'Beauty' is not (necessarily) truth

Submitted by drupaladmin on 28 April 2011.

As scientists we're often attracted to elegant, 'beautiful' ideas. For instance, I, like many biologists, think evolution by natural selection is profoundly elegant and beautiful (in ways I have difficulty fully articulating). We're attracted to elegant ideas in part because they seem like they get to the heart of the matter, that they capture essential truths. All scientists believe that nature is knowable, but we also recognize that it doesn't often look that way. So we believe that underneath the apparent complexity of nature there must lie some simple truths, and simple truths are often seen as elegant and beautiful.

Which shades naturally into the belief that elegance or beauty is a mark of truth. This is a mistake--that the truth is beautiful does not imply that the beautiful is true. A point made beautifully (pun intended) by John Maynard Smith in one of my favorite essays. John asks, 'What's the most beautiful scientific idea that ever turned out to be completely false?' I won't spoil his answer for you; suffice to say that it's from biology, and it's extraordinarily clever and very beautiful indeed.

I've been trying to think of beautiful ecological ideas that turned out to be totally false, but I've been drawing a blank. Every candidate I came up with has at least a grain of truth to it. Assuming I'm not just forgetting obvious examples (am I?), I'm not sure if this is to ecologists' credit or not. Perhaps we're good at 'keeping our eyes on the prize' (the truth), and so aren't attracted to beautiful ideas unless they clearly have at least of grain of truth to them. This would be very much to our credit. Or perhaps we actually see beauty and elegance as a mark of falsehood rather than truth, because we're afraid of oversimplifying the polyglot complexity of living nature (see here and here for more on this). And so in the name of avoiding beautiful false ideas, we avoid beautiful truths too. This would be rather less to our credit.

p.s. There are actually all sorts of mundane reasons why ecology might lack beautiful but false ideas. But it's more fun to contemplate the alternatives suggested in the previous paragraph. ;-)

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