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Think you know your scientific history? Think again.

Newton's Apple and Other Myths About Science

Ronald L. Numbers, Kostas Kampourakis
Harvard University Press
2015
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Before Columbus discovered America, people believed that the world was flat. When the apple struck Newton’s head, he discovered gravity and replaced God with objective truth. Gregor Mendel was a lone genius who discovered genetics. The launch of Sputnik shook the United States into radically reforming science education.

You will probably have heard at least some of these stories—you may even have believed them—but this delightful collection of short, thought-provoking essays shows that they are all myths. The flat-Earth idea, for example, became popular after Washington Irving (of “Rip Van Winkle” fame) wrote a popular biography of Columbus in 1828, which maintained that Columbus had offered definitive proof that Earth was round. Lesley Cormack notes in her essay that many still equate “rotundity with modernity,” readily accusing reactionaries of being flat-Earthers, despite the fact that the spherical nature of Earth has actually been accepted since classical times. In fact, as Cormack notes, there is even evidence that the scholars charged with advising the Spanish monarchy used Earth’s spherical shape against Columbus, arguing that its circumference was much larger than he claimed and that the trip would take much longer to complete than he anticipated.

Newton’s Apple is full of stories like this. Some will be unexpected, others rather too familiar, but every reader should find something to surprise them. For example, Adam Shapiro shows that modern scholars are mistaken in thinking that Charles Darwin refuted the theological argument for design outlined by William Paley in 1802 in his book Natural Theology.Even though this topic is close to my own research (and I already knew it wasn’t true), Shapiro managed to surprise me. Paley’s celebrated argument proposed that organisms are like artifacts, intelligently planned to achieve specific purposes, such as surviving and reproducing. However, his arguments weren’t scientific, they were religious. “Paley didn’t invoke God to explain nature,” argues Shapiro, “he invoked nature to explain God.” What he meant by “design” was that the ways living things were constructed was proof of God’s benevolence. As a result, the world was saturated with purpose and thus, from a human perspective, with meaning. Shapiro not only shows this clearly and elegantly but does so in just seven pages!

The flat-Earth theory was rejected long before Columbus sailed the ocean blue.CAMILLE FLAMMARION, L'ATMOSPHERE: MÉTÉOROLOGIE POPULAIRE

The flat-Earth theory was rejected long before Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

Inevitably, not every essay is this successful. Some are too short to be persuasive or deal with “myths” that are too diffuse to be debunked in the available space. For example, in one piece, Ron Numbers sets out to demolish the idea that social Darwinism was a major influence on American social theory during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He offers a lot of interesting evidence, noting, for example, how seldom the phrase “social Darwinism” was actually used by politicians, businessmen, racists, and others during this period. Yet, the chapter doesn’t quite persuade, perhaps because when an idea is really widespread, its tenets are taken for granted by many who are unaware of their origins and, therefore, unlikely to reference the original theory. For example, today’s genetic determinism includes the popular view that there are “genes for” all manner of specific human traits and that those traits cannot be readily altered. Such ideas have clearly been ubiquitous in recent years, yet if one were to search the works of politicians, journalists, or advertisers for references to Watson and Crick, it’s unlikely that such citations would be found.

Few of the chapters reflect explicitly on why myths become myths, but in the superb concluding essay, Michael Gordin does this in the process of debunking the widely accepted belief that science can be easily differentiated from pseudoscience simply by determining whether a particular theory is falsifiable. In addition to the philosophical shortcomings of this approach, he notes that if a negative result is sufficient to falsify a theory, then high-school science students manage to “falsify” most of Western science each week in their lab classes. Gordin goes on to analyze why this particular idea rose to such prominence in the 1980s. When various U.S. states legislated that creationism get equal time in school science classes, it became politically urgent to define why creation “science” was nothing of the kind. Part of the appeal of the falsification axiom (if it could never be disproved, it can’t be science) was that it was simple enough for nonscientists to grasp. Yet, when we look at history, falsification simply does not work as a definition of science. As Gordin explains, most historians and scientists accept a sociological definition: Science is what the scientific community says it is (e.g., peer-reviewed work in reputable journals). It’s not a perfect definition, nor a stable one, but it has the virtue of being the one by which scientists actually operate. Debunking myths is fun, but it’s even more fun when, as Gordin does, the debunker gives you a sense of why some ideas become myths in the first place.

 

About the author

The reviewer is in the School of History, Art History, and Philosophy, University of Sussex, Brighton BN1 9RH, UK.