Oh! OK, I’ll just pack up and go home then.

Yesterday I posted one of my, in the meantime, notorious rants about an excruciatingly bad pieces of history of science journalism published in the New York Times. One of the commentators a German physicist called Stefan Scherer who blogs under the name Back ReAction and works in scientific publishing and outreach made the following sarcastic comment or at least I think its meant to be sarcastic

As everyone knows that the Pisa Leaning Tower Story never is presented according to the state of art of historians’ knowledge, I do not see a reason to be that upset.

Oh! Alright you are then Stefan, I’ll just pack up and go home. If everybody knows that the myths about the history of science that the press and authors of popular books dish up for general consumption are never presented according to the state of art of historians’ knowledge then there’s no reason I should waste my time pointing it out, is there.

However, and this is just something that fleetingly crossed my mind, if everybody already knows that the stuff that the press and pop authors spew out is a crock of shit why do they bother to publish it? You know nobody’s going to bother to read a book or an article that they already know to be at best a collection of half-truths and myths and at worst a total pack of lies, now are they?

In case any of the readers who once having found their way to my emporium for history of science myth busting and the glorification of obscure Renaissance mathematicians actually come back for more or have even got round to reading the ‘about’ they might have tumbled to the fact that one of the main functions of this blog is pointing out that an incredible amount of what people believe to be knowledge of the history of science is in fact wrong. As a myth buster I aim to stop the rot. I want to see the balls dropped from the Tower of Pisa and other such fairy stories driven out of the school books, banned from the Sunday papers and generally confined to the dustbin of authorial history. I want writers to stop being pig ignorant and bone idle and to do some real research and write about what really happened in the history of science instead of constantly regurgitating the same old not just tired but already dead and inadequately resuscitated myths that they half listened to in primary/grade school.

I have no illusions about my own clout. I realise that as an obscure, fat, old, balding freak blogging from the depths of provincial Germany I’m not going to exercise the same sort of influence as a Jacob Bronowski or god forbid a Carl Sagan. The former wrote reasonably sensibly and accurately about the history of science the latter wrote a lot of very false bollocks but both reached and influenced massive audiences worldwide. I’m much more humble in my aims. If I manage in one year of blogging to convince five people to at least reconsider the collection of facts that they call their knowledge of the history of science then I think my efforts have been worthwhile. As the Chinese saying goes a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Oh and by the way that point about being ‘that upset’. If you haven’t realised, the faux outrage displayed in some of my posts is merely a rhetorical or polemical device meant to entertain my readers. Something, which judging by the reactions, it apparently does.

Having said all the above I hope you wont mind Stefan if I change my mind and don’t pack up just yet but continue in my one man crusade of pointing out the obvious.


Filed under History of science, Myths of Science

11 responses to “Oh! OK, I’ll just pack up and go home then.

  1. Why don’t you write an article up, and submit it to the NYT, as I suggested on Twitter? There’s never any need to accept being marginalized.

  2. I think Mr Scherer wouldn’t be half as nonchalant if media consistently spread the same amount of bollocks about HIS own field (physics) – it’s always easy to call others to order if you’re not affected yourself. The basic hallmark of a hypocrite that is.

    • I expect an exuse for calling me hypocrite. You do not know at all what I think, or do about, the utter rubbish that is constantly being published about physics.

      Thanks, Stefan

  3. My comment may have been a bit harsh, sorry about that. Maybe I should try to explain what I had in mind…

    First of all, as I have an (amateur) interest in the history of science, and as on our blog we occasionally run posts touching the history of physics, I am well aware of the fact that most physicists, and, even worse, most of those who write about physics on a popular level, have a very modest awareness and knowledge of the history of their subject, to put it politely. Actually, the Top Ten list with the Leaning Tower of Pisa “Experiment” was created by the votes and suggestions of physicists (the reader of Physics World), if I remember correctly.

    As the actual history of science is so much richer and interesting and fascinating than the comic book version one typically encounters in textbooks and popular articles or books, this is sad.

    What brings me to my second point: What could one (and, especially, professionals like you) do to improve the situation?

    Actually, I did subscribe to your blog because I really enjoyed your posts about people and episodes from the history of science – they demonstrate the great value of blogs: Where else can one read so much ineresting real stuff, written by experts in the field, in an digestible way?

    I hope we can mostly agree so far…

    But I guess where we differ is the value of rants 😉

    To be honest, I was really thinking about removing your blog from my RSS reader because I mainly remember seeing rants here lately. Unfortunately, these rants are even mirrored in other interesting blogs, so unsubscription wouldn’t even save me 😉

    Personally, after six years of blogging, I have come to the conclusion that for me, rants are a complete waste of time. OK, they are fine for their writer to reduce blood pressure, but they are not productive at all: Those who should take note of the points mentioned won’t do so. Those who come across the post by chance are just put off by the harsh tone. The rest is just self-congratulation. In sum, a waste of time.

    As I didn’t want / couldn’t write such a long comment yesterday, but was, nevertheless, upset to finding in my reader, again, only a rant (albeit on an important topic, though I fear that writing against the Leaning Tower myth is tilting at windmills), I wrote that short, and probably cynically sounding comment.

    Well, I am glad to hear that I didn’t stop you from blogging ;-).

    Most probably I will keep the Renaissance Mathematicus in my feeds, too.

    Thanks, Stefan

    PS: I completely agree, history of science as told by Carl Sagan is, well, … I remember how I was fascinated by the “Cosmos” when it was broadcast on German TV, but at hindsight, I know that his “history” has to been taken with tons of grains of salt…

    • In the last month I have posted two long and one short rant, four long biographical posts, three Monday blasts from the past all scientific/biographical and The Giants Shoulders’ Blog Carnival before this post: I don’t see that as an excess of rants.

      As my rants almost always include a substantial amount of corrective information I know for a fact that many of my readers find them informative. Those that dislike them are not required to read them.

      I write the way I write and shall continue to do so, if you choose to read what I write and can find some benefit in it then I’m happy to have been of service, if not then not.

      I thank you for your friendly, informative and interesting answer to my deliberately provocative post.

  4. Interesting follow up!

    I’ve always been fascinated by Thony’s approach – I like to think I have a similar fact seeking/checking disposition though have chosen a method of delivery that suits me. When the mind is swirling with emotion, writing an informative rant, as Thony does is actually quite hard, so I’m not sure that Thony is actually as unhinged as his headings suggests, just very direct in his manner perhaps!

    As these posts actually do contain corrections, they are hence supremely useful – though for those of us largely in the dark about hist-sci I would often like to know the primary source references for these corrections if I ever need to recount them elsewhere. Even a link in the header tab for references that outline the good/bad/ugly of sources on key topics would be an invaluable resource

    Kind Regards and keep fighting the good fight!

  5. Clare

    I was thinking of doing an ‘intro to alchemy’ blog post. Nothing like being terrified of getting facts wrong to make you go away and research properly! *feverishly checks facts*

    Love the rants. Debunk away!

  6. Laszlo

    I’d like to see you use your irritation about bad reporting in science and write about why people like to pass on so many myths. What do you think the ideological reasons are? Do you see a wider connections beyond a few badly written articles?

    For me, I get irritated when people write badly about Aristotle and Plato. I just try to keep in mind that every commentator, from whatever century, has their personal perspective that they’re trying to push with their interpretation. Otherwise, I’d be much further along in my ulcer.

  7. Pingback: Being wrong « Maxwell's Demon

  8. Can you give us a list of Sagan’s goofs?

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