Quote of the day: Self-mythologizing scientists

From Philip Ball, a British science writer with a doctorate in physics, writing in Aeon:

[S]cience has never given up on the Whiggish view of history that historians have long since abandoned: a triumphant voyage out of the dark ages of ignorance and superstition into the light of reason. In this view, all we really care about in historical scientists is which of their ideas survived, not how they thought and why. All the stuff that was of its time — Kepler’s cosmic harmonies, Newton’s alchemy and eschatology, Faraday’s religiosity — must then become a curious aberration: ‘Isn’t it strange that such great minds held such weird ideas?’ It isn’t strange at all if you truly care about history.

It’s surely the attraction of this heroic vision that explains why scientists play fast and loose with history. Of course, history almost inevitably gets simplified in the popular retelling, and Eric Hobsbawm has pointed out that all trades and institutions invent their own myths. Yet scientists do seem to have an unusual susceptibility for bowdlerised narrative, pantheons and idols. And these almost always serve the didactic purpose of presenting science as a noble, brave and objective quest for truth in the face of ideology and superstition, whether that is Galileo versus the pope or Einstein versus the Nazis. In these stories, great scientists shake off the shackles, while dogma and prejudice capitulate to unreason.

As an illustration of how illiberal political systems inhibit science, Paul Nurse recently claimed that Hitler’s regime denounced relativity as ‘Jewish science’. In fact, the Nazis ended up ignoring the few careerist and racist physicists who supported the nonsense of ‘Aryan physics’ because they rightly recognised that Einstein’s colleagues had the more useful theories. A determination to present science as a calling that is ‘above’ politics and ideology goes hand in hand with the simplistic view of the fictitious ‘scientific method’ that many scientists hold, in which they simply test their theories to destruction against the unrelenting candour of experiment. Needless to say, that’s rarely how it really works.

Read the rest.


Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Google+ photo

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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


Connecting to %s