god, science, data, and quetelet -- 11/01/23

Today's selection -- from Science: A Four Thousand Year History by Patricia Fara. Lambert Adolphe Jacques Quetelet, Belgian astronomer, mathematician, statistician, and sociologist, introduced a radically new way of thinking about human beings:

“In December 1871, the Prince of Wales was hovering near death, desperately ill with typhoid. The Archbishop of Canterbury and his allies moved into action, flashing out orders through the electric telegraph system for special prayers to be read in churches all over the kingdom. The Prince soon recovered, but the nation was divided--had God intervened, or was modern medicine responsible for this apparently miraculous cure? An eminent surgeon suggested that the issue be resolved statistically, making one particular hospital ward the target of prayers for a few years to see if its success rate improved. Although this holy trial was never carried out, the Prayer Gauge Debate continued for years--was disease a punishment under divine law, or could it be prevented by obeying scientific laws of health? 

“These arguments about praying might look like a direct conflict between science and religion, but they were not so much about who was right, but more about who could be trusted to decide what was right. Traditionally, authority lay in the hands of the Anglican Church, but during the nineteenth century British scientists started to claim power for their new rational priesthood. Ambitious scientists struggling to consolidate their reputation as elite experts squeezed out anyone they thought inappropriate. One move was to establish themselves as professionals by marginalizing those without full educational credentials. By adopting the pejorative label of amateurs, they set aside a large group of knowledgeable people--women, collectors, home-based astronomers. 

“Another tactic was to establish for the first time a sharp distinction between science and religion. Francis Galton deployed some strategic statistics, crunching through carefully selected samples to expose a supposed dearth of religious leaders on the councils of scientific societies. After a few logical leaps, he concluded that clergymen were no good at science--holding a theological vocation was, he declared, incompatible with being a competent scientist. The most eloquent spokesman attacking the Church was Thomas Huxley, champion of Darwinian evolution and inventor of the word 'agnostic'. Huxley landed his most celebrated coup during a public debate at Oxford, sneering that he would rather have an ape for an ancestor than the bigoted bishop opposing him. Although that may well be an apocryphal tale, Huxley definitely did ferociously condemn anyone who imagines that ‘he is, or can be, both a true son of the Church and a loyal soldier of science'.

“By parodying the religious opposition, Huxley made Darwin's ideas sound better. Even so, his aggressiveness does indicate how deeply theological issues were entrenched within scientific research during the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Broadly speaking, there were two major themes. One strand of arguments related specifically to biblical theology. Evidence from fossils and rock formations suggested that the Earth was far, far older than suggested in the Bible; more controversially, theories of evolution contradicted traditional beliefs that life has remained unchanged since its creation by God. However, for many Victorians, the scriptural accounts represented powerful metaphors rather than literal reality, so that any contradiction of biblical details was not a prime concern. Instead, science's critics were more worried about the philosophical implications of recent ideas. Christians believed in a teleological cosmos, one created by an omniscient God, a Grand Designer, for a specific purpose. This comforting view was threatened by the new statistical methods in physics, and also by Darwin's theory of evolution, which assumes that chance may intervene between generations to introduce new characteristics. 

Lambert Adolphe Jacques Quetelet

“God had been forcefully excluded from astronomy during the French Revolution, when Pierre-Simon Laplace rewrote Newton's ideas to create his deterministic cosmos, in which scientific laws govern every movement of every planet with no need for divine intervention. Inspired by this success, a Belgian astronomer called Alphonse Queteler decided that human societies are also controlled by laws. Each country has its own statistical patterns that remain constant from year to year--suicide and crime rates, for instance--and so Quetelet suggested that an 'average man' can consistently encapsulate a nation's characteristics. Politicians should, Quetelet prescribed, operate like social physicists and try to improve average behaviour rather than worry about extreme anomalies. For him, variations from the statistical mean were--like planetary wobbles--imperfections to be smoothed out so that overall progress could be ensured. 

“Quetelet had introduced a radically new way of thinking about human beings. As one of his admirers put it, 'Man is seen to be an enigma only as an individual, in mass, he is a mathematical problem.' Quetelet's successors took his ideas in many different directions. For one thing, his work was valuable politically because it could be interpreted in different ways. While conservatives insisted that little could be done to alter the current system, radicals accused governments of impeding the natural course of progress, and Utopians--such as Karl Marx--envisaged harmonious societies governed by nature's own laws guaranteeing improvement. Data collection projects proliferated, and statisticians searched for laws governing every aspect of life, ranging from the weather to the growth of civilization, from stock market fluctuations to the incidence of disease. Many scientists took their ideas from Quetelet rather than from abstract textbooks--but they added their own twist. Whereas Quetelet regarded individual deviations from the norm as errors to be eliminated, scientists set out to study how variations occur.”

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Patricia Fara


Science: A Four Thousand Year History


Oxford University Press


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