Being wrong is not a crime; knowing what’s right and deliberately saying the wrong thing is!

Inspired or, perhaps better said, provoked by my last post mathematician and artist Edmund Harriss has written a thoughtful post on the virtues of being wrong at his blog Maxwell’s Demon. This reaction to my post has prompted me to try to explain a little more thoroughly what it is that gets my goat in so many popular accounts of the history of science.

I have absolutely no problem with people being wrong; I’m wrong myself a lot of the time. I also have no objection to people pointing out when I’m wrong and correcting me, through them doing so I learn and I love learning. I love learning more than anything else in the world. There is one of those sayings that turn up on the back of matchboxes (are there still matchboxes?), which goes something like, “if you can’t make mistakes you can’t learn.” I think this the essence of what Edmund was trying to express in his post and I’m one hundred per cent in agreement with him. This type of being wrong is not what I complain about. It is not what I refer to, as the mythology of science and it’s not what brings out the histsci hulk in me. So what is it exactly that causes me to explode if only verbally here at the Renaissance Mathematicus?

What drives me round the bend is people who either wilfully or through ignorance born of laziness regurgitate hoary old myths about the history of science that have been laid to rest years ago by the historian of science; Galileo dropping balls of the Tower of Pisa being an excellent example. Stefan who provoked my last somewhat steamy post did so with his comment, “As everyone knows that the Pisa Leaning Tower Story never is presented according to the state of art of historians’ knowledge…“ It is in fact very well known, and has been for decades, that Vivani’s tale of his master dropping balls off The Leaning Tower to disprove the Aristotelian laws of fall is almost certainly a myth, if for no other reason than that it would not actually produce the desired results. A journalist or book author repeating this myth and presenting it as a true story does so for one of two reasons. Either he is wilfully telling a lie because he doesn’t want to ditch a “good” story just because it isn’t true or he is being lazy hasn’t done the necessary research and doesn’t know better. If the second case is true then he shouldn’t writing about the history of science in the first place. If however it’s the first case then we have a serious problem. This actually provokes two questions. The first was actually posed by a commentator, Laszlo, on my last post:

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.

The second is of course why does this behaviour on the part of journalist and popular book authors irritate me so much?

Why do people continue to repeat the myths when they should know better? If I’m quite honest I don’t really know. There is a certain element of laziness involved; everybody knows (an evil phrase that should be banned from the English language!) that Isaac Newton discovered gravity when an apple fell on his head, and because everybody knows it we repeat it. It would be insulting to dissolution all of those people so we don’t. This is of course not only a problem in the history of science. Just to give one simple example, everybody knows that the simple American colonists (David) defeated the might of the British Army (Goliath) at the Battle of Yorktown. In reality a vastly superior American and French military force defeated a dispirited bunch of English mercenaries. However most people, including the British funnily enough, prefer to believe and repeat the mythological “heroic” David and Goliath version of the story[1]. Why?

Our concept of history and historiography only began to emerge in the seventeenth century, something I have commented upon a couple of times when posting about the Bible chronologists who made significant contributions to the emerging modern discipline. In the Renaissance history had a completely different function. It was not concerned with trying to recreate an accurate picture of the past but with supplying educational moral tales. One told of the historical exploits of a Caesar or an Achilles in order to illustrate a human virtue worthy of emulation, Alfred and the cakes or Robert the Bruce and the spider being good examples of this type of history. I am fairly certain that the myths in the history of science fulfil a very similar function. Newton and the apple illustrate the flash of genial inspiration that is necessary in order to make a great discovery. The fact that Newton’s work on the theory of gravity was the result of a struggle over many years with complex mathematical concepts only serves to spoil the story. The myths about Galileo display the genial stubborn outsider fighting against the establishment to establish and defend the truth. The historical truth that Galileo expended more energy on becoming a member of the establishment than he ever did on science is inconvenient and should be ignored or even better suppressed. The myths of science serve to paint an idealised and largely false picture of the scientific process and that is exactly why I despise them.

Like many historians of science I actually formally studied history and philosophy of science or more accurately because I studied in Germany, Wissenschaftsgeschichte und Wissenschaftstheorie. I came to the philosophy of science from its history via Karl Popper, Imre Lakatos, Thomas Kuhn, Norwood Hanson and others whose philosophies of science were all based more or less on the history of science. I firmly believe that we can only truly understand what science is and how it functions through examining its history. Any concept of science that is based on myths rather than the historical reality is in my opinion bound to be false. In order to truly understand how science evolves we must have a real and brutally honest understanding of its history. As long as we go on propagating the myths we will never achieve that understanding.

[1] I will of course be justifiably pilloried by real historians for my Micky Mouse comic-book presentation of American history.


Filed under History of science, Myths of Science

12 responses to “Being wrong is not a crime; knowing what’s right and deliberately saying the wrong thing is!

  1. Pingback: Whewell's Ghost

  2. Thank you for the follow up Thony. Blushes earnt by corrections are transient, and a small price to pay for learning something new!

    I love this sentence: “Any concept of science that is based on myths rather than the historical reality is in my opinion bound to be false.”

    Amazing how it parallels one of my all time favourite quotes which you can see here:

    You could insert any field of study to replace “science” here…. including history itself. At least Renaissance historians are [usually] dedicated to sorting through primary sources! Far too many art historical and press accounts discussing Renaissance art still do it through the idealised 19C filter with which it was initially presented to the world.

    Kind Regards

  3. “I tell you once, I tell you twice, what I tell you three times is true”.


    “It is a fact everyone knows” – also known as Aunt Jobisca’s Theorem.

  4. I’ve got very mixed feelings about this issue. As a certified, if not certifiable, pedant, I read far too much of the primary sources to have much faith or much respect for the standard narratives; but I’m also aware that history inevitably makes sense of things by a process of selection, if not fabulation. One summarizes a collection of data by reporting the central tendency, though the average and standard deviation don’t capture everything that’s going on. Are the just-so stories about the history of science or, for that matter, the American Revolution, like that? Or is the better analogy is the well-tuned clavier? We tune our pianos so they can play every key, but do so at the cost of not being able to play any key precisely. At some point, the prevalent system of tuning may turn out to be so far from optimal that it makes sense to switch to another; but aren’t you going to settle on another compromise?

    Well, don’t worry about what I say. Lately I’ve been having a recurrent nightmare in which you, John Wilkins, and I are doomed to endlessly sing “Three LIttle Girls from School are We,” either in Hell or, in the most terrifying version, Branson, Missouri.

  5. Jeb

    The way I was trained the truth of legends (or myths if you are traditional inclined to a looser taxonomy) is irrelevant other than, it’s non-factual status goes some way to establishing classification; still says bag loads about the culture in which they move. They generally say a lot about shared cultural values and identity for the most part, I find as you seem to suggest at one point.

    I have never seen laziness or ignorance used as an explanation with regard to this phenomena outside of science where I would suggest it appears to be a ‘fact’ that everyone in science knows, at least with regard to other groups using such narrative strategies.

    I think understanding how groups use folklore and tell stories is central to understanding how they function as cultural entities, it’s says nothing about science as a subject but a lot about folk working and using science for a variety of reasons. Looking at legends and the way the are used should yield accurate information about how science works culturally and seeks to maintain internal values, social cohesion and how seeks to maintain it’s status and identity in wider cultural and competitive environment.

    “Any concept of science that is based on myths rather than the historical reality is in my opinion bound to be false.”

    I don’t agree fully here. Yes the facts are false but the legends (which have a historical development) present and point to a historical and cultural reality and say something; though its not exactly comforting or self serving, as are the legends. But that’s what makes history such an appealing subject for me. It forces you to confront beliefs, identify them for what they are, learn something and move on.

    I think these things have to be studied fully and understood rather than just dismissed. The processes of understanding is by it’s nature destructive with regard to the cultural power of legend.

    So I would respectfully disagree.

  6. Given the nature of some of my research I have to agree with Jeb about the interest and usefulness of studying legends. They tell us a huge amount about values and ideas of past societies and, today, reveal differences between the interests of various social groups.

    And yet… I, of course, think my version is ‘better’, and want to share it. There is, in part, the pedant who just wants to say “it didn’t happen like that!”, but I think it is also worthwhile to ask people to question their legends, think about what its purpose might be and whether it fulfills this in the best way. While some tropes of scientific legend have the longest possible history, much was created in the 19th century. Science and its role in society are very different today, meaning that some of the continuing legends are less appropriate to today’s needs and experience. In particular, stories that work for the in-group can be seriously problematic when trying to speak beyond it.

    If something demonstrably wrong is stated as fact, I think it should be challenged. I think there is usually too little reflection on what these old stories are actually saying about science, history and us. Again, as an historian, looking at how people dealt with (inevitable) challenges to their myths/legends is also extremely interesting!

  7. Jeb

    I don’t find myself shedding any tears with Thony pointing out the serious historical error’s here from a strictly historical perspective, it’s what they are and they not acceptable.

    I also don’t know much about the development of this phenomena within the science community but their is clearly more here than simply error prone history.

    If I had to guess using comparative data from my understanding it looks as if teaching practise underwent innovation in the century borrowing heavily from oral culture as it moves into print and and becomes an object of interest for educators. Since that time it does not appear to have moved on much in general education.

    I was taught as a child and every other school kid in Scotland is as well that Bruce and the spider is a legend, it is now really not a legend but an entertaining story that imparts messages that is still considered culturally valuable.

    Once upon a time these things were the only means the mass of the population had of educating and entertaining themselves. This is no longer the case but they still allow people to express cultural and political differences that may in themselves be perfectly valid.

    They allow non- professionals to participate in cultural debate and to have a voice, to state a range of concerns, political, cultural, etc. using tools they understand, can easily use, and be easily understood by others. This is I suspect why they are still repeated and refuse to die even when an official funeral service has been held and they are buried deep in the ground.

    “The explanation is simple and assuring. It is, in reality, very easy to kill a dragon, but it is impossible to keep him dead…. Thus although it is not difficult by extreme violence to disturb the harmonious balance of the Constituents, and so bring about the effect of no-existence, they at once re-tranquillize again, and all effect of the ill usage is spontaneously repaired.”

  8. Jeb & Becky it almost certainly will not come as a surprise to you when I say that I actually agree with what you have both written. However we are dealing with two different aspects of myths and legends.

    My objections are to people, mostly journalists and popular writers, presenting things that are well known to be myths and legends as historical facts in the history of science, something that I can’t and won’t excuse.

    On the other hand I too realise as a historian the importance of such myths and legends in helping us to understand the cultures in which they came into being. I don’t only condemn the myths about Galileo I’m also very interested in when, where and how they came into being and what the people who created them were trying to achieve and why, as far as I’m concerned that is also a very important aspect of the history of science.

    It is however in my opinion important to try and keep the two aspects of the myths of science, as far as possible, separated from each other.

  9. Jeb

    I don’t disagree. It looks on the surface to my eyes as if their is a disconnect between how you deal with these issues historically and how you are dealing with them as contemporary live and living things.

    The audience you are in part writing for does not share the same sophisticated and subtle grasp of the issues in the way you clearly do and repeatedly demonstrate. But you are using a language here some will instantly identify with and I suppose my concern is will seek to deploy in other matters in the usual wearily repetitive ahistorical manner.

    Its not what you are saying more the language you are choosing to address the matter. Although my differences are due to what most concerns me in regard to these matters.

    I don’t expect journalists or popular writers to educate for the most part and see little evidence that they have ever had particular success or interest in such a role.

    That role belongs elsewhere I think. Journalists, popular writers, the range of whacked out beliefs in the population at large with regard to medicine, science etc. or the rather strange unscientific, ahistorical views some in science hold with regard to belief. The big failure here is the education system, all us folk are products of that system and reflect its successes or failure in my opinion.

    Don’t massively disagree but they way you are expressing things makes me uncomfortable to some extent; but clearly I see other aspects more related to my own research interests as more problematic than the different issues you have to deal with.

  10. Jeb

    p.s I think these things just need to be labelled very clearly as entertaining story. In debates on science and drama all emphasis seems to be placed on greater realism. I don’t think this idea is very well thought through. Realism is effectively a dramatic fashion that has grown up over the last 40 years; it is highly entertaining and has considerable merit and I can see why science would want to walk abroad in public dressed in up to date guise sporting the latest loon pants or what ever is the order of the day.

    Not sure how helpful it would be in reality, the stage and t.v at the end of the day do drama, reality often just does not look real, does not work and is highly prone to being changed into something workable no matter what original intentions were.

    Personally I would go for the utter nonsense that surrounds the subject and present it very very clearly as entertainment, legend, fairy tale a not so story.

    This has a clear demonstrable effect with legend (myth) and transforms it into something else ie. a story an entertainment something that is not history. Its also not prone to changes in dramatic fashion and taste and by its nature is dramatic and memorable so less prone to the constraints of attempting to stage reality.

  11. Pingback: Weekly Picks « — the Blog

  12. araybold

    I tend to agree, except that I don’t think there is much point in getting upset when some false myth that ‘everyone knows’ is true is mentioned in passing, as opposed to being either the main or a key supporting point of an article. See it as an opportunity to educate – which is what you do, of course, and I thank you for it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s