The Famous Scientist Fallacy

If there’s one thing that really riles me, it’s when articles by laymen / crazy people fixate on famous scientists; you know the sort of thing I mean, endless speculation about the religious beliefs of Einstein or Darwin, endless analyses about exactly how their particular arguments were in some way flawed or incomplete, inane (but mercifully not endless) documentaries about their personal life carefully contrasted against their work.

I suppose in some ways it’s the fault of the way that science is regularly communicated. We seem to really love the “Great Man” theory of History in the scientific field. We love to pretend that great advances in science are propelled forwards by the heroic efforts of individuals. It’s absolute grade-A twaddle.

Sure, Einstein was smarter than your average bear; he figured out a great many things over a short period of time and for this he is justifiably famous. In 1905 alone, he postulated the photon, explained Brownian motion and the photoelectric effect, and laid out the first exposition of what came to be known as Special Relativity. It was a fantastic year, and is rightly known as his annus mirabilis.

The fact remains though that all of this work was riding the physical zeitgeist; for instance Special Relativity simply pieced together the work of Maxwell and Lorentz and many other contributors into a coherent framework. The pieces necessary were all ready and in place for the discovery, so somebody would have figured out the final piece — the principle of relativity — sooner or later. It was ripe for discovery.

Nor has that venerable theory gone unaltered since Einstein. It received a fairly substantial boost (no pun intended, physics fans) when Minkowski noticed that the theory made the most sense when cast in the form of a 4D space-time, which was named Minkowski space in his honour.

I apologise for the physics examples, but it’s just what I know best; I’m sure evolution and Darwin suffer ever more greatly from this phenomenon, where the central character becomes mythologised as law-giver.

This mythologised status, and the invented infallibility which goes with it, irritates me because it neglects that this sort of foundational work was done an awful long time ago, and science hasn’t been sitting on its hands for a hundred years. Today it doesn’t matter one iota what Darwin or Einstein did or said. That is relevant only as historical curiosity; as practical science they have been superceeded. Nobody learns mechanics by reading Newton’s “Principia”, or learns evolution by reading “On the Origin of Species”. These are not unquestionable sacred prophetic texts, but merely starting points on the road to a fuller understanding, to be amended or discarded as appropriate.

What got me immediately riled up was this article that John Gruber was dissecting, which falsely attributes some fairly odd platitudes to Einstein (as a side note, I desperately hate it when people over-extrapolate physical concepts beyond their range of applicability. It’s moronic). It shouldn’t matter what Einstein said, or thought, even if those thoughts weren’t just invented ad hoc by a lazy journalist. He was a good physicist, but his opinion would be fairly worthless in most fields of human endeavour. He was smart, but not an expert in everything!

The fact is that Darwin could have raped kittens for fun and it wouldn’t make a jot of difference to the correctness of evolution. He could have screwed up one of his arguments, or mis-interpreted evidence, and it wouldn’t matter. Newton was an absolute bastard, but it doesn’t invalidate his ideas about gravity. His wacky religious ideas and theories on alchemy are rightly discarded and forgotten, because they’re nonsense, even though they’re from a figure as towering in the history of science as Newton.

I suppose it’s far easier to teach and understand the simplistic great man narrative; maybe it speaks to something which we want to believe. Alas, I fear it’s a way of thinking which does nothing but give succour to our enemies. It’s a bit like the terrible, misleading, New Scientist headlines, I think.

16 thoughts on “The Famous Scientist Fallacy

  1. It's all part of the simply terrible way in which science is presented to the layman and taught before you get up to learning decent science at degree level. And you're right, it is deplorable. But I suppose it's done because everyone likes a good story with a hero and a plot and everyone likes to think about Great Men even if that is actually by and large a pretty fallacious way of looking at the world in general. After all, the same goes for kings and statesmen and women the world over – brilliant politics, heroes of their age, but look beneath the surface and you've got all kinds of difficult and annoying and downright terrible characteristics.

    I guess we just like a good yarn, is what I'm saying.

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