Scott Alexander

The motto of the Royal Society – Hooke, Boyle, Newton, some of the people who arguably invented modern science – was nullus in verba, “take no one’s word”.

This was a proper battle cry for seventeenth century scientists. Think about the (admittedly kind of mythologized) history of Science. The scholastics saying that matter was this, or that, and justifying themselves by long treatises about how based on A, B, C, the word of the Bible, Aristotle, self-evident first principles, and the Great Chain of Being all clearly proved their point. Then other scholastics would write different long treatises on how D, E, and F, Plato, St. Augustine, and the proper ordering of angels all indicated that clearly matter was something different. Both groups were pretty sure that the other had make a subtle error of reasoning somewhere, and both groups were perfectly happy to spend centuries debating exactly which one of them it was.

And then Galileo said “Wait a second, instead of debating exactly how objects fall, let’s just drop objects off of something really tall and see what happens”, and after that, Science.

Yes, it’s kind of mythologized. But like all myths, it contains a core of truth. People are terrible. If you let people debate things, they will do it forever, come up with horrible ideas, get them entrenched, play politics with them, and finally reach the point where they’re coming up with theories why people who disagree with them are probably secretly in the pay of the Devil.

Imagine having to conduct the global warming debate, except that you couldn’t appeal to scientific consensus and statistics because scientific consensus and statistics hadn’t been invented yet. In a world without science, everything would be like that.

Heck, just look at philosophy.

Scott Alexander, ‘The Control Group Is Out Of Control’, Slate Star Codex, April 28, 2014