Weekly Roundup: History of Science Videos & NSF Report

The History Channel Distorts History

A number of the videos at the History Channel’s “Enlightenment” page deal with the history of science—on Isaac Newton, the Scientific Revolution, and a series Beyond the Big Ban: Copernicus, Beyond the Big Ban: Galileo and Beyond the Big Ban: Newton. Some gesture to interesting points, e.g., the interaction between science and religion in the 16th and 17th centuries, but most repeat heroic tales and neat stories of discovery through flashes of brilliance. Unfortunately, the History Channel didn’t enlist the expertise of many historians and fewer historians of science (the eminent Owen Gingerich makes two cameo appearances). Scientists, however, are well represented. I wonder how different these videos would have been if they had consulted more scholars with expertise in the history of early modern science.

Newton the Genius

In Newton’s Apple: Science and the Value of a Good Story Ned Potter is right: telling a good story is more important, perhaps more important than being accurate. His comment about lists of great scientists underscores his point:

Search online for any list of history’s greatest scientists and you’ll find the same names: Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Marie Curie, Sigmund Freud, Louis Pasteur, and so on. The order may change, but the name on top will almost invariably be that of Isaac Newton.

We can argue over such lists — they’re mostly harmless fun — but we can agree that Newton earned his place there.

I don’t think such lists are “mostly harmless fun.” Such lists tell a good story and reinforce a particular image of science, one that misleads and distorts its history and development. They are built on the pillars of the lone genius waging war with the weapons of rationality, empiricism, and experiment to overcome church, benighted society, and ignorant political leaders. Potter’s own description of Newton conforms to this model. Newton alone, in his spare time, invented reflecting telescopes and calculus, and explained light and colors. Only as an aging genius, in his later years, Newton fiddled with alchemy and Biblical chronology.

He published his Principia Mathematica in 1687. In his spare time he designed the first reflecting telescope, laid the foundations for calculus, brought us the understanding of light and color, and in his later years – it would be disingenuous to leave this out – tried his hand at alchemy and assigning dates to events in the Bible.

Newton turns out not only to have been a genius in science but also in self promotion.

NSF, Astrology, and the Pig-Ignorant American Public

The release (or at least the summary of the release) of the latest NSF survey on attitudes about science and technology has prompted the standard handwringing and fretting. Of particular concern is the fact that 1 in 4 Americans Don’t Know Earth Orbits the Sun. Yes, Really, which echoes One in four Americans unaware that Earth circles Sun. The Telegraph jumped on the bandwagon with One in four Americans ‘do not know the Earth circles the Sun’ and The Space Reporter sprinkled a little history onto its summary of broadcast soundbites and published factoids, Study finds nearly 25 percent of Americans don’t know the Earth orbits the sun.

Another predictable worry is the “More than half of US millennials think astrology is a science,” repeated in Science News and Slashdot and then with some added commentary (and the standard ambiguities and imprecisions in terms like “horoscopes” and “astrology”) at Mother Jones. Richard Landers worries about possible design flaws in the NSF’s study: NSF Report Flawed; Americans Do Not Believe Astrology is Scientific.[1]

All this anxiety is part of a more general claim that Americans struggle with science, respect scientists, survey finds.

The NSF report generating all this incredibly repetitive and generally uncritical “news” is the most recent Science & Engineering Indicators 2014 – (NSF), a biennial report that “highlights some major developments in international and U.S. science and engineering.” The part of the report that has attracted the most attention is chapter seven and the various Appendix Tables (astrology that most resilient of science’s hobgoblins enjoys its own table, Appendix table 7–13). What if we look at chapter seven of the NSF report a different way?

Sure, on average, respondents answered only 65% of the “factual” questions correctly, but that percentage has been steadily increasing, up from 59% in 1992 (according to ‎Appendix table 7–8).

Respondents were asked the following questions about science (“Don’t know” responses and refusals to respond were counted as incorrect):

Physical science—

  1. The center of the Earth is very hot — 84% got this right.
  2. The continents on which we live have been moving their locations for millions of years and will continue to move in the future — 83% got this right.
  3. Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth? — 74% got this right.

    • 3a. How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun? (Asked only if the respondent answered correctly that the Earth goes around the Sun.) — 55% got this right.
  4. All radioactivity is man-made — 72% got this right.
  5. Electrons are smaller than atoms — 53% got this right.
  6. Lasers work by focusing sound waves — 47% got this right.
  7. The Universe began with a huge explosion — 39% got this right.

Biological science—

  1. It is the father’s gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl — 63% got this right.
  2. Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria — 51% got this right.
  3. Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals (a footnote indicates that only 1,152 of the 2,256 respondents were asked this question) — 48% got this right.[2]

Biologists should probably be worried that respondents seem to know less about biology than they do about the physical sciences.

The Appendix tables are full of other interesting information that has not attracted any attention while the media fixate on the astrology-loving geocentrist Americans. Apparently only 33% of respondents have a grasp on “scientific inquiry,” as demonstrated by their (in)ability to answer two probability questions and either a question about theory-testing or a question about why its better to use control groups in drug tests (see ‎Appendix table 7–11).[3] 70% of respondents claim not to know much about the causes of environmental pollution, according to another table. Another table indicates that males and females would be “happier” if their sons and daughters chose to be engineers rather than scientists.

Parental happiness about child’s career as
Scientist Engineer
Male Daughter Son Daughter Son
Male 81% 82% 86% 88%
Female 80% 79% 82% 83%

Engineers are, no doubt, “happy” to learn of this parental esteem.

Despite science purportedly being an international collaborative project, the NSF’s 2014 Science & Engineering Indicators digest of the report makes it a nationalist concern:

Many other nations, recognizing the economic and social benefits of such investment, have increased their R&D and education spending. These trends are by now well-established and will challenge the world leadership role of the United States [page 2].

This rhetoric recalls the debates recently last year in England about investing more in domestic R&D. Kieron Flanagan wrote a nice piece in The Guardian about the problems of framing debates about science and basic research in terms of national boundaries, Does the UK need to spend more on basic research?.


  1. Perhaps we should also worry about the term “scientific,” which is notoriously difficult to define.  ↩

  2. A subset of these questions was used in determining the trends in “factual knowledge” reported in Appendix table 7–8:  ↩

    • The center of the Earth is very hot.
    • All radioactivity is man-made.
    • It is the father’s gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl.
    • Lasers work by focusing sound waves.
    • Electrons are smaller than atoms.
    • Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria.
    • The continents on which we live have been moving their locations for millions of years and will continue to move in the future.
    • Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?
    • How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun?
  3. “Scientific inquiry” here could be applied to most rigorous, rational, evidence based activities.  ↩