Popular Science Monthly/Volume 30/December 1886/Editor's Table
THE LESSON OF WIGGINS.
DO not let us put Wiggins away until we have learned all he has to teach us. He may not know much of meteorology or astronomy; he may be ignorant of the very elements of those sciences and of all science; but, it does not follow that he is not a great teacher in his way. The fact is, that the value of Wiggins consists precisely in his ignorance and general lack of sense; seeing that it is owing to these qualities, combined with a large dose of the most shameless assurance, that he is able to preach to us so eloquently regarding the condition of mind of a considerable portion of the community. There is no doubt that the Northern "Professor" has been taken seriously by thousands of honest people. The interest felt in his predictions was measured and reflected by the publicity given to them in. the newspaper press. They penetrated into every town, and hamlet in the country; and it was no doubt a true remark that somebody made the other day, that for one person who knew the name of the real astronomer, Proctor, ten knew that of the sham astronomer, Wiggins. If simple notoriety was the man's object, he has gained it to an extent which must have exceeded his fondest expectations. The only drawback to his fame is, that it is not so great by any means among his Canadian countrymen as it is with us. Like so many other prophets, his greatest honor has been achieved abroad.
A most remarkable fact in connection with the case is, that the credit of Mr, Wiggins should have survived the most signal and crushing falsification of his former efforts in the prophetic line. It will be within the recollection of some of our readers that he was to have brought on a storm and tidal wave of altogether unparalleled violence and extent some time in the month of March, 1884. He formally notified President Arthur of the impending calamity, which was chiefly to affect the North Atlantic coast of this continent; though there was also to be a tidal wave of unprecedented destructiveness in the Bay of Bengal. The men of real science were prompt in their repudiation of his predictions; they showed that his proposed storm was scheduled to take a course that no storm had ever taken before, and that, in the nature of things, no storm could take; but the fishermen of Maine and Massachusetts thought more of Wiggins than they did of the real representatives of science, and the consequence was that the fishing industry that year suffered not a little. All that came of these dire vaticinations was an ordinary equinoctial gale and a high tide (provided for in the almanac), that did a little harm here and there, but nothing of any account. The tidal wave ordered for the Bay of Bengal refused to put in even the most perfunctory appearance.
Yet, in spite of this, and of the most glaring demonstrations, at the time, of his ignorance, "Professor" Wiggins, who, as we understand, holds some minor clerkship in the Treasury Department at Ottawa, is able to come forward again this year, smiling and confident, with a brand-new set of predictions of the most sensational and preposterous kind. And people hear him—multitudes, at least—gladly. They like to think that the recognized authorities in science have not got things entirely their own way, and that their cautious and exact methods are not the only ones available for arriving at results. They welcome Wiggins because he aims not to instruct, but to excite and terrify—because he undertakes to tell them things about which other men are silent. The medical quack promises everything; the meteorological and astronomical quack threatens everything; and both achieve popularity. Human nature likes strong sensations.
Once more Wiggins has been put to shame, or put to what any other man would regard as shame; but what guarantee have we that he will not, after the lapse of a few months, don his prophetic robes again and fill the land with the noise of his foolish babblings? None: the probability is that we have not heard the last of Mr, Wiggins by a great deal. It will show a moderation on his part on which we have no reason to count, if he withdraws altogether from the notice of a public that is abundantly willing to forget his past blunders, on the sole condition of his propounding new terrors in complete disregard of all the principles of science.
What we see and lament to see in this whole business is, the evidence afforded of the very slight extent to which true scientific knowledge has as yet permeated the public mind. Large portions of our population are at the mercy of charlatans of every profession and of every type. Some of these prey upon their pockets, some upon their health, some upon their emotions. There is knowledge in the world that ought to be the heritage of all, but that really is confined to a few. The masses have no means of distinguishing between the man who speaks in the name of acquired and organized science and the man who uses a scientific terminology, that he himself only half understands, for the purpose of getting himself talked about. Their sympathies, however, rather go out toward the latter, for the simple reason that, instead of making his statements in guarded language, and building upon the previously ascertained facts of science, he throws all reserve to the winds, and speaks out of the fullness of his ignorance in a tone of the most absolute authority.
It seems trite to say that what is wanted is the more general diffusion of sound scientific knowledge; and yet,with the vast agencies that are now being employed in popular education, it should not be impossible, one would think, to do something to guard the community at large against ridiculous and hurtful delusions such as those which "Professor" Wiggins, with the aid of the press, has been instrumental in creating. We do not see why, in our public schools, some effective instruction might not be given in the spirit and methods of science. It might be shown how the early ages of scientific inquiry were marked by the predominance of the most extravagant fancies and ambitions; and that these had their use in stimulating to researches that would not else have been undertaken. Had the stars not been supposed to control human destinies, they would not have been made the object of so attentive a study in the ancient world. Had men not conceived the possibility of transmuting the baser metals into gold, the rise of the science of chemistry would probably have been long postponed. But to-day the true guide in scientific investigation is scientific analogy. The edifice of universal knowledge is being built up little by little through the contributions of patient students everywhere. To but few is it given to discover the operation of any widely acting law; and these are more prone to announce their discoveries in a modest, tentative fashion—as did Darwin when he published his "Origin of Species"—than to burst forth upon the world with loud and confident assertions.
It might also be shown how widespread and well-organized are the agencies now established for the study of physical phenomena, how many earnest men, equipped with all the knowledge of the age in so far as the sciences of meteorology and astronomy are concerned, are bending their attention upon the as yet unsolved problems of terrestrial physics; and how very unlikely it is that any great laws should elude their keenest research and most vigilant observation, and yet reveal themselves to an individual of absolutely no scientific standing, and, so far as any one can judge, a mere sensation-monger. A sketch of the history of science, of the order in which its leading discoveries have been made, and of its present resources for the further prosecution of truth, could, we doubt not, be rendered interesting to boys and girls of average school age. The sketch would have to be boldly drawn, in few and simple and striking lines; but this might be done without any sacrifice of accuracy. In this way respect for science as science would be created; and the rising generation would be made not only to feel that it is a power in the world, but to understand what kind of a power it is, and what kind of men its ministers ought to be. The lesson would have moral implications, for the methods of science are simply the best methods of every-day life, methods of patience, of perseverance, of honesty, of reason. To know science as an embodied power, as a personality, so to speak, would be to know that which one would necessarily be the better for knowing, and to be furnished with an ideal of life which, if not complete at all points, would embrace very much that is essential to integrity of intellectual and moral character. Thus, too, would public opinion be steadied and the credulity that is still the reproach of our civilization be reduced within much narrower limits. If Mr. Wiggins should, without intending it, be the means of so drawing attention to our educational deficiencies on the scientific side as to lead to vigorous efforts at reform and improvement, we shall be able hereafter to recall his name with feelings of less unmitigated scorn than would otherwise certainly be his due.