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Steven Weinberg defends “Whig” history of science

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Whiggish? That is, a history that simply decides who is right. Readers may recall Steven Weinberg, Nobelist (1979) and multiverse theorist.

From his recent piece in the New York Review of Books:

Nevertheless, in teaching courses on the history of physics and astronomy, and then working up my lectures into a book, I have come to think that whatever one thinks of whiggery in other sorts of history, it has a rightful place in the history of science. It is clearly not possible to speak of right and wrong in the history of art or fashion, nor I think is it possible in the history of religion, and one can argue about whether it is possible in political history, but in scientific history we really can say who was right. More (but most of it is paywalled).

He cites Copernicus against the adherents of Ptolemy, and Newton against the followers of Descartes.

There are two problems with Weinberg’s contention:

1)Many facts are as beyond dispute in history, art, or even fashion as the orbit of Earth or the usual behaviour of gravity are in science. When the Battle of Midway took place, who painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling, when the mini-skirt hit the fashion world are matters of historical evidence. Science has nothing over these other endeavours when the question can be decided by evidence.

2) Whiggery in science is as misleading as it is anywhere else. The defense of Darwinism is contrary to the evidence for how evolution happens; it supports Whiggish claims about science as a sort of “candle in the dark,”and at this point that’s about all it does.

One could say the same for multiverse theory. Remove the metaphysical need, and the case collapses for lack of falsifiability.

Also, not to be snarky, but one would think that, in the age of Retraction Watch, and peer review scandals, to say nothing of fake science journals, it would be wise to tone down the Whiggery a bit.

See also: Consensus science and the rejection of continental drift


Will Dawkins’ selfish gene concept die as its proponents retire?

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3 Replies to “Steven Weinberg defends “Whig” history of science

  1. 1
    daveS says:

    Hmm. I don’t know if I would describe Weinberg as a multiverse theorist. He is certainly not a proponent of the concept.

  2. 2
    bornagain says:

    Although I don’t know about Weinberg’s honesty in other areas, he did impress me as being a lot more honest than many other atheists when he stated the following to Richard Dawkins:

    At the 8:15 minute mark of the following video, Richard Dawkins is set straight by Steven Weinberg, who is an atheist himself, on just how big the ‘problem’ of the 1 in 10^120 Cosmological Constant is:

    “I don’t think one should underestimate the fix we are in. That in the end we will not be able to explain the world. That we will have some set of laws of nature (that) we will not be able to derive them on the grounds simply of mathematical consistency. Because we can already think of mathematically consistent laws that don’t describe the world as we know it. And we will always be left with a question ‘why are the laws nature what they are rather than some other laws?’. And I don’t see any way out of that.
    The fact that the constants of nature are suitable for life, which is clearly true, we observe,,,”
    (Weinberg then comments on the multiverse conjecture of atheists)
    “No one has constructed a theory in which that is true. I mean,, the (multiverse) theory would be speculative, but we don’t even have a theory in which that speculation is mathematically realized. But it is a possibility.”
    Steven Weinberg – as stated to Richard Dawkins at the 8:15 minute mark of the following video

    Leonard Susskind – Richard Dawkins and Steven Weinberg – 1 in 10^120 – Cosmological Constant points to intelligent design – video

  3. 3
    Robert Byers says:

    Of coarse there is right and wrong in everything that matters. Fashion doesn’t matter.
    Whats the big insight to say this or that thinker in sciences was right and others wrong? its always this way. ALWAYS> they don’t know the history exvept for thier own interest.
    Evolutionism is right or wrong. if wrong it just needs smarter people to demonstrate it. no excuses. If right it needs, for sure, smarter people to demonstrate it. no excuses. Somebody is wrong and history and kids writing high school papers will say so.
    ID/YEC is here today to take on the most recent big error in science.
    do they feel lucky? banning creatrionists won’t save you.
    time has come.
    by the way. the Whigs weree always more the good guys in britain as they included the evangelical/puritan/dissenter faiths.

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