Quote of the month: the scientist

I’m writing a piece that involves describing some accidental byproducts of pure scientific research that are enormously beneficial for our species, something which often happens and is used to justify funding pure science (it is one justification, but I prefer the notion that scientific knowledge enriches our species intellectually).  I may include this quote from H. L. Mencken, which I love, but even if I don’t I wanted to put it up. I believe I’ve posted it before. (Mencken, by the way, could be considered one of the first New Atheists, for he wrote scathingly and widely about the foolishness of religion.)

“The value the world sets upon motives is often grossly unjust and inaccurate. Consider, for example, two of them: mere insatiable curiosity and the desire to do good. The latter is put high above the former, and yet it is the former that moves one of the most useful men the human race has yet produced: the scientific investigator. What actually urges him on is not some brummagem idea of Service, but a boundless, almost pathological thirst to penetrate the unknown, to uncover the secret, to find out what has not been found out before. His prototype is not the liberator releasing slaves, the good Samaritan lifting up the fallen, but a dog sniffing tremendously at an infinite series of rat-holes.”


  1. Joseph McClain
    Posted May 17, 2017 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    I like this one:
    “A Catholic priest who devotes himself to seismology or some other such safe science may become a competent technician and hence a useful man, but it is ridiculous to call him a scientist so long as he still believes in the virgin birth, the atonement or transubstantiation. It is, to be sure, possible to imagine any of these dogmas being true, but only at the cost of heaving all science overboard as rubbish. The priest’s reasons for believing in them is not only not scientific; it is violently anti-scientific.”

    • JonLynnHarvey
      Posted May 17, 2017 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

      I would argue that transubstantiation presupposes the Thomistic distinction between ‘substance’ and ‘accident’ which is untenable in the light of modern physics.
      Further, the atonement as understood in the West violates basic fundamentals of good ethics (as Thomas Paine has well-argued.)
      Finally, the virgin birth is at the very least highly improbable, but furthermore there are clear historical inconsistencies between the two accounts of the birth of Jesus.

      Thus, these teachings are not just high-flown speculation, but there is actual good counter-reasons to rule them out.

      • Joseph McClain
        Posted May 17, 2017 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

        Sounds as if you and Mencken are in complete accord.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted May 18, 2017 at 12:57 am | Permalink


      (and, Newton? Kepler? Not that they were priests but they had firm religious beliefs…)


      • Posted May 18, 2017 at 11:40 am | Permalink

        Firm but *heterodox*. Newton was an Arian and Kepler was a Pythagorean – almost a sun worshipper, as far as I can tell.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted May 18, 2017 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

          Maybe I should be more clear.

          Mencken’s strictures on the incompatibility of Catholic dogma with science should surely equally apply to most religious belief. (The more specific the belief, the stronger the incompatibility, shading off into deism at the lower end of the scale).

          If we were to exclude all persons with firm religious beliefs then the ranks of science would be sorely depleted, including many (possibly even a majority) of its historic notable figures.

          So in that regard I think Mencken’s statement is incorrect.


          • Posted May 19, 2017 at 11:25 am | Permalink

            I think we’re in agreement with the assessment of Mencken. I do find it interesting that most of the “scientific greats” are heterodox.

  2. grasshopper
    Posted May 17, 2017 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka” but “That’s funny…”

    —Isaac Asimov (1920–1992)

    • Posted May 17, 2017 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

      Jenner’s curiosity about milkmaids and cowpox saved far more lives than all the do-good preaching in the world.

    • marlonrh
      Posted May 17, 2017 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

      That Asimov quote was my first thought, too.

  3. Taskin
    Posted May 17, 2017 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    That’s a wonderful quote. It really strikes a satisfying chord for me, thanks for sharing it.

  4. Posted May 17, 2017 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    There are worse things to be known for sniffing around than rat-holes.

  5. Heather Hastie
    Posted May 17, 2017 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    Very cool quote. And it’s not just scientific curiosity that should be valued, but curiosity in general. The thirst for knowledge should be a quality that’s encouraged, especially in whatever field a person is most interested in.

  6. TheBrainTwitch
    Posted May 17, 2017 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    I really enjoyed that quite because I find that it really encapsulates that science is the quintessential factor in the expansion of human intelligence. All products of science intentional and unintentional have stemmed from the internal curiosity that we all have engrained in us. To sum shortly I feel the efforts to justify the “natural numinous” within the human spirit and our desire to seek and feel the sense of a higher power is just a further example of the indoctrination and constraints that religion and conservative methodology has placed on the human psyche. Really good quote!

  7. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted May 17, 2017 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    I have a love-hate relationship with Mencken.

    He was quasi-racist although he opposed any persecution or oppression based on race. (He definitely opposed the Nazis treatment of Jews although he outspokenly did not like Jews.)

    Furthermore, he did not believe in higher math and was skeptical of some modern physics. He thought modern probability theory and mathematical concepts of infinity to be trash, and was utterly dismissive of quantum physics and relativity theory.
    Of Einstein’s theory of gravity, Mencken said, “”in the long run his curved space may be classed with the psychosomatic bumps of Gall and Spurzheim”.

    He was also an admirer of Ayn Rand and not a fan of democracy, which clearly separates him from all of the four Horsemen as well as from Ayaan Hirsi Ali, A.C. Grayling, P.Z. Myers, Paul Kurtz, etc. etc.

    Mencken’s nemesis at Scopes, William Jennings Bryan, is probably the last opponent of Darwin to be also politically a progressive populist, strongly in favor of women’s suffrage and opposed to the gold standard 🙂 (also in favor of Prohibition 😦 ). WJB was dead-wrong on Darwin, but wasn’t the idiot rube that Mencken made him out to be.

    But when on the right side, Mencken was as funny as Christopher Hitchens.
    Sinclair Lewis dedicated “Elmer Gantry” to him.

    • Lars
      Posted May 17, 2017 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

      In one of his essays, on growing up in Baltimore before the turn of the century, he decried the bait-and-switch technique of Christian evangelists, who lured young Orthodox Jews into apparent sideshow displays, only to proselytize the kids once the lights had gone down. Mencken seemed to be outraged on behalf of the Jews, who apparently had to undergo some sort of religious purgation after such an encounter and were put to some effort and expense in doing so. It’s possible, though, that his dislike of evangelists smothered his anti-Semitism, at least in this one instance

    • Samuel Haut
      Posted May 17, 2017 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

      That is very interesting. I have stumbled upon a similar character, an atheistic polemicist by the name of Woolsey Teller. Teller is a fascinating example of how one can hold views which are simultaneously prophetic and absurd. He was an ardent racist, and he thought Einstein’s work had been invalidated by a paucity of experimental data. At the same time, his commentary about the conflict between science and religion is astonishingly modern and poignant. Unfortunately, he was incorrect more often than correct, so he has been lost to the obscurity of history.

      Here is one of his essays on atheism. (Note: I do not condone or agree with any of his racist ideas.) Here he addresses the misconception that there are no atheists in foxholes:


    • sabre422
      Posted May 18, 2017 at 8:43 am | Permalink

      I was going to post a response similar to yours, but yours had more examples of the complexity of Mencken than I was prepared throw out.

      I lived in Baltimore from the early 70’s and on for another 27 years. I had only read a few bits of work by Mencken in high school and college prior to my moving to Balmer, but it was there that I really got into Mencken, first through a number of series published by the Baltimore Sun (his newspaper for decades) and soon discovered so much of what you point out in your email. Many in Baltimore, held similar views of Mencken that you outline, and while they embraced him as a native son, similar to their feelings toward E. A. Poe, I noticed that they routinely held that embrace maintaining a decent gap of space between. His views on religion were not at all popular in that Catholic city.

  8. Ken Kukec
    Posted May 17, 2017 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    Mencken is nothing if not vivid. You can usually count on him to cough up an exotic word, too. I’ve been collecting such words since college, but don’t recall ever making the acquaintance of “brummagem” before. (Ol’ H.L. seemed to keep a trove of such pejoratives at the ready to rain down on the objects of his wrath.)

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted May 17, 2017 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

      Brummagem is the town of my birth – I had no idea this pejorative term [as in say “brummagem made”] had reached the colonies! 🙂

      Historical note somewhat simplified – while the official British government position was to support the North during your civil war, individual British cities had their own ideas. Bristol & Liverpool made a pretty penny supplying slaves to the South & ships too. Birmingham & London supplied weapons & ships to both sides [of higher quality than goods from other European nations]

  9. Ken
    Posted May 17, 2017 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    While I certainly like his sentiment regarding science and the passion to discover the unknown, it is very odd that he chose to compare things like “releasing slaves” to scientific pursuits so negatively. Surely there are other targets that deserve to be brought down a peg and his choice here rather detracts for me from his goal of lifting up science.

    • Posted May 17, 2017 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

      Agreed; that was an infelicitous comparison!

    • Steve Gerrard
      Posted May 17, 2017 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

      I think he was emphasizing different, not better or worse. It’s not that scientists are good, but that they are obsessively curious.

      I also admire the way he applies “tremendously” to the act of “sniffing.” It’s not something I, or anyone I know, would ever say. A great use of language.

      • Ken
        Posted May 18, 2017 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

        He said that it’s “grossly unjust and inaccurate” to value “the desire to do good” more highly than having “insatiable curiosity”. Perhaps those two things just shouldn’t be compared, but he did and his conclusion is highly debatable.

  10. Sarah
    Posted May 17, 2017 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

    This post struck a chord. Oddly, this is the reason why I didn’t finish my MSc. I hated feeling like I was working on a niche little thing that would never do any good. There are plenty of people more talented than I am finding new things every day. A person who’s not part of the discovery team can still learn from it, and I’d rather spend my time sharing and applying that knowledge.

  11. Posted May 17, 2017 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

    PCC is becoming asymtotically more like Mencken. I predict that he and Mencken will become indistinguishable as his age approaches infinity.

  12. Posted May 17, 2017 at 11:23 pm | Permalink

    I love it! So true.

  13. Mike
    Posted May 18, 2017 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    Asked what he would say after his Death, if he found himself in front of St Peter, “Gentlemen I was wrong ” I’l take that, in case, against all reason I’m in the same position. But I very much doubt it !

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