Month: January 2014

Weekly Roundup: On Science

This week’s posts, with a smattering of commentary—

Dennis Overbye’s NY Times article, “Over the Side With Old Scientific Tenets” summarizes this year’s edge.org question: “What scientific idea is ready for retirement?” Overbye ends with that well-worn (threadbare ?) claim:

The true currency of science, after all, is not faith or even truth, but doubt. It’s hard to imagine a similar effort coming out of the College of Cardinals or the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party. In science, as in democracy, everything has to be up for grabs.

Maybe it’s time to retire the idea that science traffics in doubt and examines everything, unlike religion which traffics in faith. One essay takes on the idea that “science is self correcting,” but posits the standard distinction between an in-principle self-correcting science and self-serving interests of too many scientists. In other words, corrupt scientists undermine the inherent self-correcting nature of “science.” I wonder what would happen if Edge asked a historian of science or a sociology of science to contribute an essay (somebody besides George Dyson (with all due respect to Jared Diamond, he’s not a historian of science)).

The University of Maryland’s Integration and Application Network has a new series: Scientists who made a difference (series). It pens with a post describing what type of scientist “made a difference:” Scientists who made a difference: Celebrating effective science application.

I am going to attempt to do something a bit different in order to present the human side of ‘Scientists who made a difference’. In addition to providing a brief biographical sketch in the context of the existing scientific paradigms, I will present the ‘Poetry and Art’ of the these scientists. The ‘Poetry’ will use their words, exactly as they wrote them (albeit translated to English when necessary), but in prose form to focus on the cadence and word choice. The ‘Art’ will use their illustrations, again to focus not just on the concepts expressed, but also on the beauty and symmetry of the drawings.

As interesting and possibly creative as this approach might at times be, I worry that it further denigrates history as a domain of expertise. On the one hand, the series will pick out the heroes of science and offer a “brief biographical sketch in the context of the existing scientific paradigms”—a practice that usually highlights a “scientist’s” revolutionary (read modern and familiar) contribution. On the other hand, posts in the series will “present the ‘Poetry and Art’ of these scientists” by cutting “their words, exactly as they wrote them” completely out of context and rearranging them to suit a different purpose. While the repurposing historical texts offers all sorts of interesting and creative possibilities, I worry that the current formulation disguises its creative intervention as history. It is less “the ‘Poetry and Art’ of these scientists” than some modern person’s poetry and art collage of snippets from the past.

Some charter schools in Texas, surprise surprise, continue to use the curriculum as a vehicle for indoctrination: “Texas Public Schools are Teaching Creationism.” As to be expected, evolution, the age of the earth, and the heteronormative-republican (here not meant merely as political party allegiance) reign supreme. It’s a terrifying read. Unfortunately, the article is marred by various fallacies,[1] such as guilt by association, poisoning the well sort of ad hominem, as well as simply misleading statements.[2] While I suspect most efforts to combat the pernicious degradation of education are destined to fail, throwing mud and ad hominem attacks is guaranteed to polarize the issue further and ensure that both sides retrench in their increasingly certain righteousness.[3]

An article in The Guardian takes a more direct approach to the creationism-in-school issue: “Ban the teaching of creationism in science lessons.”

David Skorton, president of Cornell University, points out that scientists often fail to communicate well. His post, misleadingly titled, “Why Scientists Should Embrace the Liberal Arts,”[4] makes yet again the observation that “the robustness of our [scientists’] data” is not persuasive. Skorton makes a few useful observations:

Too often we also fail to respect opinions that differ from our own. Science is a process of iteration—of back-and-forth—and yet sometimes we scientists are guilty of promulgating our own biases. Our subsequent disagreements—some based on differing data but many based on differing opinions—make it that much more difficult for the public to know whom or what to believe.

In particular, his observation about respect seems timely and apposite.

Finally, if you missed it: Science published an editorial on “Reproducibility” (behind the paywall; see the summary).


  1. Even the title is misleading by implying that public schools in general are teaching creationism. According to the article, Responsive Education Solutions—the charter system at the center of the article—runs 65 campuses and teaches 17,000 students a far cry from all (or a majority or even a large percentage of) “public schools in Texas:” there are more than 8,000 public schools in Texas teaching 4.9 million students (see Texas Education Agency)  ↩

  2. The article misrepresents a source for effect: “Paradigm’s website also says that the curriculum is “carefully designed to equip high school students to defend their faith” and is being used in public schools in 11 states.” The source linked in the article does not say that the materials are being used in public schools in 11 states, though it might imply that. Paradigm’s FAQ says: “Public schools in 11 states have purchased Paradigm courses with tax revenue.” While it is plausible to assume that public schools use materials they purchase, the problematic nature of the source—Paradigm’s own material needs to be treated at biased propaganda—requires a more critical evaluation of the claim. If Paradigm knew that their materials were being used in public schools in 11 states, they would probably celebrate that fact. That they did not should encourage skepticism.  ↩

  3. Neither set of zealots—self-styled skeptics or devout believers—has a monopoly on righteousness.  ↩

  4. I say misleading because it does’t give say anything about scientists embracing the liberal arts.  ↩

Weekly Roundup: On Copernicus and Historical Expertise

This week’s roundup of posts and articles focuses on Copernicus and historical expertise.[1]

Copernicus, the father of the Gold Standard:
While Newton appears frequently in banking and management articles, Copernicus hasn’t enjoyed his day in the financial limelight, until lately. Coperncius is making the rounds lately in the financial papers and blogs, mainly amongst those arguing for a return to a gold standard. Last month Jonathan Decker kicked things off with a post at Forbes, “Nicolas Copernicus Was More Than A Scientific Icon.” Then Ralph Benko followed up with a comparison between Keynes and Copernicus, “Keynes and Copernicus: The Debasement of Money Overthrows The Social Order and Government.” Last week, Nathan Lewis wrote a post for Forbes, “42 Year Into Our Funny Money Experiment…,” which was reposted. All three versions of Copernicus’s treatise on money are available online: Copernicus’s Writings about Money.

Copernicus, a proponent of Intelligent Design:
An Intelligent Design site caught the Copernicus bug in “Copernicus: How much of what you know …,” apparently prompted by a Scientific American post, “The Case against Copernicus” (cf. Michael Shermer and another ID site).

Copernicus, the first string theorist:[2]
What does Copernicus have to say about String Theory uses a realist Copernicus against an instrumentalist Ptolemy—Copernicus explained retrograde motion whereas Ptolemy did not—to justify treating string theory as a science as opposed to mere mathematics.

These uses and abuses of Copernicus for the present (to paraphrase Nietzsche) are just the latest examples of the somebody invoking the authority of the past in a current argument. History seems particularly susceptible to the incursions by non-historians (a fate it seems to share with writing).

Historiann pointed out the interview with Eric Foner at The Atlantic: “You Have to Know History to Actually Teach It.” In her post, Effective history teaching: passion and deep knowledge (and stay classy!), Historiann draws attention to the common denial of historical expertise. She quotes Foner and adds:

You have to know something about science and math to teach them effectively, and that professional training is recognized not just as a nice thing for teachers to have but as a necessity by the principals, superintendents, and school boards who staff our secondary schools. History expertise? Not so much.

Recently, Suzannah Lipscomb has argued for the value of the historian’s expertise particularly in policy debates, an expertise that comes from the specific and rigorous training that historians receive: Practice Makes Perfect. I have worried about the erosion (or more often the denial) of historical expertise a number of times.


  1. Each Monday morning I will post a short note of links to recent articles and posts that I found interesting with some brief commentary.  ↩

  2. Okay, not really but the post’s title seems to imply it.  ↩

Reading Gillispie’s Edge of Objectivity

Two copies of Charles Gillispie’s The Edge of Objectivity stand side-by-side on a shelf, one previously belonged to Ernan McMullin the other to the retired historian of science. I have read neither copy.

Ernan had received the book to review for a journal. He wasn’t entirely convinced by Charles Gillispie’s The Edge of Objectivity. In the margins of his copy are numerous worries, often expressed as single-word questions such as “evidence?” With some regularity Ernan judged passages “sloppy.”

Ernan McMullin wasn’t entirely satisfied with his review copy of Gillispie’s Edge of Objectivity
Ernan McMullin wasn’t entirely satisfied with his review copy of Gillispie’s Edge of Objectivity

Ernan’s marginal critique pales in comparison to the detailed and somewhat schizophrenic praise-condemnation that spills across the margins of the other copy.

The retired historian of science consumed his books, explicitly contrasting passages in different books, evaluating and correcting other passages, and liberally underlining in various colors. When in 1961 he turned his attention to Gillispie’s book, he spared no effort. Like Ernan, he found a number of passages “confusing” and “obscure.” “Phooey” appears regularly in the margins. At one point he thought Gillispie’s discussion was “MISLEADING!” and in other place it was “Pure B.S.”

On page 89 he disagreed with Gillispie’s characterization of Descartes, and invoked E. J. Dijksterhuis’s recently published The Mechanization of the World Picture (1961) to illustrate Gillispie’s mistake:

G. has not accurately represented D: Cf. Dijks., p. 416. What D. really does is this (in effect)

He then reproduces the diagram from Dijksterhuis’s book illustrating the law of refraction. At times he even added explanatory notes to his own marginal notes.

His marginal notes occasionally leave traces of him learning new expressions, as on page 460 where he has put an asterisk next to the word “Scylla” and added in the bottom margin:

*“bet. S. & C.”—an idiom. S.: a dangerous rock on It’n side of Messina Strait; C: whirlpool on the other

He was constantly unhappy with Gillispie’s term “objective science.” At one point he ranted in the margin: “What the hell he means by this broken record we’s all give much to know.”

“Objective science” was a particularly troublesome term.
“Objective science” was a particularly troublesome term.

Whatever his problems with Gillispie’s book, it didn’t stop him from reading it carefully and compiling his own “Annotated Table of Contents,” which he glued into the book directly in front of the printed table of contents.

The annotated table of contents was glued into the book, just in front of the table of contents.
The annotated table of contents was glued into the book, just in front of the table of contents.

In the end, he seemed to both like and despise Gillispie’s The Edge of Objectivity. He scrawled his thoughts across the title page:

Although beautifully written, perhaps too clever and poetic.
Although beautifully written, perhaps too clever and poetic.

Its style is lush to the point of distracting—all too cleaver [sic], all to [sic] poetic—for a text, at least.
Dates given sporadically only
Up to p. 35 (so far) I have the impression that he is not really seriously trying to explain what’s going on, only scintillates. He doesn’t explain, he drops charming hints
One of the main difficulties w/ this, as a text, is that the instr. must strive to justify gill., even w/o saying so to the class.
But it bristle’s [sic] with provocative insights.
It is an interpretative commentary—not an expository work—in style much like de. S’s Origin.
But it is elegant in places, and not just Roccoco [sic].
Cf. e.g. p.49
Elegant but uninformative
Chap. II, III, IV are quite good
Chap. V is potentially good, & good for the specialist, but pompous again.
Chap. VI is hopeless again. Here is a difficult subject presented by innuendo, as if to someone already well-versed in it.
Chap. VIII is his best so far, and is superb, though his judgement on biological romanticism—Lamarckianism, seems unduly harsh.
Chap. IX Energetics [& Entropy] is the best I can recall

I can’t help but admire his exhaustive and at times exhausting digestion of a text.