In 1645, a group of people living in London decided that they would refuse to believe things that weren’t demonstrably true. This is tough; we humans have never been terribly good at subjecting our own beliefs to the kind of withering scrutiny that might disprove them. We do have a related skill, however; we are quite good at subjecting other people’s beliefs to such scrutiny, and this asymmetry gave them an opening. They committed themselves to acquiring knowledge through experimental means and to subjecting one another’s findings to the kind of scrutiny necessary to root out error. This group, which included the “natural philosophers” (scientists) Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke and the architect Christopher Wren, was referred to, in some of Boyle’s letters, as “our philosophical college” or “our Invisible College.”

The Invisible College was invisible relative to Oxford and Cambridge, because the members had no permanent location; they held themselves together as a group via letters and meetings in London and later in Oxford. It was a college because their relations were collegial—they operated with a sense of mutual interest in, and respect for, one another’s work. In their conversations, they would outline their research according to agreed-upon norms of clarity and transparency. Robert Boyle, one of the group’s members and sometimes called the father of modern chemistry, helped establish many of the norms underpinning the scientific method, especially how experiments were to be conducted. (The motto of the group was Nullis in Verba—“Believe nothing from mere words.”) When one of their number announced the result of an experiment, the others wanted to know not just what that result was but how the experiment had been conducted, so that the claims could be tested elsewhere. Philosophers of science call this condition falsifiability. Claims that lacked falsifiability were to be regarded with great skepticism. [Shirky]