Topics: History Of Science

History of Science

"When first thought about, it might seem that science is a field in which propaganda of the type favoured by Livy would have little or no scope. After all, science itself is all about the search for truth and the adversarial nature of the scientific method should work relentlessly to ensure that only valid ideas supported by well-designed experiments survive. I think that after reading this book, the most likely response to such notions will be ‘but that they were so’. Because they have been sought out to demonstrate the gap that can exist between myth and reality, the various case studies I include are not offered as representative of all science or all scientists. But one general message of the utmost importance can be drawn from them. Even in the realms of science, take nothing at face value.

"Until recent decades, the history of science was largely written by those who wished to place their chosen subject in as favourable a light as possible. Their motivations were various. Sometimes they worked at the behest of individual scientists who wanted to make sure that their part in the great drama of discovery did not go unsung. In other cases, the key requirement was a good story. More laudably generations of teachers of scientific subjects have wanted heroes for much the same reason that Livy gave the Romans Horatio: to inspire by example. The chosen ones entered the Pantheon of scientific heroes. Great laboratories and institutes were named in their honour; each new generation of students was given accounts of their travails and ultimate triumphs; and assorted statuary serves as a perpetual memorial to their greatness.

“In the last few decades, however, this approach has been rightfully impugned. A new generation of scholars has shown that in many cases what actually happened simply cannot sustain the enormous edifice subsequently built on it. Many of the great luminaries of the past were neither as heroic nor selfless as has been supposed. Seemingly crucial experiments are sometimes found to have been fatally flawed; results were often modified to suit the case being argued; and many were happy to use political influence to advance their cause. Indeed, ample evidence is now available to show that scientific merit is only one of many factors influencing the acceptance of new ideas. Many pre-eminent scientific heroes fell far short of proving the theories for which they are now famous. Men such as Louis Pasteur, Joseph Lister, and Alexander Fleming were neither as surefooted nor as scrupulous as they are now thought to have been. Charles Darwin was right at least partly for the wrong reasons. Others, such as Gregor Mendel, have had greatness thrust on them by a highly manipulative posterity. And, not infrequently, individuals now cast as scientific villains prove on closer examination to have been able scientists who just happened, often for very good reasons, to have backed the wrong horse.

“Above all, what this new research shows is that the conduct of scientific enquiry is often a lot more haphazard than we tend to think. Although the eventual outcome of a research programme may be a fabulously rich collection of well-attested and highly predictive ideas, the route to this happy state is often far more convoluted than subsequent accounts will allow. Revealing what actually happened in some very high-profile cases may help bring our conception of the scientific enterprise into much closer alignment with the actuality. None of this undercuts the status I believe modern science deservedly enjoys as the best way of increasing our understanding of the physical world. But our expectations will be more realistically grounded if we come to appreciate that science is as subject to extraneous influences—including the human ego—as is any other field of human endeavour, past or present.

“There is another important service that historians of science can render. As in all other branches of history, ‘great man’ approaches massively underplay the contributions made by the myriad individuals who did not achieve this honoured status. Thousands upon thousands of now largely forgotten researchers have contributed to scientific progress. And with very few exceptions, great men or women are cumulatively far less important than these forgotten legions of unsung heroes about whom little is popularly known. Indeed, some mute inglorious scientists were just as insightful and technically ingenious as those whose names have lived on. In many such cases, the differences in historical treatment are best explained in terms of a general preference for attaching major ideas to a limited number of names, coupled with skills, or the want of them, in the arts of self-promotion. The pristine hero, exemplified by brave Horatio, is all too often an elaborate fiction. If we go back and look at the primary sources, few reputations escape entirely unscathed.

“In the context of these broader considerations, I have tried to use these case studies of nineteenth- and twentieth-century science to make three basic points. First, that we need to treat received accounts of scientific genius with the utmost circumspection. Thus we will find that Louis Pasteur,Charles Darwin, Gregor Mendel, Thomas Huxley, Joseph Lister, John Snow, Alexander Fleming, Frederick Winslow Taylor, James Young Simpson, Charles Best, Arthur Eddington, the Nobel Prize-winning Robert Millikan, and the authors of the famous ‘Hawthorne Study’ (Fritz J. Roethlisberger and William J. Dickson) have all been squeezed, or have squeezed themselves, into romantic schemas strongly redolent of the Horatio myth. In many cases, these men were competing for laurels in a highly competitive world in which the Queensbury rules of the scientific method were routinely dropped in favour of the more-permissive code of bare-knuckle fighting.


“A vague affinity between a currently accepted theory and a much earlier set of ideas is often enough to elevate the ancestor into the Pantheon of scientific heroes. Just as Macaulay, Margaret Thatcher, and very many others, have mistakenly read Magna Carta as an early flowering of English democratic values, those recounting the history of science have often wrenched older ideas entirely out of context and interpreted them as brilliant anticipations of modern knowledge.

“Some of the greatest icons of science have acquired hero status in precisely this way. Put back into the context in which the originators lived out their lives, many ideas are found to be much less clearly aligned with what we now believe to be true. But we are taught to demand much of our founding fathers. Their having been there at the beginning, pointing the way forward, does not seem to be enough. There is also a tendency to expect them, long after they have entered the grave, to remain in the van of progress, their ideas at least broadly anticipating each new development. What we need to bear in mind is that the past really is another country and most certainly not one of which the present was an inevitable culmination.”

Source: Waller, John, Fabulous Science: Fact and Fiction in the History of Scientific Discovery (Oxford University Press, 2002), Introduction

History of Science
Statue of Roger Bacon in the Oxford University Museum