Quotable- Ada Lovelace, Michael Faraday, Error and Humility

Good Morning and Happy Monday!

I usually go out of my way to avoid talking publicly about politics (human rights and environmentalism excepted), but in recent months, I have watched with growing frustration and despair whilst one political lobby hurls all manner of abuse online and in every sphere of debate at another. Which lobbies I am particularly discussing can probably be guessed from a general knowledge of current affairs, but I don't wish to expand upon that; the specifics do not really matter because they raise a wider point. That wider and more general point is that the western world in general and the internet in particular seem to be becoming ever more politicised, with social media right at the forefront of that change. Facebook in particular has morphed before my eyes into something of a party political soap box, with half of my various friends and acquaintances filling the feed with petitions, memes and "jokes" -at the expense of the other half. It is as depressing as it is enervating. Yet the rudeness and arrogance of those who use a social platform to brow-beat anyone with whom they disagree has one advantage and that is that it has really made me understand the considerable social and cohesive value in humility.

In my late teens, along with an interest in science writing, I developed a modest interest in philosophy. In the main, this manifested itself in my borrowing a handful of broadly philosophical books and some straight philosophy tomes from the local municipal library. However, I also took out a subscription for a while to a magazine called "Philosophy Now"*. Of the many and various articles in the magazine that captured my attention, perhaps the most memorable was one on "tolerance". Its author essentially argued that "tolerance", whilst necessary for a functional society, is something of a logical conundrum, since "I tolerate" means "I think is wrong, but I put up with" and, in purely logical terms, if you think something is wrong, then, morally, should you not strive to change it? Clearly, the author was not arguing for an intolerant world, but, rather, exploring the logic and value of tolerance- as superficially paradoxical as that might be.

 Today, the world we inhabit is arguably far more tolerant (of minority groups for example) than it was when that article was published, back in the mid 1990s. I like to think that various prejudices- be they racial or religious or on other bases - have fallen by the way-side as people have become more aware of our shared humanity. Perhaps this is naive, but in Europe and North America, certainly, there has been a well documented shift towards protecting minority groups legally from discrimination of various kinds. Yet the internet, where much of the world's population spends considerable chunks of its time, is seemingly becoming something of a bastion of intolerance and hatred. At its worst, this has led to things like the Gamergate affair, doxing and other orchestrated campaigns against society's "tall poppies", eccentrics and others. But this is really the tip of the iceberg, because aside from such blatantly egregious behaviour, there is a lot of other low-level nastiness, ill-mannered back-biting and sniping going on: the kind of stuff that is not criminal, but wearing and de-motivating. The kind of stuff, in fact that I find plastered all over my Facebook feed whenever I log on, the kind of stuff that clutters up parts of twitter and floods the comments sections below youtube videos featuring anyone who is in any way different or distinctive. On social media, I find myself caught in the middle of two warring factions, with friends on either side and it is destructive and disheartening. Simply leaving the internet and leaving social media is not always an option for those working in publishing.

Now, some people would say that this kind of meanness stems from insecurity or fear, but, for the most part, I disagree. A lot of the relentless torrent of obnoxiousness stems, in my view, from quite the reverse- from arrogance. People sneer at the views of others and call them stupid (and the rest) because they are so fixed in their own mindset, so secure and so blinkered that they have lost the humility even to imagine that they, themselves, might be wrong**. To me, it seems that humility and humanity often walk hand-in-hand and the person who loses all vestiges of one risks losing much of the other. With that in mind, today's two quotes are on humility. Arguably, they are from two of humanity's greatest minds - so from people who, perhaps, have less to be humble about than many of the rest of us: they are (were) Ada Lovelace and Michael Faraday-

It is notable that Michael Faraday repeatedly expressed sentiments similar to that above- for example, here are two more quotes by him on closely related themes-

“A man who is certain he is right is almost sure to be wrong.”  


 “There’s nothing quite as frightening as someone who knows they are right.”

It is significant that the man who voiced such words probably shaped the world around us as much or more than any other scientist ever to have lived. All of which begs the question "how different would our world be if the internet had more Michael Faradays on it and fewer all-knowing, all-around disrespectful political trolls and keyboard warriors?"

On that rather down-beat note, I will sign off and wish you the best for an improved week. In the words of the great philosopher, from here "the only way is up".  I will be back on Friday with pictures of the natural world.



*In fact, I even sent the magazine an article for consideration for publication. With hindsight, whilst I don't remember the specifics of what it contained, my article was undoubtedly toe-curlingly awful, so the fact that the magazine entirely ignored it was probably something of a blessing in disguise.

** An even more shocking view might be that neither side is objectively "wrong" nor "right", but that what a person sees depends upon their vantage point and what a person values depends upon their relative priorities and the importance they place upon multiple, often-competing factors in a complex and multi-faceted world view.


  1. Very well said, humility is sadly a rare commodity nowaday it seems.

  2. Michael Faraday is so underrated- people bang on about Einstein, but Faraday was just as much of a genius. Faraday and Tesla, too.


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