Bias in the history of science

I am currently reading Retrying Galileo, 1633-1992 by Maurice A. Finocchiaro. This certainly provides some background to the current mythology about the Galileo affair (see The Galileo myths). Apparently Galileo’s trial never stopped with his sentencing in 1633 – he has been continually re-trialled ever since. So many myths, both anti-Galileo and anti-Church, have been promoted over the intervening years.

On the one hand this does show how susceptible history is to the confirmation bias of the individual historian. But it also provides plenty of “authentic” quote-mining material for the current Galileo mythologists.

Where is the sympathy for science?

What drives this common bias on such subjects? I naively expected that experts from other fields who make a living studying or commenting on science to be sympathetic with scientific processes and understanding of scientific method. Retrying Galileo shows this is not always the case.

We can see plenty of examples where such experts have been hostile to science. For example, the proponents of intelligent design (ID) had “philosophers of science” as expert witnesses at the Kitzmiller v Dover trial (see Intelligent design and scientific methodThese “philosophers of science” were effectively defending a perverted “theistic” science. Similar the “sociologist of science” Steve Fuller was an expert witness supporting ID. He has since written posts on the ID blog site Uncommon Design and authored a book defending ID – Science v. Religion? Intelligent Design and the Problem of Evolution.

When I realised that sociologists of science study and advise on science management and funding that had me worried. Mind you, perhaps it explains the phenomenon I noticed during my career – some of those managing our science were actually anti-science!

This tweet from historian of science James Hannam is another example that concerned me:

@DrJamesHannam: Could science come to regret claiming to have all the answers? It can cost you when you get it wrong. “

Now as the author of God’s Philosophers and The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution – how does Hannam make such a mistake? Who the hell claims science has all the answers – certainly not the practitioners of science. Nor should a respectable historian of science.

Back to the Galileo myths

Another example of confirmation bias is the attitude of Elaine Howard Ecklund, author of the book Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think (see Are scientists hostile to religion? for my review). She claimed many of the scientists she interviewed  gave the Galileo affair as “a central piece of their evidence that religion and science are in entrenched conflict.” But as she says – “Galileo was never tortured; that’s a myth.”

True – and I wonder how many scientists specifically claimed he was tortured. She does not quote a single example. (See The Galileo myths for my point that these sort of claims are themselves myths – no reputable history of science makes this claim today and I seriously suspect not many informed scientists do either). But Ecklund felt it necessary to expand on her assertion by presenting a lengthy quote from Koestler’s history of the affair in The Sleepwalkers. This is one of the anti-Galileo “histories.” In Retrying Galileo Finocchiaro claims that Koestler “disliked Galileo” and described Koestler’s history as a “popular libel against Galileo”. So her quote implied that Galileo did not deserve our current assessment of him as one of the great fathers of modern science. And made a number of straw man assertions aimed at discrediting Galileo – eg., “Galileo did not invent the telescope; nor the microscope; nor the thermometer; nor the pendulum clock . . and did not prove the truth of the Copernican system.”

In his book Sense and Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism, philosopher and historian of science Richard Carrier discusses methods of gaining knowledge at length. He points to problems that historians face in obtaining reliable knowledge but suggests they can usually do so by adopting specific historical methodologies.

I really like his warning to “recognize that almost any story can be an invention”:

“So the First Rule of Historical Method is: don’t believe everything you read. A believable history has to be constructed from several converging lines of evidence that have been critically and skillfully examined, and not every piece of evidence is equally trustworthy. Humans are notorious liars, eager exaggerators, and happy to believe almost anything they agree with. Skepticism is a virtue—but unfortunately a rare one, even rarer than honesty.”

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One response to “Bias in the history of science

  1. Pingback: Science and the “supernatural” | Open Parachute

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