Learning from History

Pete Warden of the O’Reilly Report discusses The Philosophical Breakfast Club today in a post on “Lesons of the Victorian Data Revolution.” One point Warden stresses is that “What’s really useful about historical analogies is that you can see how they played out in the long run.” I agree–and that’s what I love about reading and writing historical works!

Focusing on Whewell’s work on the tides, Warden suggests a parallel between today’s concept of “crowdsourcing” and the way Whewell gathered hundreds of observers from around the globe to make simultaneous tidal observations. And Warden uses that analogy to draw interesting conclusion for scientists working with data sets today. “The villians of the tidal story were the harbor masters who hoarded their information, but in fact that was only a small part of the value they offered. Despite incredibly detailed maps of every port, we still rely on their descendants to pilot commercial ships into harbor. There’s a world of knowledge about currents, shifting sand banks and traffic patterns that it hasn’t been possible to compress into numbers or rules.” (In fact, Whewell’s realization that this was the case is what caused him to give up his goal of discovering universal tidal laws.)

Warden claims that those who gather data sets need to retain some “humility”–and not expect that their numbers are going to solve every scientific problem. And, most importantly, I think, he notes that specialists need to be involved in efforts to educate the general public about the meaning and limits of such data sets. “The Victorian example shows,” Warden concludes, “that if we’re going to improve the world with data, it’s absolutely essential we stay grounded in reality.”

Read Warden’s full post here.


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About the Author

Laura J. Snyder, Ph.D., is a science historian, philosopher and writer whose most recent book, The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends who Transformed Science and Changed the World, was an Official Selection of the TED Book Club, a Scientific American Notable Book, and winner of the 2011 Royal Institution of Australia Poll for Favorite Science Book. It was also named an "Outstanding Academic Title" in history of science and technology by the American Library Association. Snyder is Professor of Philosophy at St. John's University in New York City and writes frequently about science and ideas for The Wall Street Journal. She is a Fulbright Scholar, a Life Member of Clare Hall College, Cambridge, and Past President of the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science.

 She is currently working on a book about how new optical technologies in the 17th century revolutionized not only science, but also art and the rest of culture. Follow Laura Snyder on Twitter and Facebook.

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