Tuesday, September 08, 2009

`Learned Amateurs'

In his prologue to The Age of Wonder, Richard Holmes, after describing a disappointing chemistry class at age 14, tells us approvingly that “years later I learned the motto of the Royal Society: Nullius in Verba -- `Nothing upon Another’s Word.’” The Society’s web site translates Horace’s Latin more colloquially as “Take nobody’s word for it,” and elsewhere I’ve seen “On the words of no one” and “Nothing in words.” In other words, trust experimentation, not authority.

To American ears this resonates with Missouri’s unofficial nickname as proclaimed on its license plates: the “Show Me State.” In my private mythology, that echoes with the voices of native sons Mark Twain and Harry Truman. According to the Missouri Secretary of State’s Office it suggests “the stalwart, conservative, noncredulous character of Missourians” -- admirable qualities all.

Seasoned readers will recognize the pleasing sensation of learning a new name or phrase only to soon see it again in another text. This happened over the weekend while I was reading Henry Hitchings’ entertainingly digressive The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008). In his ninth chapter, “Onslaught,” dedicated to the seventeenth century and the growth of modern science, Hitchings writes:

“The scope of English as a scientific language was topical. The founding of the Royal Society in 1660 created an institutional standard for scientific writing. Its motto, `Nullius in verba’ (literally, `On the words of no one’), was a necessary defence against verbal wranglings of sectarianism, but it highlighted a philosophical creed that put actions before words: experiments counted for more than theories.”

This too sounds quintessentially American, rooted in old-fashioned folk distrust of experts and authorities, bureaucrats and politicians: “Show me.” Hitchings goes on to relate the Royal Society’s motto to its taste in prose:

“Where prose was needed, it was to be lean. The stylistic economy preached by the Society’s historian, Thomas Sprat, was the antithesis of the sort of learned amateurism practiced by Robert Burton or Sir Thomas Browne. (Sprat, like his nursery rhyme namesake, could take no fat; Browne no lean.) Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy affords first sightings of meteorologist, feral, hirsute and literati, while the colourful Browne, who had studied at Montpellier, Padua and Leiden, was a prolific coiner of new words, responsible for electricity, therapeutic and literary as well as for the altogether more odd-looking but self-explanatory retrocopulation and masculo-feminine.”

I like the sound of “learned amateurs,” intrepid autodidacts. It describes the better class of independent bloggers, those who live by Nullius in Verba.

1 comment:

epistemocrat said...

Great essay, Patrick.

Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan, captured this same sense by suspecting that his 'Epistemocracy' could take hold in the Blogosphere through epistemocratic tinkering. I have tried to develop this notion on my blog, Healthcare Epistemocrat:


My most recent essays delving into the self-experimentation in health realm through a mythological construct, Ancestral Fitness.

The 'Patient of One' trusts self-experimentation via 'n=1' clinical trials.

Would love to hear your feedback.