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Home > Dictionary of Science Quotations > Scientist Names Index G > Stephen Jay Gould Quotes > Science

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Stephen Jay Gould
(10 Sep 1941 - 20 May 2002)

American palaeontologist, evolutionary biologist, science historian and author who was a frequent and popular speaker on the sciences. His published work includes both scholarly study and many prize-winning popular collections of essays.


Stephen Jay Gould Quotes on Science (35 quotes)

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And, in this case, science could learn an important lesson from the literati–who love contingency for the same basic reason that scientists tend to regard the theme with suspicion. Because, in contingency lies the power of each person, to make a difference in an unconstrained world bristling with possibilities, and nudgeable by the smallest of unpredictable inputs into markedly different channels spelling either vast improvement or potential disaster.
— Stephen Jay Gould
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As a different, but perhaps more common, strategy for the suppression of novelty, we may admit the threatening object to our midst, but provide an enveloping mantle of ordinary garb… . This kind of cover-up, so often amusing in our daily lives, can be quite dangerous in science, for nothing can stifle originality more effectively than an ordinary mantle placed fully and securely over an extraordinary thing.
— Stephen Jay Gould
In 'A Short Way to Big Ends', Natural History (Jan 1986), 95, No. 1, 18.
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Creation science has not entered the curriculum for a reason so simple and so basic that we often forget to mention it: because it is false, and because good teachers understand why it is false. What could be more destructive of that most fragile yet most precious commodity in our entire intellectual heritage—good teaching—than a bill forcing our honorable teachers to sully their sacred trust by granting equal treatment to a doctrine not only known to be false, but calculated to undermine any general understanding of science as an enterprise?.
— Stephen Jay Gould
In 'The Verdict on Creationism' The Sketical Inquirer (Winter 1987/88), 12, 186.
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Each of the major sciences has contributed an essential ingredient in our long retreat from an initial belief in our own cosmic importance. Astronomy defined our home as a small planet tucked away in one corner of an average galaxy among millions; biology took away our status as paragons created in the image of God; geology gave us the immensity of time and taught us how little of it our own species has occupied.
— Stephen Jay Gould
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Evolutionists sometimes take as haughty an attitude toward the next level up the conventional ladder of disciplines: the human sciences. They decry the supposed atheoretical particularism of their anthropological colleagues and argue that all would be well if only the students of humanity regarded their subject as yet another animal and therefore yielded explanatory control to evolutionary biologists.
— Stephen Jay Gould
From book review, 'The Ghost of Protagoras', The New York Review of Books (22 Jan 1981), 27, No. 21 & 22. Collected in An Urchin in the Storm: Essays about Books and Ideas (1987, 2010), 64. The article reviewed two books: John Tyler Bonner, The Evolution of Culture and Peter J. Wilson, The Promising Primate.
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Facts do not “speak for themselves”; they are read in the light of a theory. Creative thought, in science as much as in the arts, is the motor of changing opinion.
— Stephen Jay Gould
In Perspectives in Biological Medicine (1985).
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For more than half a century, Martin Gardner has been the single brightest beacon defending rationality and good science against the mysticism and anti-intellectualism that surround us.
— Stephen Jay Gould
As quoted on the back cover of several of the books by Martin Gardner.
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Historical science is not worse, more restricted, or less capable of achieving firm conclusions because experiment, prediction, and subsumption under invariant laws of nature do not represent its usual working methods. The sciences of history use a different mode of explanation, rooted in the comparative and observational richness in our data. We cannot see a past event directly, but science is usually based on inference, not unvarnished observation (you don’t see electrons, gravity, or black holes either).
— Stephen Jay Gould
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Honorable errors do not count as failures in science, but as seeds for progress in the quintessential activity of correction.
— Stephen Jay Gould
Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms: Essays on Natural History (1998), 163.
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I am particularly fond of (Emmanuel Mendes da Costa’s) Natural History of Fossils because treatise, more than any other work written in English, records a short episode expressing one of the grand false starts in the history of natural science–and nothing can be quite so informative and instructive as a juicy mistake.
— Stephen Jay Gould
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I believe … that we can still have a genre of scientific books suitable for and accessible alike to professionals and interested laypeople. The concepts of science, in all their richness and ambiguity, can be presented without any compromise, without any simplification counting as distortion, in language accessible to all intelligent people … I hope that this book can be read with profit both in seminars for graduate students and–if the movie stinks and you forgot your sleeping pills–on the businessman’s special to Tokyo.
— Stephen Jay Gould
In Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (1990), Preface, 16.
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If texts are unified by a central logic of argument, then their pictorial illustrations are integral to the ensemble, not pretty little trifles included only for aesthetic or commercial value. Primates are visual animals, and (particularly in science) illustration has a language and set of conventions all its own.
— Stephen Jay Gould
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In science “fact” can only mean “confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent.” I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms.
— Stephen Jay Gould
'Evolution as Fact and Theory', in Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes: Further Reflections in Natural History (1983), 255.
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In the great debates of early-nineteenth century geology, catastrophists followed the stereotypical method of objective science-empirical literalism. They believed what they saw, interpolated nothing, and read the record of the rocks directly.
— Stephen Jay Gould
'The Stinkstones of Oeningen', In Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes (1983), 105.
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My profession often gets bad press for a variety of sins, both actual and imagined: arrogance, venality, insensitivity to moral issues about the use of knowledge, pandering to sources of funding with insufficient worry about attendant degradation of values. As an advocate for science, I plead ‘mildly guilty now and then’ to all these charges. Scientists are human beings subject to all the foibles and temptations of ordinary life. Some of us are moral rocks; others are reeds. I like to think (though I have no proof) that we are better, on average, than members of many other callings on a variety of issues central to the practice of good science: willingness to alter received opinion in the face of uncomfortable data, dedication to discovering and publicizing our best and most honest account of nature’s factuality, judgment of colleagues on the might of their ideas rather than the power of their positions.
— Stephen Jay Gould
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No Geologist worth anything is permanently bound to a desk or laboratory, but the charming notion that true science can only be based on unbiased observation of nature in the raw is mythology. Creative work, in geology and anywhere else, is interaction and synthesis: half-baked ideas from a bar room, rocks in the field, chains of thought from lonely walks, numbers squeezed from rocks in a laboratory, numbers from a calculator riveted to a desk, fancy equipment usually malfunctioning on expensive ships, cheap equipment in the human cranium, arguments before a road cut.
— Stephen Jay Gould
An Urchin in the Storm (1988), 98.
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Orthodoxy can be as stubborn in science as in religion. I do not know how to shake it except by vigorous imagination that inspires unconventional work and contains within itself an elevated potential for inspired error. As the great Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto wrote: ‘Give me a fruitful error any time, full of seeds, bursting with its own corrections. You can keep your sterile truth for yourself.’ Not to mention a man named Thomas Henry Huxley who, when not in the throes of grief or the wars of parson hunting, argued that ‘irrationally held truths may be more harmful than reasoned errors.’
— Stephen Jay Gould
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Our failure to discern a universal good does not record any lack of insight or ingenuity, but merely demonstrates that nature contains no moral messages framed in human terms. Morality is a subject for philosophers, theologians, students of the humanities, indeed for all thinking people. The answers will not be read passively from nature; they do not, and cannot, arise from the data of science. The factual state of the world does not teach us how we, with our powers for good and evil, should alter or preserve it in the most ethical manner.
— Stephen Jay Gould
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Science is a method for testing claims about the natural world, not an immutable compendium of absolute truths. The fundamentalists, by ‘knowing’ the answers before they start, and then forcing nature into the straitjacket of their discredited preconceptions, lie outside the domain of science–or of any honest intellectual inquiry.
— Stephen Jay Gould
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Science is a procedure for testing and rejecting hypotheses, not a compendium of certain knowledge. … Theories that cannot be tested in principle are not a part in science.
— Stephen Jay Gould
In The Flamingo's Smile: Reflections in Natural History (1985), 111.
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Science is a search for a repeated pattern. Laws and regularities underlie the display.
— Stephen Jay Gould
In An Urchin in the Storm: Essays about Books and Ideas (1987, 2010), 181.
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Science is an integral part of culture. It’s not this foreign thing, done by an arcane priesthood. It’s one of the glories of the human intellectual tradition.
— Stephen Jay Gould
Independent (London, Jan. 24, 1990).
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Science is often regarded as the most objective and truth-directed of human enterprises, and since direct observation is supposed to be the favored route to factuality, many people equate respectable science with visual scrutiny–just the facts ma’am, and palpably before my eyes. But science is a battery of observational and inferential methods, all directed to the testing of propositions that can, in principle, be definitely proven false ... At all scales, from smallest to largest, quickest to slowest, many well-documented conclusions of science lie beyond the strictly limited domain of direct observation. No one has ever seen an electron or a black hole, the events of a picosecond or a geological eon.
— Stephen Jay Gould
…...
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Science is, and must be, culturally embedded; what else could the product of human passion be?... Culture is not the enemy of objectivity but a matrix that can either aid or retard advancing knowledge.
— Stephen Jay Gould
…...
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Science simply cannot adjudicate the issue of God’s possible superintendence of nature.
— Stephen Jay Gould
In ‘Impeaching a Self-Appointed Judge’, Scientific American (Jul 1992), 119. Cited in Gerald L. Schroeder The Science of God: The Convergence of Scientific and Biblical Wisdom (2009), 18 & 220.
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Taxonomy (the science of classification) is often undervalued as a glorified form of filing—with each species in its folder, like a stamp in its prescribed place in an album; but taxonomy is a fundamental and dynamic science, dedicated to exploring the causes of relationships and similarities among organisms. Classifications are theories about the basis of natural order, not dull catalogues compiled only to avoid chaos.
— Stephen Jay Gould
Wonderful Life (1989), 98.
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Taxonomy is often regarded as the dullest of subjects, fit only for mindless ordering and sometimes denigrated within science as mere “stamp collecting” (a designation that this former philatelist deeply resents). If systems of classification were neutral hat racks for hanging the facts of the world, this disdain might be justified. But classifications both reflect and direct our thinking. The way we order represents the way we think. Historical changes in classification are the fossilized indicators of conceptual revolutions.
— Stephen Jay Gould
In Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes: Further Reflections in Natural History (1983, 2010), 72
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The only universal attribute of scientific statements resides in their potential fallibility. If a claim cannot be disproven, it does not belong to the enterprise of science.
— Stephen Jay Gould
Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms: Essays on Natural History (1998), 155.
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The progress of science requires more than new data; it needs novel frameworks and contexts. And where do these fundamentally new views of the world arise? They are not simply discovered by pure observation; they require new modes of thought. And where can we find them, if old modes do not even include the right metaphors? The nature of true genius must lie in the elusive capacity to construct these new modes from apparent darkness. The basic chanciness and unpredictability of science must also reside in the inherent difficulty of such a task.
— Stephen Jay Gould
…...
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The story of a theory’s failure often strikes readers as sad and unsatisfying. Since science thrives on self-correction, we who practice this most challenging of human arts do not share such a feeling. We may be unhappy if a favored hypothesis loses or chagrined if theories that we proposed prove inadequate. But refutation almost always contains positive lessons that overwhelm disappointment, even when no new and comprehensive theory has yet filled the void.
— Stephen Jay Gould
…...
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True majorities, in a TV-dominated and anti-intellectual age, may need sound bites and flashing lights–and I am not against supplying such lures if they draw children into even a transient concern with science. But every classroom has one [Oliver] Sacks, one [Eric] Korn, or one [Jonathan] Miller, usually a lonely child with a passionate curiosity about nature, and a zeal that overcomes pressures for conformity. Do not the one in fifty deserve their institutions as well–magic places, like cabinet museums, that can spark the rare flames of genius?
— Stephen Jay Gould
…...
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We may need simple and heroic legends for that peculiar genre of literature known as the textbook. But historians must also labor to rescue human beings from their legends in science–if only so that we may understand the process of scientific thought aright.
— Stephen Jay Gould
…...
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When we seek a textbook case for the proper operation of science, the correction of certain error offers far more promise than the establishment of probable truth. Confirmed hunches, of course, are more upbeat than discredited hypotheses. Since the worst traditions of ‘popular’ writing falsely equate instruction with sweetness and light, our promotional literature abounds with insipid tales in the heroic mode, although tough stories of disappointment and loss give deeper insight into a methodology that the celebrated philosopher Karl Popper once labeled as ‘conjecture and refutation.’
— Stephen Jay Gould
…...
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Without a commitment to science and rationality in its proper domain, there can be no solution to the problems that engulf us. Still, the Yahoos never rest.
— Stephen Jay Gould
Ever Since Darwin (1980),146.
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[Martin Gardner is] the single brightest beacon defending rationality and good science against the mysticism and anti-intellectualism that surround us.
— Stephen Jay Gould
As quoted in Kendrick Frazier, 'A Mind at Play: An Interview with Martin Gardner', Skeptical Inquirer (Mar/Apr 1998), 22, No. 2, 36.
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See also:
  • 10 Sep - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Gould's birth.
  • Stephen Jay Gould - context of quote Mary Anning - Medium image (500 x 350 px)
  • Stephen Jay Gould - context of quote Mary Anning - Large image (800 x 600 px)
  • Stephen Jay Gould - context of quote Honorable errors…not…failures in science - Medium image (500 x 350 px)
  • Stephen Jay Gould - context of quote Honorable errors…not…failures in science - Large image (800 x 600 px)
  • Stephen Jay Gould - context of quote The status of Galileo - Medium image (500 x 350 px)
  • Stephen Jay Gould - context of quote The status of Galileo - Large image (800 x 600 px)
  • Stephen Jay Gould: Reflections on His View of Life, by Patricia Kelley, Robert Ross and Warren D. Allmon (ed.). - book suggestion.
  • Booklist for Stephen Jay Gould.

Carl Sagan Thumbnail In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) -- Carl Sagan
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