Tag: Weekly Roundup

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.  ↩

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.  ↩