21 August 2006

Monday Quote Frenzy – Mugwumps

In the late 1770s, Benjamin Franklin suffered several controversies over his ideas about electricity.

The first started in 1775, when Alessandro Volta carried out a series of experiments with an “electrophore”. The device was a refinement of an invention by Johannes Wilcke, and consisted of a fixed metal plate, a plate of what we would now recognize as non-conducting material, and topped with a rotating, foil-covered wooden shield. Volta showed that both the non-conducting plate and the metal plate became charged, and retained their charges when separated. In Franklin’s original theory, the charge on the metal plate should have decayed away. Franklin was too preoccupied with political events to deal with the problem. Fortunately, a colleague, Jan Ingenhousz, took up the problem, and published an explanation of the effect in the 1779 Philosophical Transactions, showing that Franklin’s electrical fluid theory could explain it if two different fluids (one positive and one negative) were produced in the two plates.

The second controversy centered on lightning rods, then called conductors. Franklin had demonstrated with a series of careful experiments that the charge of conducting rods could be drawn off more easily the more pointed their ends were. He thus recommended that lightning rods would be more efficient with pointed ends. In 1772, when the Board of Ordinance was considering using lightning rods to protect powder storehouses, Franklin made the case for pointed conductors, while Benjamin Wilson (a fellow Fellow of the Royal Society) argued for blunt-ended rods. Franklin won, but Wilson continued to pursue the point. In 1777, the Purfleet gunpowder magazine – equipped with Franklin’s pointed conductors – was struck by lightning. This gave Wilson the opportunity to press his argument, which he did in the same 1779 issue of Philosophical Transactions as Ingenhousz’s article.

Although the Royal Society overwhelmingly took Franklin’s side in the conductor debate, the effect of the two controversies was to make the public skeptical about all of this electrical theorizing. Thus, in a 1779 issue of the Gentleman’s Magazine, we find:
[W]hen philosophers thus differ, many will think themselves safest with no conductors at all.
And thus, more than a century before the term was devised, we get mugwumps, in the popular sense of fence-sitters. Flash forward to the present and consider the public stance toward scientific issues of great significance. Global warming? There’s controversy, so it’s safest to ignore it. Teaching evolution? There’s controversy, so it’s safest to teach nothing. We dignify these people by calling them skeptics. But they’re mugwumps the lot of ‘em.

Horace Porter, once an aide to General Grant, later his personal secretary, and even later an executive with the Pullman company and a diplomat, said
A mugwump is a person educated beyond his intellect.
People who have the intellectual engagement to be aware of pseudo-controversies, but lack the intellect to recognize that the evidence for one side has far more weight than the other – those would be your mugwumps.

My appreciation to Joyce Chaplin’s biography of Benjamin Franklin, The First Scientific American, for information about the controversies of the 1770s. My apologies to the authors of the Wikipedia article on mugwumps, who make a strong case that the original Mugwumps were a political movement of substance.


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