Methods & Outcomes

Modern academia doesn’t have place for a polymath. But in the 19th Century, most Scientists were that for the obvious reason that most modern academic disciplines did not even exist as a separate branch of study. And the best illustration of this epistemology is the story of Alfred Russel Wallace. Yes, that forgotten contemporary of Charles Darwin from whom Darwin most likely plagiarised some elements of his work. But more importantly for this post, towards the end of his life Wallace joined the anti-Vaccination campaigners and published in the Lancet suggesting small pox vaccinations did not work if one were to consider the outcomes.[1]

Evidence based medicine which we now take for granted[2] was sort invented in this period and Wallace was possibly one of first few pioneers to bring a certain rigour to this discipline. Of course he was wrong as we now know but in his environment, given the data he had, he was correct; in that, in the poor sanitary conditions and its equalising effect on 19th Century England, vaccinations had no clear positive impact. And the reason Wallace is a truly great Scientist is because his method was right though his conclusions were disputable at best and mostly wrong in retrospect.

The other point that Wallace’s Lancet publication raises in retrospect is disprovability. All true sciences have that for a foundation while the soft sciences still allow not merely for the absence of a control group but sometimes even selective use of Data; such as in Economics. To cite an oft quoted example, two Economists who argue about trickle down theories can point to USA and China over the past 50 years and arrive at opposite conclusions. That still does not invalidate the discipline just as it brings into focus the even greater search for other contributing variables which may explain this phenomenon better. The moral of the story here, just as in the case of Wallace, seems to be: the correctness of the actual conclusion at any point is immaterial in the long run as long as the rationale of the method has a sound scientific basis. In other words, the disputable conclusions on Gujarat and Kerala are not reasons to run down one of the last living genuine Polymaths, even if they end up being correct.

What’s a far easier conclusion for a lay person to make however is that of a moral imperative. One of the sacred covenants between the ruler and the ruled in a modern Democracy is that an extension of State’s patronage is not an expectation of pliancy. That was broken by another scholar whose work seems serious enough to have warranted an understanding of rational method.

[1] — If the source where Alfred Wallace’s work is linked to worries you, it worries others too.

[2] — One hopes modern medicine is evidence based after all that.