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Scientific mythology

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There are many stories that inform our understanding of the history of science and technology. Some of these are perfectly true, some are questionable, and some are known to be false. Our understanding, appreciation and commitment to science is supported by ritual and stories. Science itself can be studied through the lens of mythology.

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Myths within the history of science

The limitations of using dramatic historical stories to teach science

Commentators on the history of science, such as James Burke, Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend have pointed out the limitations of using dramatic historical stories to teach science. In the attempt to fit the history of science into a tale with a moral lesson, there is a tendency to simplify complex historical realities, and this tends to give the general public a misimpression about what scientists do and how the process of science works.

For example, historians of science and scientific educators often point out that scientific myths often contain an inspired "heroic" genius, and this obscures the role of social communication and collaboration in the scientific process as well as contributes to the perception that science is too hard for mere mortals to undertake. Also, scientific myths often contain an "evil" establishment, and this obscures the fact that there are often good reasons why the establishment believes what it does and that in many cases, the established view turns out to be correct. Scientific myths also tend to either overstate or understate the role of chance in scientific discovery, and the tendency to emphasis the dramatic, tends to understate the incremental progress that consitutes most scientific advancement.

Also in the effort to create a dramatic story, scientific myths tend to reduce theory verification to one dramatic experiment which is claimed to prove a theory (for example Michelson-Morley[?]). This leads to the misperception that scientific theories are fragile in that they are based on a few crucial facts, when in fact most scientific theories are robust in that they are based on many independent lines of evidence and can withstand cases in which some interpretations of data later turn out to be incorrect.

A listing of some major myths of science

Some of the stories told about science and scientific discovery are:

  • Isaac Newton's apple
  • Galileo Galilei's cannonballs off the leaning tower of Pisa, and some stories about his persecution by the Catholic Church
  • Archimedes' "Eureka"
  • Christopher Columbus's "discovery" of America, or the round Earth
  • The evolution of the Peppered moth during the Industrial Revolution
  • Gregor Mendel's experiments with pea plants.
  • Copernicus, his theory, and his reasons for withholding publication. According to Arthur Koestler, Copernicus did not propose a true heliocentric theory, he added a system of cycles and subcycles that made his system even more complicated than the Ptolemaic system, and he withheld publication out of fears of being ridiculed by other scholars, not out fears of persecution.
  • Medieval stained glass windows as "proof" that glass is really a liquid, not a true solid, since the fact that the bottom edges of the glass pieces are thicker than the tops "proves" that the glass has flowed (albeit slowly) over the centuries. The truth most likely is that 1) medieval glass-making techniques did not produce glass with uniform thickness (this is known), and 2) the window artisans installed the glass pieces with the thicker edge toward the bottom. (Exactly what glass "is" remains controversial.)
  • That people used to believe the earth is flat. According to historian Jeffrey Burton Russell[?], this myth has been used to encourage the dichotomy science and religion.

Myths about science itself

Given the increasing prominence of science and scientific results onto the world stage, it is perhaps inevitable that myths and misconceptions should have grown up around the entire institution of science (see also: pseudoscience). Some examples of such myths include the following:

  • Science as a monolithic enterprise: There has been a tendency among some writers to portray "science" as if those practicing science by and large worked toward a set of common goals. In actuality, any study is "scientific" which adheres to the scientific method or similar means of verification through measurable evidence. As a result, science cannot be said to "work toward" any end in itself; rather, the process of science is used by scientists to discover and verify useful models, which are then applied to whatever goals that scientist may have.

Science as a ritualistic practice

The mystery of reality

One of the most confounding mysteries of human experience exists in the dual reality/illusion or actuality/appearance. Reality is that which we know to be true, but is itself, ultimately, unknowable. Illusion or appearance is the impenetrable window through which we experience reality. How clearly we see through this window is determined not only by the physiological limitations of our thoughts and perceptions, but also by the fact that we are constrained by the very reality we are trying to explore. The details often lie beyond our grasp.

What then do we make of this? Do we accept the philosophy of David Hume or the skeptics and doubt everything? Science allows us to take action in spite of these problems. It builds a body of knowledge that we feel has firm foundation in reality. What has resulted is a mixture of ritual, fiction and historical accounts, informing people inside and outside of scientific practice.

Ritual, objectivity and the scientific method

The ritual which unites reality and illusion is the scientific method. A person, properly trained as a scientist, participating in this ritual could be said to achieve a state of enlightenment, variously known as Objectivity, Rationality or Reason. In this state, the scientist is able to form not just novel ideas, but objective facts. In these facts, reality and illusion are no longer separate. Objective facts are neither completely true nor completely false.

Scientific education also harbours ritualism. Reenactment of experiments is an important part of getting a feel for objectivity and, thus, for becoming a scientist.

Despite huge difficulties with even the most recent philosophies of science, the belief that scientific method is the fountainhead of all scientific knowledge and progress remains popular. For scientists and educators who want to promote science as a discipline, but avoid dogmatism, they must look for justification in the mythology and history of science.

Related mythologies

Today scientific knowledge has such a high status that it is easy to forget that there are other mythologies that confront the mystery of reality. For example, the Far Eastern philosophy of the Tao suggests a non-intrusive approach to fact finding. Here the world around us must be examined undisturbed, in its natural habitat. Any attempt to shape events would make the results somehow less real. Knowledge derived from experiment then seems contrived.

External Links

References

  • Feyerabend, Paul. 1975. Against Method. London: Verso.

See also: history of science and technology.



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