Science fictions: Is the scientific endeavour always a bold and noble quest for truth? Not when it is writing its own history
Scientists can be notoriously dismissive of other disciplines, and one of the subjects that suffers most at their hands is history. That suggestion will surprise many scientists. ‘But we love history!’ they’ll cry. And indeed, there is no shortage of accounts from scientists of the triumphant intellectual accomplishments of Einstein, Darwin, Newton, Galileo, and so on. They name institutes and telescopes after these guys, making them almost secular saints of rationalism.
And that’s the problem. All too often, history becomes a rhetorical tool bent into a shape that serves science, or else a source of lively anecdote to spice up the introduction to a talk or a book. Oh, that Mendeleev and his dream of a periodic table, that Faraday forecasting a tax on electricity!
I don’t wish to dismiss the value of a bit of historical context. But it’s troubling that the love of a good story so often leads scientists to abandon the rigorous attitude to facts that they exhibit in their own work. Most worrisome of all is the way these tales from science history become shoehorned into a modern narrative — so that, say, the persecution of Galileo shows how religion is the enemy of scientific truth.
There’s no point getting too po-faced about the commandeering of Newton’s almost certainly apocryphal falling apple to represent science in the Paralympic opening ceremony. But what Newton’s definitive biographer Richard Westfall says about that story warns us how these populist fables can end up giving a distorted view of science. He says that it ‘vulgarises universal gravitation by treating it as a bright idea. A bright idea cannot shape a scientific tradition.’ Besides, how many of those munching apples at the ceremony could have explained why, if the moon is indeed just like an apple, the apple falls but the moon does not? Anecdote can anaesthetise thought rather than stimulate it.
Bacon was important in the development of science; it is precisely that importance which is obscured by turning his views into some kind of timeless truth
Newton’s current successor as president of the Royal Society, Paul Nurse, compounded this Disneyfication of history by claiming that the Paralympic opening ceremony celebrated ‘the Enlightenment that brought rationality to unlock the secrets of nature and to advance the rights of man’. There was plenty of rationality in the Middle Ages, too (but not many rights). In the dry excesses of scholasticism, one might even say there was too much. And the image of ‘secrets of nature’ is an inheritance from the late Renaissance ‘occult philosophy’, which gave birth to science (and to Newton’s gravity) in a rather different manner from the conventional narrative. To the Elizabethan philosopher Francis Bacon, those ‘secrets’ were notoriously to be extracted from a feminised Nature by ‘trials and vexations’ — by force and violation.