Rants, Rage, Rudeness, and Respect

A man that I’ve never come across before, Brett Hall, has taken me to task in, what he terms, a newsletter on YouTube for being rude to Neil deGrasse Tyson. Before somebody drew my attention to his comments, I had absolutely no idea who or what Brett Hall was. It appears he is an Australian, who, it seems, studied about seventeen degrees, I might be exaggerating somewhat, I lost count somewhere down the line in his litany of all the wonderful things he had studied. Anyway, if I understand him correctly, he now regards himself as a science communicator and has a podcast where he explicates and propagates the philosophies of Karl Popper and David Deutsch. He also has a blog and apparently, has recently added a newsletter, in the first edition of which he chose to criticise me. 

I am well acquainted with the works of Karl Raimund Popper, he being one of my first two introductions to the philosophies of mathematics and science, the other was Stephen Körner. I read my first philosophy of science books by both of them in the same week many, many moons ago. I read a large amount of Popper’s oeuvre and a decade later studied him at university. Popper led me to Imre Lakatos, the biggest influence on my personal intellectual development. 

I must admit, because I gave up trying to keep up with all the developments in modern physics quite some time ago, that until about two weeks ago I had never heard of David Deutsch. So that you don’t have to go look, he’s a big name in quantum physics and especially in the theory of quantum computing. Purely by chance, the German news magazine, Der Spiegel, had a long interview with him a couple of weeks ago about his views on epistemology and what he sees as the correct approach to the future and development of scientific thinking. Mr Hall will probably come down on me like a ton of bricks for saying this but, for me, it came across as fairly vacuous, a lot of waffle and pie in the sky. But I’m probably just too stupid to understand the great maestro!  

But back to Mr Hall and good old Neil deGrasse Tyson. Mr Hall bemoaned what he saw as increasing rudeness in debate in the Internet age, a common and widely spread trope, and cited my latest diatribe against NdGT, as an example, misquoting the title of my piece, claiming that I had said that Tyson “knows nothing”, whereas I in fact wrote “knows nothing about nothing”, a wordplay on Tyson’s topic the history of zero. There is a substantial difference between the two statements. He then went on to quote correctly that I accused Tyson of “spouting crap.” Strangely, Mr Hall calls me a science historian, whereas the correct term is historian of science. There is a whole debate within the discipline, as to why it’s the latter and not the former. Even more bizarrely, he states that he is not going to name me and then provides a link to the post on my blog that of course contains my name! I have no problems in being named, I’m old enough and ugly enough to defend myself against all comers.

Mr Hall goes on to explain that he also does not always agree with the theories of NdGT, but that there is no reason not to treat him with respect when stating your disagreement. I have no objection to this statement; however, it misses the point entirely. NdGT is not stating a theory in astrophysics, which is, or rather was, his academic discipline. If he had, I almost certainly would not have commented in any way whatsoever, as I’m not an astrophysicist and so not qualified to pass judgement. No, NdGT was doing something entirely different. On a commercial podcast, for which, given his popularity, he is almost certainly extremely well paid, he was mouthing off extemporaneously about the history of mathematics, a topic about which he very obviously knows very little. He was, as I put it, and there really is no polite way to express, spouting crap, with all the assurance and authority that his prominent public persona gives him. He was literally lying to his listeners, who, I assume, mostly not knowing better believe the pearls of wisdom that drip from his lips. That is serious abuse of his status and of his listeners and deserves no respect whatsoever. 

I would also point out that he is a serial offender and regularly delivers totally ignorant speeches about the history of science and/or mathematics. For example, he regularly repeats, with emphasis, that Newton invented calculus in a couple of weeks, on a dare, which, not to put to finer point on it, is total codswallop. Newton developed his contribution to the evolution of calculus over several years having first read, studied, and digested the work of Descartes, Fermat, Wallace, and Barrow. One can point these things out to NdGT but he simply ignores them and carries on blithely spreading the same tired out falsehoods. He has long ago wilfully squandered any right to be treated with respect, when talking about the history of science and/or mathematics.

Returning to Brett Hall’s basic thesis that academics have jettisoned common decency, politeness, and good manners in the computer age as a result of social media, he expounds on this for the whole of his newsletter, claiming that this behaviour from academics put young people off from entering academia to study the sciences. Like NdGT, Mr Hall appears to have very little knowledge of the history of science. Academics/scholars/scientists, or whatever you want to call them, have been slagging each other off, both publicly and privately, since the first Egyptians put brush to papyrus and the first Babylonians wedge to clay.

Just to take the era in which I claim the most expertise, the emergence of modern astronomy in the Early Modern Period. The two Imperial Mathematici, Tycho Brahe and Nicolaus Reimers Baer laid into each other in a way that makes the HISTSCI_HULK look like a cuddly kitten. A half generation later the next generation, Kepler and Longomontanus, attacked each other with slightly less expletives, but just as much virulence. Galileo laid into anybody and everybody, that he perceived as his enemies and there were many, with invective that would cause a drunken sailor to blush. Moving to the other end of the seventeenth century. Isaac Newton, Lucasian Professor, treated John Flamsteed, Astronomer Royal, like a doormat. In turn, Flamsteed refused to even utter the name of Edmond Halley the Savilian Professor of geometry. Newton and Robert Hooke, demonstrator of experiments at the Royal Society, abused each like a couple of fishwives. Hooke had blazing public rows with virtually every notable scientist in Europe. You get the picture?

In case Mr Hall should argue that modern academics weren’t like that before the advent of the Internet, I could entertain him for hours with anecdotes about the invectives that leading academic archaeologist launched at each other in the early 1970s. One stated that an excavation report by another was about as useful of a mid-Victorian museum guide. The offended party then opened legal proceedings for libel but withdrew them when the offender expressed joy at the prospect of being able to prove his statement under oath in a court of law. I could go on but…

Let us return to myself and my alter ego the HISTSCI_HULK, why do I launch my notorious rants? 

One of my favourite musicians, Robert Fripp, says that one shouldn’t become a professional musician unless one can’t do anything else. This statement is, to say the least, ambiguous. It could mean you lack the ability to do something else, or the compulsion to create music is so great that nothing else comes into question. I have always assumed he intended the second meaning, and this is exactly why I’m a historian of science. The fascination with numbers, number systems, and their origins started very early, at most about five years old, and has simply grown ever since. I can’t explain rationally why I’m fascinated, intrigued, even obsessed by the history of science, I simply am. I have a compulsion to investigate, discover and learn about the history of science so great that nothing else comes into question. 

On a personal level I have always been taught, more by example than anything else, that if one is going to do something then learn to do it properly and then do so. I am from nature a pedant, and I don’t regard pedantry as bad, and a perfectionist. Over the years I have had the good fortune to meet and learn from several excellent teachers, who have helped me to channel that pedantry and perfectionism into my studies and not to accept anything but the best possible.

The history of science is very much a niche discipline within the academic hierarchy and has to battle constantly to justify its existence. There have been and are many excellent historians of science, many of whose books line the walls of my humble abode and nourish my unquenchable thirst for a depth of understanding in the history of science. As I have documented elsewhere, I have a multiple addictive personality and my greatest addiction is without doubt the history of science.

The commercial world of books and television is not interested in the complex and difficult web that is the real history of science, but pop history of science sells well, so they commission not historians of science but scientists to produce pop books and television programmes about the history of science. I mean, after all they are scientists so they must know about the history of their discipline. The results are all to often a disaster. There are exceptions, my friend Matthew Cobb is a professional scientist, who also writes excellent history of science books, several of which adorn my bookshelves. However, the majority of popular history of science books and television programmes are badly researched, shallow perpetuators of myths and inaccuracies–in the Middle Ages the Church opposed science and people believed the world was flat, Newton had an Annus mirabilis and created calculus, and modern optics, physics and astronomy all in one year during the plague, Galileo was persecuted by the Church because he proved that the Earth goes around the Sun, which contradicted the Bible, Ada Lovelace created computer science, and, and, and… A classic example was the original Cosmos television programme from Carl Sagan in which his presentation of the history of astronomy and cosmology was a total and utter cluster fuck, which influenced his tens of million viewers in a very bad way. Whenever I say this on the Internet, I get screamed at by Sagan groupies.

Because I love and live for the discipline, the abuse that it suffers at the hands of these popularises hurts my soul and sets me in a rage causing the HISTSCI_HULK to emerge and go on a rampage. One of the reasons that I do this is because established historians of science are very reluctant to subject these perversions of their discipline to public review. Somehow, they seem to think it is beneath them to engage and point out that the product in question is so much bovine manure. Nobody pays me to be a historian of science, I have no position, no status, and no academic reputation to lose, so I weigh in with all guns blazing and say what I really think. I have a message for Mr Hall and anybody else, who feels offended by my approach, nobody says you have to read it! 


Filed under Autobiographical, Myths of Science

19 responses to “Rants, Rage, Rudeness, and Respect

  1. Michael Wright

    It recently occurred to me why practising scientists write such bad HistSci (for the most part). For the actual working scientist, priority is everything. Publish first (even by a day) and you have a chance at the Nobel; publish second, and you’re not even a footnote. This means they just don’t think about the actuality of the development of practically anything, which is a process of collaboration, appropriation, dialectical engagement, painstaking literature reviews, and a bit of luck. So scientists tend to produce a history of towering geniuses who do it all by themselves, probably three times a year; and, of course, without being immodest, think how good you have to be to be able to narrate and judge the achievement of all these geniuses.

    Doubtless there are other reasons, like ignorance of history and an unwillingness to have settled ideas disturbed, but this is surely part of it.

    Love your work, and that of your collaborator the Hulk.

    • “It recently occurred to me why practising scientists write such bad HistSci…”

      Neil is not a practicing scientist. He did a handful of papers in the early 90s, most of them associated with his dissertation. His name appeared very late in long list of authors for the COSMOS review papers in 2007 and 2008.

      The man has done next to zero research for the past 30 years.

      He is a pop science celebrity with very low standards when it comes to rigor and accuracy. I would not call him a scientist or an astrophysicist.

  2. Keep on keeping on Thony. To hell with the likes of Hall and all of his useless degrees especially if he can’t even be bothered to read and understand your statement that NdGT understands nothing about nothing. Sounds like he had his own agenda and twisted your words to suit himself. Again, keep up the good fight. We need you!!

  3. I enjoyed your recent post about Neil deGrasse Tyson. Scientists are not gods and may speak in error. Continue with your point of view and slip in those pesky truths.

  4. I hugely enjoy your work, and love a good academic fight. There are some nice examples in Geology.

    Sometimes, I think scientists find trite just-so stories about scientific progress are useful ways to teach science. Plum-pudding model -> gold-foil experiment -> Rutherford-Bohr model is a simple way to explain basic nuclear physics. I imagine the messy historical reality was much more complex, but if my goal is to help people understand some basic science then it’s really useful.

    Also these stories help generate a sense of belonging in academic tribes. I’m a sucker for tales that prove geologists right in the end, once physicists catch up. Things like Kelvin and the age of the earth, or continental drift ideas in the 1930s becoming plate tectonics once the new geophysical evidence came in. But I know well enough to not spout them in a public forum and if I did, to be prepared for your righteous wrath.

  5. Long may the HISTSCI_HULK rant. Practising scientists, venturing into History of Science should always remember C P Scott’s dictum: “Comment is free, but facts are sacred.” As editor of the, then, Manchester Guardian he was referring to journalism, but it applies with equal force to History of Science writing.

  6. Jeb

    “lo que de hecho paso (what in fact happened)……. I was once accused by my landlady of writing a book of chisme (gossip). There were two things she could have meant by that I was being intrusive. Tapalans often drew a line of privacy around affairs of the extended family and my landlady seemed to suspect that I was going to write about one of her own. This was not only inappropriate behaviour, it also made for bad history: history should be fit for public consumption. There was a temporal dimension to this. The ‘past’ of history was not just any old past. It was a past that was comfortable past, comfortable removed from the present. Indeed, we might better translate the paso of lo que hecho paso as ‘passed’ rather than simply ‘happened.’ This removal was precisely what made it a public kind of past.

    T. Stack, Time of Place In West Mexico

  7. Was it P. T. Barnum that said there’s no such thing as bad publicity? I’m hoping Hall’s complaints will send readers to your blog.

  8. Thony – if I were into tee-shirts or bumper-stickers, I’d go out and have some made today – Image a cuddly kitten; slogan HISTSCI_HULK !!

    Being given to the occasional rant myself, I surely enjoy yours. There’s an important qualitative difference between your rants about poor scholarly standards and ethics, and the Renaissance style of base calumny and childish refusal to admit the existence of one, or another, scholar’s work.

  9. Michael Traynor

    I have to correct you, Thony, on the comment about Tyson “lying” to his listeners. For that he’d need to know that the crap he’s spouting is false. I think his arrogant ignorance is his shield against that charge. And I am happy to raise that particular shield on his behalf!

  10. This intrigued me:

    Strangely, Mr Hall calls me a science historian, whereas the correct term is historian of science. There is a whole debate within the discipline, as to why it’s the latter and not the former.

    I would guess that “science history” implies something that is an adjunct to science, while “history of science” identifies one of the subdisciplines of history. On the other hand, we have such terms as “art history”, “naval history”, “social history”, etc. Are these not considered branches of history? And if so, why the objection to “science history”?

    Or is the objection only to the term “science historian”, and not to “science history”?

    • “Art history” is in fact a separate discipline, taught in departments of art or of art history, not in departments of history. Many art historians are increasingly historical in their approach—visiting archives, situating art in its political, social, and cultural contexts, etc.—but there’s still a lot of connoisseurship to it. And since an art historian’s judgment that a painting is, say, a genuine Rembrandt can be worth millions of dollars, there’s a connection to the world of collecting and museums there too.

      Your other examples involve adjectives modifying history. We historians are OK with that, but if you’re talking about a noun, we like “history of”—history of ideas, history of science, history of mathematics, etc. “World history” is the major exception.

      “Science history” doesn’t fit. “Scientific history,” on the other hand, is not the history of science, but rather, a perspective in historiography that holds that it is possible for history to be a scientific enterprise involving hypothesis testing, rigorous and systematic evaluation of evidence, etc. It’s sometimes misused by headline writers who really mean “history of science” (e.g., https://eos.org/features/rebecca-charbonneau-the-future-of-scientific-history).

      • Thank you Mr Ogilvie for that excellent exposition, which saves me the trouble of answering

      • Happy to oblige! The media’s use of “science history” and “science historian” has long been one of my bugbears. It’s a bit complicated by the fact that Science History Publications has long been an important press in the field, but I’m willing to cut them some slack given that they published my teacher Allen Debus’s book on “The Chemical Philosophy.”

      • You were a student of Allen Debus? “The Chemical Philosophy”, a great book, was my introduction to Paracelsus and Paracelsian medicine.

      • My dissertation advisor was Lorraine Daston, but I took a couple of seminars with Allen, too. He taught them in the rare book reading room at the University of Chicago so we could have the books we were discussing to hand.

      • Lorraine Daston is equally impressive

  11. Michael Traynor

    If my recall can be relied upon, Lorraine Daston is guest on Peter Adamson’s ‘History of Philosophy’ podcast next week.

  12. Lawson Brouse

    Keep up the good fight.

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