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Blog

How Bacon egged on empiricism

bacon.jpg
Bacon put the sizzle into science

By Hamish Johnston

If you do experiments; collaborate with other scientists; or benefit from government research grants you may want to thank this chap — the English lawyer and political schemer Francis Bacon (1561-1626).

Bacon lived at a pivotal time when the West was moving out of the renaissance and its reverence of the ancient Greek thinkers — and towards evidence-based methods of understanding nature. Bacon was one of the driving forces in the development of what we now call the “scientific method”.

This morning on BBC Radio 4′s In Our Time, Melvyn Bragg and company discussed Bacon’s role (sorry, couldn’t resist another pun) in the shaping of modern science.

It was a fascinating discussion and you can listen to it here until next Thursday.

I was struck by how Bacon was an advocate of collaborative, yet hierarchical, research groups in which minions collect data and pass it on to progressively smaller groups of people who interpret it and develop theories. This sounds a lot like how modern research groups operate.

I was also interested in the connection between empiricism and imperialism. In Bacon’s day England and other western powers were investing in navies and commercial fleets to reap the benefits of trade with the New World.

Bacon argued that state investment in research could be just as profitable as scientists returned from metaphorical journeys of discovery laden with new knowledge. As a result, he made science more relevant to the modern state and society in general.

And I had to laugh when I learned that Bacon described thinkers who develop theories without experimental evidence as spiders who weave elaborate webs — string theory anyone!

As for experimental scientists — they are more like bees, according to Bacon.

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