“Facts are stupid things,” he would say, “until…”

Richard Conniff writes, in the Strange Behaviors blog:

Look, Look, Look! A Lesson in the Art of Seeing

I’ve never been particularly fond of the nineteenth century naturalist Louis Agassiz, probably due to a time I was sitting in a library at Harvard and holding in my hands a letter he had written to his mother about his feelings on first seeing an African-American.  It was so appallingly racist, so naive, so entitled to an unwarranted sense of superiority that I actually gasped out loud.

But just now, I was looking over a book called Louis Agassiz as a Teacher, and I read this brilliant and almost endearing account of his methods.  Entirely beyond natural history, it is a very fine lesson in the art of seeing, and belongs in a category I should probably call “Valuable Lessons from Loathesome Men.”  It was written in 1874 by Samuel H. Scudder, a young entomologist who found himself being instructed, not altogether happily, by Agassiz, a very learned student of fish:

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haemulonIt was more than fifteen years ago that I entered the laboratory of Professor Agassiz, and told him I had enrolled my name in the Scientific School as a student of natural history. He asked me a few questions about my object in coming, my antecedents generally, the mode in which I afterwards proposed to use the knowledge I might acquire, and, finally, whether I wished to study any special branch. To the latter I replied that, while I wished to be well grounded in all departments of zoology, I purposed to devote myself specially to insects.

‘When do you wish to begin?’ he asked.

‘Now,’ I replied.

This seemed to please him, and with an energetic ‘Very well!’ he reached from a shelf a huge jar of specimens in yellow alcohol.

‘Take this fish,’ said he, ‘and look at it; we call it a haemulon; by and by I will ask what you have seen…” [read the rest on the Strange Behaviors site.

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