If you’re going to pontificate about the history of science then at least get your facts right!

Recently, my attention was drawn to an article by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, on The Week website, telling the world what the real meaning of ‘science’ is (h/t Peter Broks @peterbroks). According to Mr Gobry science is the process through which we derive reliable predictive rules through controlled experimentation [his emphasis]. This definition is of course totally inadequate but I’m not going to try and correct it in what follows; I gave up trying to find a simple all encompassing definition of science, a hopeless endeavour, a long time ago. However Mr Gobry takes us on a whirlwind tour of the history of science that is to say the least bizarre not to mention horribly inaccurate and in almost all of its details false. It is this part of his article that I’m going to look at here. He writes:

A little history: The first proto-scientist was the Greek intellectual Aristotle, who wrote many manuals of his observations of the natural world and who also was the first person to propose a systematic epistemology, i.e., a philosophy of what science is and how people should go about it. Aristotle’s definition of science became famous in its Latin translation as: rerum cognoscere causas, or, “knowledge of the ultimate causes of things.” For this, you can often see in manuals Aristotle described as the Father of Science.

The problem with that is that it’s absolutely not true. Aristotelian “science” was a major setback for all of human civilization. For Aristotle, science started with empirical investigation and then used theoretical speculation to decide what things are caused by.

What we now know as the “scientific revolution” was a repudiation of Aristotle: science, not as knowledge of the ultimate causes of things but as the production of reliable predictive rules through controlled experimentation.

Galileo disproved Aristotle’s “demonstration” that heavier objects should fall faster than light ones by creating a subtle controlled experiment (contrary to legend, he did not simply drop two objects from the Tower of Pisa). What was so important about this Galileo Moment was not that Galileo was right and Aristotle wrong; what was so important was how Galileo proved Aristotle wrong: through experiment.

This method of doing science was then formalized by one of the greatest thinkers in history, Francis Bacon.

Where to start? We will follow the Red King’s advice to Alice, “Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

Ignoring the fact that it is highly anachronistic to refer to anybody as a scientist, even if you qualify it with a proto-, before 1834, the very first sentence is definitively wrong. Sticking with Mr Gobry’s terminology Aristotle was by no means the first proto-scientists. In fact it would be immensely difficult to determine exactly who deserves this honour. Traditional legend or mythology attributes this title to Thales amongst the Greeks but ignores Babylonian, Indian and Chinese thinkers who might have a prior claim. Just staying within the realms of Greek thought Eudoxus and Empedocles, who both had a large influence on Aristotle, have as much right to be labelled proto-scientists and definitely lived earlier than him. Aristotle was also by no means the first person to propose a systematic epistemology. It would appear that Mr Gobry slept through most of his Greek philosophy classes, that’s if he ever took any, which reading what he wrote I somehow doubt.

We then get told that Aristotelian “science” was a major setback for all of human civilization. Now a lot of what Aristotle said and a lot of his methodology turned out in the long run to be wrong but that is true of almost all major figures in the history of science. Aristotle put forward ideas and concepts in a fairly systematic manner for people to accept or reject as they saw fit. He laid down a basis for rational discussion, a discussion that would, with time, propel science, that is our understanding of the world in which we live, forwards. I’m sorry Mr Gobry, but a Bronze Age thinker living on the fertile plains between the Tigris and the Euphrates is not coming to come up with the theory of Quantum Electro Dynamics whilst herding his goats; science doesn’t work like that. Somebody suggest an explanatory model that others criticise and improve, sometimes replacing it with a new model with greater explanatory power, breadth, depth or whatever. Aristotle’s models and methodologies were very good ones for the time in which he lived and for the knowledge basis available to him and without him or somebody like him, even if he were wrong, no science would have developed.

Gobry is right in saying that the traditional interpretation of the so-called scientific revolution consisted of a repudiation of Aristotelian philosophy, a point of view that has become somewhat more differentiated in more recent research, a complex problem that I don’t want to go into now. However he is wrong to suggest that Aristotle’s epistemology was replaced by reliable predictive rules through controlled experimentation. Science in the Early Modern Period still has a strong non-experimental metaphysical core. Kepler, for example, didn’t arrive at his three laws of planetary motion through experimentation but on deriving rules from empirical observations.

Gobry’s next claim would be hilarious if he didn’t mean it seriously. Galileo disproved Aristotle’s “demonstration” that heavier objects should fall faster than light ones by creating a subtle controlled experiment (contrary to legend, he did not simply drop two objects from the Tower of Pisa). Aristotle never demonstrated the fact that heavier objects fall faster than light ones; he observed it. In fact Mr Gobry could observe it for himself anytime he wants. He just needs to carry out the experiment. In the real world heavier objects do fall faster than light ones largely because of air resistance. What Aristotle describes is an informal form of Stokes’ Law, which describes motion in a viscous fluid, air being a viscous fluid. Aristotle wasn’t wrong he was just describing fall in the real world. What makes Gobry’s claim hilarious is that Galileo challenged this aspect of Aristotle’s theories of motion not with experimentation but with a legendary thought experiment. He couldn’t have disproved it with an experiment because he didn’t have the necessary vacuum chamber. Objects of differing weight only fall at the same rate in a vacuum. The experimentation to which Gobry is referring is Galileo’s use of an inclined plane to determine the laws of fall, a different thing altogether.

We now arrive at Gobry’s biggest error, and one that produced snorts of indignation from my friend Pete Langman (@elegantfowl), a Bacon expert. Gobry tells us that Galileo proved Aristotle wrong: through experiment. This method of doing science was then formalized by one of the greatest thinkers in history, Francis Bacon. Galileo’s methodology of science was basically the hypothetical deductive methodology that most people regard as the methodology of science today. Bacon however propagated an inductive methodology that consists of accumulating empirical data until a critical mass is reached and the theories, somehow, crystallise out by themselves. (Apologies to all real philosophers and epistemologists for these too short and highly inadequate descriptions!) These two epistemologies stood in stark contrast to each other and have even been considered contradictory. In reality, I think, scientific methodology consists of elements of both methodologies along with other things. However the main point is that Bacon did not formalise Galileo’s methodology but produced a completely different one of his own.

Apparently Mr Gobry also slept through his Early Modern Period philosophy classes.




Filed under History of science, Myths of Science

30 responses to “If you’re going to pontificate about the history of science then at least get your facts right!

  1. Cloud2013

    As soon as I saw the photograph of Neil DeGrasse Tyson in the Gorbry article I knew we were in trouble.

  2. I suspect you’ve had this discussion before, but I do need to take issue with your comment ‘it is highly anachronistic to refer to anybody as a scientist, even if you qualify it with a proto-, before 1834’. You might as well say that it is anachronistic to refer to a dinosaur, because that name didn’t exist when they were alive. The fact that the label postdates an individual’s lifetime is surely irrelevant if it appropriately describes their activities.

    • Will Thomas

      I have a certain sympathy to that view, but there are subtle differences in what sorts of questions “philosophers” or “virtuosos” or “mathematicians” or “men of science” or “savants” asked and answered; what role they were expected to play intellectually, socially, and politically; what relationship their extracurricular (if you will) statements had to their more specialized work. Now, these labels will themselves not have been historically (and historiographically!) applied consistently or homogeneously, but they are a more effective and reliable shorthand than “scientist” if we hope to understand what the actors in question did and why they did it.

      Personally, I would be even more conservative than Thony, and would hesitate to use the word “scientist” to describe anyone before about 1900, as that is only when the term became widespread, and its meaning stabilized somewhat.

      • Will says it all and much better than I could.

      • I will however elucidate. Historians should be very aware that terms change over time and should avoid using them inappropriately. Historians should strive to use the appropriate contemporary terms, elucidating them if necessary. Aristotle is a Greek philosopher or an epistemologists, he is certainly not a scientist. Galileo is a Renaissance mathematicus and philosophicus. It is probably not even appropriate to call him a natural philosopher. Bacon is a Renaissance or Early Modern philosopher. He is very definitely not a scientist. It is part of the work of the historian of science to delineate these differences and to explain them.

    • Mike from Ottawa

      Dinosaurs were alive at the time the name “dinosaur” was coined, even if it was not realized at the time that they were dinosaurs. I refer, of course, to those small, feathered maniraptoran theropods we usually call “birds”.

    • Sarah

      Natural philosophers. It’s just not too hard to use that term (perfectly ordinary and widely used, with the side benefit of being a self-identifier employed by those to whom it refers, and isn’t ahistorical or anachronistic) instead of “proto-scientist” – importing the squidzillion problems with that term, whatever it’s supposed to mean.

  3. laura

    This dumb article has ruined my day. The writer also apparently thinks that psychometrics is “high school math” and that climate science doesn’t qualify because it’s impossible and/or unscientific to use statistical modelling to make predictions about the future. Poor Aristotle is just collatoral damage in this grab bag of dumb arguments in favor of the standard libertarian position that all policy is useless.

    • guthrie

      I think the term culture wars sums it up. You are right, his bit about climate change is execrable, I quote:
      “While it is a fact that increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere leads, all else equal, to higher atmospheric temperatures, the idea that we can predict the impact of global warming — and anti-global warming policies! — 100 years from now is sheer lunacy.”

      Thus showing a total disregard of the last 50 years of scientific work that does actually delimit the outcomes of the greenhouse effect and how bad it will be.

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  5. This guy reminds me of the white-coated TV scientist who appears in an old Monty Python sketch: “The brain is like a fish. It breathes through its gills.” Criticizing him is breaking a butterfly on the wheel, which is not only unsporting but ultimately unsatisfying because the bug always expires just when it’s getting fun. Still, I can’t resist pointing out that the notion that science is “the process through which we derive reliable predictive rules through controlled experimentation” is going to be rather problematic for the astronomers since you going to need a pretty big lab to accommodate the planets and stars, but there’s a deeper problem as well. What distinguished Greek astronomy from what went before in Mesopotamia and Egypt was an attempt to go beyond simply predicting the appearances. The Ionians and Aristotle and Kepler and Newton had ambitions that went beyond manufacturing more reliable almanacs.

  6. M Tucker

    Thanks for this Thony! I ran across Gobry’s article the other day and thought, “I hope The Renaissance Mathematicus weighs in.” I was intrigued by the title of the piece only to find that Gobry was a wonderful example of someone who has a “botched understanding of science.” But of course he has no science credentials, he has no credentials in history, he is a writer who seems to have studied management and has spent some time as a business writer and lecturer at HEC Paris business school. He is also described as an entrepreneur. None of that indicates how he might be qualified to explain what science is to a lay audience. He included quite a bit more in the article beyond his flawed take on the history of science but a critique of the rest would not be worth the effort. By the time I got to the end of the piece I was thoroughly disgusted.

  7. The sleep of history classes produces monsters.

  8. guthrie

    I looked near the end:
    “Not because science is “expensive” but because it requires a fundamental epistemic humility, and humility is the hardest thing to wring out of the bombastic animals we are.”

    Ummm, what????? Plenty of famous scientists were great examples of humility, both personally and in their work. Also, many great scientists made great discoveries driven by the complete opposite of humility. Sometimes their egotistical actions later drove them over a cliff of stupidity, but I note the muppet mixes personal humility with epistemic humility. You can be epistemically humility (I’ve forgotten the correct word, argh) and yet personally egotistical, and vice versa, and still produce good science.

    Essentially the author is going “Woohh, scary scientists are doing stuff I don’t understand and want me to change my behaviours because of it, well I’m going to say how wrong they all are, so I can then ignore them.”

    “The first and most momentous scientist of education, Maria Montessori, produced an experimentally based, scientific education method that has been largely ignored by our supposedly science-enamored society.”
    Except for all the schools, and the fact that her method was based on some very odd and erroneous philosophy and understandings of how humans work. Here’s a hint- sometimes people do the right thing for completely the wrong reason. Montessori is certainly not scientific.

    “We have departments of education at very prestigious universities, and absolutely no science happens at any of them.”
    Indeed, many are a bit poor at the job, but actually, back in the real world, the politicians have very carefully ignored what they say, see for instance Michael Gove and his bonkers ideas to destroy the english education system, or the US one and it’s lack of evidence for voucher systems and charter schools working, indeed the evidence is totally the opposite yet the policies continue.

    “Our approach to public policy is also astonishingly pre-scientific. There have been almost no large-scale truly scientific experiments on public policy since the welfare randomized field trials of the 1990s, and nobody seems to realize how barbaric this is. We have people at Brookings who can run spreadsheets, and Ezra Klein can write about it and say it proves things, we have all the science we need, thank you very much. But that is not science.”
    I’m assuming he is talking about the USA here? Again, here in the UK quite a few experiments have been done, but more recently the evil Tories have decided not to check up on the outcomes of various policy changes they have done, because.

    Actually I’ve decided this fellow is a fuckwit, blaming scientists is easy, rather than going after the politicians, which is harder.

  9. I think this blogpost contains as many inaccuracies as the piece it criticises. Quite a few science historians would agree with Gobry’s description of Aristotle’s “science”, and would argue that the approach of Galileo was not all that different to Bacon. Also, quoting Kepler as an example of an ‘early modern’ is quite inaccurate…

    • Baerista

      “Quite a few science historians would agree with Gobry’s description of Aristotle’s “science”, and would argue that the approach of Galileo was not all that different to Bacon.”

      Care to name one?

      “Also, quoting Kepler as an example of an ‘early modern’ is quite inaccurate…”


    • laura

      I think you’d be hard pressed to find any historian of science who is comfortable with the claim that Aristotle “set back” Western science for centuries. It’s like saying the invention of the stirrup set back Western technology for centuries because it delayed the invention of the automobile. Aristotle *was* Western “science”; he inspired centuries of Western thinkers and was the major intellectual muse behind the setting up of the European universities. To argue he delayed the scientific revolution requires constructing pretty absurd hypotheticals about what might have happened if his books hadn’t been rediscovered.

      Also, Francis Bacon was born in 1561. Galileo was born in 1564. Kepler was born in 1571. Whether you want to call it late Renaissance or Early modern, it’s the same generation of thinkers.

    • I might be tempted to dismiss your comment as trolling but as you clearly aren’t a troll I shall take the time to answer it.

      George Sarton one of the central figures of the history of science in the twentieth-century once explained the survival of Plato’s Timaeus into the Early Middle Ages was a disaster for the history of science, however I know of no historian of science who would share Gobry’s opinion that Aristotelian “science” was a major setback for all of human civilization. I would be very interested to read such a view; maybe you could supply some references?

      There was a time when people too lazy to do the research used to throw the scientific methodologies of Galileo, Bacon, Boyle and Newton all into the same pot and call it the new science, however anybody who has done any serious research on the subject knows that is not defensible. Whilst Galileo and Newton can be considered to share some aspects of their methodologies, Bacon’s approach to science is radically different and in no way compatible. Again if you know of anybody qualified to comment, who supports your claim I would be very interested in a reference.

      Also, quoting Kepler as an example of an ‘early modern’ is quite inaccurate…

      I can only repeat Baerista’s comment, Uh!

  10. My point is that the above blogpost on Globry’s ‘pontification’ seems to me quite harsh, and not unlike the piece it criticises, in the way that the authors’ views are presented as self-evident truths. I think it’s important when studying the history of science not to develop the habit of stating one’s views as if they were established facts in the sense of an empirical law or mathematical proof.
    I don’t agree with Gobry’s views on Aristotle either, but it is true that while he is associated with the rise of empiricism, he has indeed been criticized for the heavy emphasis on qualitative concepts rather than quantitative measurements of measurable quantities (his failure to test whether bodies fall earthwards with an acceleration proportional to their mass as the classic example). Another criticism levelled is the tendency to extrapolate from the local to the general (his support for the geocentric model being the classic example). These points have been argued to and fro by a great many philosophers and historians of science, from Popper to Kuhn, from Lakatos to Gingerich. (If memory serves, there are also some very nice references to earlier discussions in Koestler’s book, of all places). Aristotle’s critics are often in turn be criticised as being revisionist, but that’s precisely the debate.

    Another example would be the term ‘early modern’. When we first started our summer school on Robert Boyle, we were quite surprised to discover that there is some debate concerning the exact historical period this term refers to, by several centuries. For some RS fans, the period starts with Robert Boyle, for others it goes all the way back to Bacon. So whether Kepler (and yes Galileo) belongs as ‘early modern’ depends on which camp you’re in. I think the point is not to be too dismissive of opposing views in historical debate; what is ‘generally accepted” in one country or community is not a given in another!
    Best, Cormac .

    • I have of course read all the authors you name including Koestler and none of them come anywhere remotely near condemning Aristotle in the way that Gobry does. Yes, as I said in my post, Aristotle undoubtably got much wrong but there is also no doubt and no dispute about the fact that he made substantial contributions to the evolution of science.

      On the problems of dating historical periods I wrote a post four years ago, which you can read here.

      Although I personally see the early modern period as starting as earl as fourteen hundred, I think you will find that there is a general consensus amongst historians that it starts no later than fifteen hundred. Out of interest I have decided to put this to the test by asking the historical community on Twitter when they think the early modern period starts. Your claim that it begins with Boyle I find, quite frankly, more than somewhat bizarre.

      • Sigh. I did not claim that the early moderns begin with Boyle, I pointed out that some scholars (notably in England) interpret the term as describing events around this time onwards. Similarly, I do not entirely agree with the views of the hapless Gobry, but have read and heard firsthand similar views many times. It is not my job to do your research for you, but such information comes not from from popular books, twitter or blogs, but from the literature (and conferences).
        You mention somewhere on your blog that you rarely publish. A pity because referees are most useful at pointing one towards good sources, pointing out overlooked counter-arguments,encouraging a measured approach to opinions, and voiding the repetition of arguments that have been made time and again. Above all, you will rarely see serious scholars use words like ‘pontificate’ or ‘get your facts right’, whether in a paper, a blogpost or in the social media…

    • guthrie

      If you’ll excuse me for bringing the debating tactics of online forums into this quiet retreat, I find it odd that Cormac writes:
      “Quite a few science historians would agree with Gobry’s description of Aristotle’s “science”, and would argue that the approach of Galileo was not all that different to Bacon.”

      But when challenged to name one, waffles away on a tangent. Of course I agree that Thony phrased his reply badly; it is clear that the view that early modern starts with Boyle is not necessarily held by Cormac, nevertheless I am having trouble finding substantive content in Cormac’s post.

      • laura

        There is some real variation in how historians use the terms “Renaissance” and “early modern”. For instance, Rienk Vermij pretty consistently refers to Kepler (and Scalinger) as Renaissance thinkers. Similarly, I’ve often seen Simon Stevin referred to as “late medieval” (admittedly that is pretty dodgy). This strikes me as a very minor point. It seems the larger point is that the experimental philosophy didn’t displace either metaphysical or observational natural philosophy in the 17th century. Take Descartes: nobody would call him a Renaissance thinker or a good Aristotelian but he was as metaphysical as it gets.

    • Baerista

      “So whether Kepler (and yes Galileo) belongs as ‘early modern’ depends on which camp you’re in.”

      Which camp with regard to what??? I do histsci for a living and I have no bloody idea what you’re on about. What about naming names for once?

    • Daniel

      Gobry, of course, hasn’t read even the Cliff’s Notes versions of the Popper/Kuhn/Gingerich debate on Aristotle: this leaves his potted description of Aristotle not just factually wrong, it’s wrong in a bigger sense (i.e., from the standpoint of philosophy–or even just good, responsible writing).
      But his descriptions of science don’t just ignore writing about science from recent decades: he seems to be having difficulty relating experiment and theory altogether. Not giving thought to the numerous debates within and about science makes his writing about science flail harder than even his writing about past science-doers. I’m not saying he should start with the great debate on whether science is driven by Eureka moments or by stamp-collecting, but he doesn’t seem aware that this might be an argument in science past or present.
      This makes his brief point about the irony of Tyson and Jenny McCarthy misperceiving how science works *itself* ironic. Gobry and Tyson both decouple theory and experiment: Gobry ends up confusing science with technology and says that there’s no science right now, and Tyson ends up with a strange, disarticulated science that’s like a bad boyfriend–he’s always right, especially when he changes his mind completely and denies he ever thought different …

  11. Thomas Lennartsson

    Regarding experimenting with falling objects of different masses: You could of course compare two objects with the same size and shape but radically differing densities. I don’t remember where I read this (David C Lindberg…?), but isn’t it likely that John Philoponus did something like this in the 6th century? And that Galileo had access to his writings on the subject?

    • Phioponus did indeed carry out such an experiment as did Simon Stevin at the end of the 16th century. I don’t know if Galileo knew of these attempts but they would be at best inconclusive.

      • Thomas Lennartsson

        Simon Stevin seems to have been an interesting figure; his name has popped up in quite a few of your blog posts, buy I hardly see him being mentioned in any of the scihist books I have read. Do you know where I can find more info about him and a scihist narrative that takes his contributions into account?

        I must also correct myself: I read about John Philoponus’s experiment in Lindberg’s “The Beginnings of Western Science”, but the claim that Galileo knew about his writings I think was made by John Hannam in “God’s Philosophers”, although I don’t have that book here right now so I can check that and his sources.

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