Wednesday, November 20, 2019

George Washington Carver and the Scientific Method

At the height of his fame, it was nearly impossible to criticize George Washington Carver (see previous essay). He was famous for his personal dedication to using science as a way of helping non-scientists to improve their economic conditions and open their eyes to the beauty and wonder of the world. During the Depression, when his fame was worldwide (even Mahatma Gandhi corresponded with him), people wanted to hear a story of a man—a really and truly good man—who rose up from slavery to fame.

But he did receive some criticism. When I first read about this, I was shocked, but I then understood the reason for it. An editorial in a major newspaper claimed that Carver did not follow the standards of good scientific research. This viewpoint was quickly shouted down by Carver’s admirers. But the critic had a point.

Nearly every active scientist in the world is part of a community, in which each scientist builds on the work of others, so that no scientist has to labor in isolation to discover new truths. For at least a century before Carver, all scientists cited, sometimes at great length, the work of those who came before. The reason was quite practical: by citing the work of others, no scientist has to bear the complete burden of credibility. A scientist could show that, because his work agreed with the known facts of science, it was likely to be true. Even revolutionary scientific insights had to do this. Darwin’s Origin of Species had extensive citations, showing that his truly new insight into science agreed with the known facts of geology and biology.

Carver practiced a form of theistic science that is almost unknown today. He would go into his laboratory (which he called “God’s Little Workshop”) and open his mind to a contemplation of God. He felt that God led him to discover truths that God had secretly put into the natural world and that it was Carver’s privilege to reveal. While many scientists today have this feeling, with Carver it was so strong that he did not read the work of other scientists—he considered his discoveries to come directly from God—nor did he even take notes on his work. Not surprisingly, when any company showed interest in one of Carver’s inventions, they could not invest in it because Carver had no written records that the invention actually worked. And when Carver died, no one knew how to make them. His knowledge died with him.

Incidentally, Carver’s theistic approach also greatly contrasted with that of modern “creation scientists.” Carver entered his laboratory with an open mind for discovery, while modern creationists do their work (usually just recycling the work of other scientists) with the express purpose of demonstrating a specific religious doctrine, such as proving that the universe is young or that evolution is impossible.

I admit this characteristic of Carver’s scientific work. I do not believe that scientists, in general, should work this way. But I revere Carver anyway, for other reasons explained above and in the previous essay. The scientific community is large and diverse enough to include unconventional geniuses like George Washington Carver.

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