The Renaissance Mathematicus

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.