Mythbusting and metaphors

There’s been an interesting discussion over at Whewell’s Ghost about whether professional historians of science are (or should be) “spoiling everybody’s party” by upsetting the popular myths about Lone Geniuses, First Discoveries and the Onward March of Progress. I’m not competent to comment on whether these myths have any foundation in fact, so I’m quite prepared to accept the professionals’ word for it that if you go properly guddling about in the evidence then you will find that they’re a bad way of understanding what you find there. What I’m interested in are two questions: first, why so many scientists and mathematicians have an gut reaction against the accounts of their disciplines by grown-up HPS; and second, why some of the discussion from the HPS side seems to regard provoking this reaction almost as a badge of honour.

The tone on both sides reminds me of the kind of “debate” one gets between educational researchers and educators in mathematics. One the one side you have a research community who are clearly frustrated with the failure of practitioners to take their theories on board, and can’t see why this is unless all practitioners are stupid or ignorant. On the other you have practitioners who see the researchers as arrogant nitwits who would be devoured whole, along with their theories, if left for ten minutes in front of a class. It’s also a bit reminiscent of a bunch of pith-helmeted C19th ethnologists descending on a foreign culture in order to document all the exciting ways they’re wrong about everything important. Given that — in my experience at least — most working historians and scientists are intelligent and reasonable people with a genuine respect for evidence and accuracy, this situation seems painful and unnecessary.

One key to the problem seems to lie in a phrase used by one of the commentators: “mythbusting”. In everyday discourse, the word “myth” is almost entirely pejorative, of course, but I think it can be helpful to treat it in the theological sense as a story we tell in order to encapsulate a worldview or the kind of truth that has an imaginative dimension. The myths of Lone Geniuses and the like seem to have some imaginative resonance with working scientists, and I think it’s productive to ask why.

An easy explanation, of course, is pure adolescent egotism: we’d all like to feel we were involved in a heroic task, with at least the faint possibility that we too might one day be regarded as Lone Geniuses. I’d not rule this out, but can we all really be quite as immature as that? I’m not convinced we are: I think our problem has more to do with lack of introspection, and a failure to think carefully about the myths and metaphors for what we do.

Very loosely, there seem to be two metaphors for the process by which scientific knowledge (whatever exactly that is) extends or changes (whatever exactly that means): the discovery metaphor and the construction metaphor. Both metaphors are based on abstract nouns and so it’s easy to forget that they are metaphors, but, like implicit metaphors elsewhere (“imposing limits on a text”, anyone?) this just makes them more pervasive and powerful. Although I’m not convinced that either metaphor logically entails a particular philosophy of knowledge, the discovery metaphor certainly sits more comfortably with a realist (or in maths, a positively Platonist) philosophy, whereas the construction metaphor sits more comfortably with a relativist philosophy.

That’s the problem. In principle, scientists might be happy to be told that science develops by a complicated and mucky process in which concepts change their meanings under the pressure of discussion, and in which histories get rewritten by the participants to make them seem cleaner and more logical than they really were. (We do this stuff all day, you know: it’s not absolutely alien to us.) In practice, the people who are telling us this seem to keep slipping into language that strongly recalls relativism, and this is anathema to us (as it would be to anyone who has to contend daily with creationists, climate-change deniers and undergraduates with grudges about the marking scheme). From the historian’s point of view it presumably is helpful to study the reasons why astrology became intellectually discredited without invoking the fact that it doesn’t actually work. From the scientist’s point of view, this is practically the only thing worth knowing about it.

Of course, as amateur philosophers we scientists are also terminally naive, overestimate our own rationality and don’t spend nearly as much time as we ought questioning our use of words like “reality” or “truth”. Fair enough. But don’t mistake this naive realism for complete ignorance: rather, it’s a worldview one develops by repeatedly banging one’s head against something-out-there that doesn’t want to conform to the way we thought it was or would like it to be. Similarly, the Platonism of the mathematician may be philosophically absurd, but it arises through our encounters with “objects” like the Mandelbrot set that seem to have so much more structure than we imagined that we can only regard them as discovered rather than created. I’m not arguing that this is an intellectually developed or tenable position, but it’s a myth that reflects the experience of doing maths or science. Ignore this experience and one runs the risk of doing cargo-cult history: the kind of history that treats all other intellectual enterprises in the same dismissive manner as Richard Feynman’s (in)famous description of the cargo cults of the Pacific islands…

So: a little more respect, please, for our myths as myths; a little kindness — and putting our hair in papers — would do wonders with us. And it might also prevent us from lying awake at 3am and coming up with dreadful visions like this:

Actor Network Pictures present
Matt Damon as Thomas Kuhn in
The True Story of how a Lone Genius
defied the Scientific Establishment
to reveal the Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Screenplay adapted by Dava Sobel from the novel by Bill Bryson

Arnold Schwarzenegger as Karl Popper
and Russell Brand as Michael Polanyi

with special appearances by
Jim Al-Khalili and Marcus du Sautoy
as themselves


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3 Responses to Mythbusting and metaphors

  1. beckyfh says:

    Thanks for this post, as it’s interesting to hear different views on this topic (sorry for not coming to it earlier, but I’ve been away from a usable computer). I am more than happy to treat myths as myths (or folklore as folklore), especially since my PhD was based on examining the various more-or-less mythical treatments of Newton in 19th-century biography. Such myths have their reasons for existing, but my hunch is that many have stuck around long beyond the usefulness they had when they were first established – at a time that science had a much less secure place in society than it has today.

    I was interested in your point that much of what historians of science say sounds like relativism, which is “an anathema to us”. I would argue that relativism of the kind that helps us to examine different cultures and periods on their own terms is immensely useful to anyone interested in understanding people and the world around us (and point out that relativism does not have to entail denying a physical reality). I have also argued previously that scientists and science writers interesting in communicating why astrology is meaningless could help their cause by knowing a little history of astrology. On the other hand, why should astrologers not keep their myths, if scientists may keep theirs?

    • Apologies in turn for my slow reply — I’ve also been away from usable computer access for a couple of weeks (and am feeling much saner as a result!)

      I’d agree entirely that relativism in the sense of examining cultures or periods on their own terms is essential if we’re to make any sense of them. I think the difficulty for people like me who are complete amateurs in history or philosophy is picking up on when the professionals are deploying this “historical” relativism and when — as sometimes happens — they seem to be going beyond it into full ontological relativism.

      As for whether scientists can keep their myths — no, if we’re wrong about stuff then please keep busting away and don’t let us mistake our myths for the literal truth! (Fundamentalism is an oddly tempting kind of faith for scientists…) What I was trying to express was that the most effective way to educate us might be to start by understanding why we often see things in the way we do, and to work from there. I’ve seen a few evangelists at work in my time, and the ones who start by telling their audience they’re all sinners and wrong about everything don’t seem to make as many converts as the ones who start “now, you know the things you’ve secretly been puzzled about all along?”

      I think there is a shared respect for evidence and reasoning which provides a pretty sound basis for scientists and historians to get on with each other: the shame is that neither party gets to see the others banging their heads against their own sorts of evidence, and each tends to suspect the other might be rather underestimating the work they do…

  2. Pingback: Metaphors, myths and state religions | New-cleckit dominie

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