Hubbert's wisdom

Excerpts from:
Hubbert, M.K., Are We Retrogressing in Science?, Geol. Soc. Am. Bull., 74, 365-378, 1963

Galileo … lived and worked during a period when the intellectual standard adhered to in the universities was one of absolute authoritarianism. In all intellectual discussions the highest authority and the last court of appeal was the sacred writings of the Church or the profane writings of the Greek philosophers, particularly Aristotle. Galileo’s whole career was a lifelong fight to establish the proposition that the highest court of appeal with respect to natural history phenomena was not a human authority, ancient or modern, but a valid observation or experiment – a proposition that is the foundation stone of all subsequent science.

The validity of any proposition in science is entirely independent of the person by whom it is stated.

From this it follows that no man’s knowledge of science can be said to be any more extensive than those propositions which he himself can establish by means of the essential logical steps from primary observational data.

The acceptance of any proposition by an individual who is not familiar with the observational data on which it is based and the logic by which it is derived is an act of pure faith and a return to authoritarianism. If students are indoctrinated with propositions, valid or otherwise, that are not properly derived from primary data, the process is a complete negation of science and a return to authoritarianism no less absolute than that with which Galileo had to deal

Within the university it is easily seen that (the) system strongly favors the opportunist capable of grinding out scientific trivialities in large numbers, as opposed to the true scholar working on difficult and important problems whose solutions may require concentrated efforts extending over years or even decades. It took Kepler, working on the lifetime of astronomical observations of Tycho Brahe, 19 years to solve the puzzle of planetary motions, but the results were the now celebrated Keplerian Laws of Planetary Motion. Newton, with few intervening scientific publications, spent altogether some 20 years studying the mechanics of moving bodies before writing his great treatise Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1686) in which are derived the Newtonian Law of Motion and the Law of Universal Gravitation. Twenty-two years of work, the last 11 essentially free of other writings, preceded Charles Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859). How long could any of these men survive in an American university of today

... scientific knowledge has become so vast as compared with the limited capabilities of the individual human intellect that one man can only hope to know “authoritatively” a minute fraction of the whole ... Hence ... the only way of knowing anything outside of our own speciality is to accept the word of an authority or specialist in that field. ... according to this view, we are condemned to accept authoritarianism (because of) the very immensity of human knowledge.

In support of this, one need look no further than the magnitude and rate of increase of scientific literature. ... for the last 200 years the number of scientific journals has been increasing tenfold every 50 years and is now approaching the total number of 100,000. In geology alone, if he worked continually during all waking hours, using every system of accelerated reading that could be devised, no one of us could read more than a small fraction of the literature coming off the printing presses currently, let alone that which has accumulated already. Every working scientist is accordingly plagued with the question of how much of his time may be profitably spent in reading; and, more important still, what should he read?

... let me summarize by stating that the common denominators of all phenomenological sciences are; (1) an initial chaos of phenomena, infinite in amount; and (2) the simplicity and finite capacity of the human intellect. Since it is impossible for human beings to understand chaotic phenomena, it is necessary that these be reduced to a state of simplicity if they are ever to be understood.

... if one is educated in science in accordance with the specialistic view that science has become so vast and so complex that the human individual can only hope to comprehend a minute fraction of the whole, then it is unavoidable that the initial chaos of phenomena must remain a chaos to such an individual simply because he has had no opportunity of becoming informed of the extent to which this chaos has already been reduced to understandable terms … thus one hears repeatedly that the future advancement of science is more likely to be the result of such co-operative teamwork than of work done by individuals … It may be well to remind ourselves, however, that thinking is peculiarly an individual enterprise, and that the greatest of all scientific achievements – those of the great synthesizers from Galileo to Einstein – have, almost without exception, been the work of individuals.

In large measure, we appear to have lost sight of our intellectual foundations and to have reverted to authoritarianism … it is urgent that we restore our universities to their primary purposes as educational institutions and provide for them a more orderly form of support than that which they now receive.

It is also urgent that universities abandon their present preoccupation with trivial “research” and its bookkeeping based on the number of papers published per year and attempt to achieve an atmosphere in which a Galileo, a Kepler, a Newton, a Darwin, or a J. Willard Gibbs would find it congenial to work.