Beware Amateur Science History

In 1980 I took a cosmology class with Virginia Trimble at UC Irvine, and every time she would come to an effect that was named after someone, she would say "The X effect, because it was discovered earlier by Y," where X and Y were two different names.   Usually X was male and Y was female.   

When I studied history of science at the University of Chicago the following year I learned that Trimble was right; the usual histories of science by scientists, such as those found in the introduction of science articles, are usually only loosely tied to what historians find when they study things carefully.  They are like learning the history of cars from the Ford Motor Company, or the history of computers from Microsoft.   

Before a famous "discovery," often many others had "discovered" and tried to publicize very similar things.   Who became famous for the discovery was decide mostly by academic power, i.e., by who could make more people tell the story their way.

In July I came across a New Scientist opinion article (un-gated for now here) by Henry Nicholls where he gives more examples of persistent science myths, such as that Darwin thought of natural selection while visiting the Galapagos islands.   Oddly, Nicholls then concludes with this shoulder shrug:

Inaccurate histories of science are all around us. This leaves me with what may sound like a surprising question: does it matter? They persist because people are so keen to believe them, and because they fill a need for narrative. I doubt whether Harriet and Darwin will ever be separated, since the alternative version is not half as exciting and would have no chance of living on in the popular consciousness. Indeed, such myths might actually be something to encourage. Communicating a version of history is better than communicating no history at all.

Apparently one of the reasons we have so much false science history is that even science historians think that accurate history should take a back seat to encouraging public interest in science.

Addendum: When I ask my students for great innovators, they list Bill Gates, Henry Ford, and Thomas Jefferson instead of John McCarthy, Nicolaus Otto, and George Mason.  When I point out that these are mainly people with power associated with an innovation, they admit they are more interested in power than in the real innovators.   So here is another explanation.

More Addendum:  Apparently Stigler’s Conjecture is that credit goes to the second person to have discovered an idea. 

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  • http://profile.typekey.com/ericschliesser/ Eric Schliesser

    The reality is that on the whole, historians of science have very little influence on the self-understanding of science (and most scientists) or on the public perceptions of it. The former is actually an interesting phenomenon because if one did not know better, one would think that ‘science’ would ‘welcome’ a truthful account of itself.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/johnthacker/ John Thacker

    “When I ask my students for great innovators, they list Bill Gates, Henry Ford, and Thomas Jefferson instead of John McCarthy, Nicolaus Otto, and George Mason. When I point out that these are are mainly people with power associated with an innovation, they admit they are more interested in these people than in the real innovators.”

    Well, at the same time “the real innovators” can be difficult to discover. Certain inventions were a process of continual refinement and small breakthroughs by many different inventors. In the US we tend to credit Thomas Edison with the lightbulb, and in the UK they credit Joseph Swann (who was a couple of years before Edison with his design). Neither was at all the first with an incandescent lamp; both made important contributions to lightbulbs, especially in filament life. Before them, light bulbs were not really practical because of how fast they burnt out and the glass became dark. Swann’s first practical bulb was about eight years before Edison’s; on the other hand, Edison’s was clearly superior to Swann’s designs. Which one was good enough to be “practical?” That’s a tough question.

    We want to give prizes to “the real innovators” even when there was a slow process of many improvements; we believe it’s a spur to innovation and makes for a good story, even if not totally accurate.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Eric, yes, historians have little influence; by saying “even historians” I was saying even they show symptoms of a larger problem.

    John, yes it can be hard to assign detailed credit. But surely we could do better than to say Bill Gates invented computer software.

  • Bruce G Charlton

    The examples given strike me as minutiae – after all, do we really expect non-specialized people to have detailed accurate knowledge about all the many specialist areas of social life, of which science is only one.

    The public are perfectly correct that Darwin discovered natural selection as the mechanism of evolution – surely that is enough?

    Certainly it is much more sensible than the idea that all the main discoveries of cosmology (or any other branch of science – with the possible exception of primatology) were ‘really’ made by women. That one really _is_ a science myth.

    But the important policy imperative is not accurate history of science, but that more people should learn more science: I mean conceptual, systematic science knowledge…

    (where science is understood to include mathematics, natural sciences and other systematic subjects such as economics, political science, music theory etc).

  • http://www.mnuez.blogspot.com mnuez

    I entirely agree with you that we should get closer to the truth and that the truth DOES matter but I think it’s also important to realize that we’re just APPROACHING accuracy when we head off in search of the “true” innovator. For while the Wright brothers did indeed invent the first mechanized glider that flew on its own power (so far as has been verified, that is), it wasn’t really all that impressive that they did so. So much of the science and public mood was already heading there that it’s a near certainty that the aeroplane would have been invented within the next decade even had the Wright brothers remained bicycle repairmen (a more glamorous job in their day btw).

    And of course you know the same to be true regarding Darwin’s more important theories, the invention of the radio and similar inventions and innovations that “changed the world as we know it”. They were all simply the final step in a vast chain of innovations that spanned the millennia.

    So while I do indeed think that we ought to cut the marketers and their clients from the larger sidebars in the textbooks in favor of those who did more of the actual discovering, I think it’s misleading to think that a great many of even these more deserving folk were as indispensable to history as our worshiping minds would like to view them.

    Oh and great blog by the way. You guys rock.

    mnuez

  • http://profile.typekey.com/halfinney/ Hal Finney

    Even among professionals this happens. Particle physicists can’t wait to discover the Higgs boson, in fact the Large Hadron Collider is largely being built in hopes of its discovery. Verifying the existence of the Higgs boson and Higgs field will be a great triumph of the so-called Standard Model which has dominated physics for 30 years. But I was reading a popular physics book and it turns out that Higgs was not the first person to invent the theory that bears his name. He was preceded by a few months by two scientists from Brussels named Englert and Brout, who first came up with the idea of this field and the associated particle. However Higgs’ name became attached to it and now it is one of the most well known in the field.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Bruce, the claim is that there are enough previous “discoverers” that you can select a woman from the set, not that the first person in that set is a woman.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/johnthacker/ John Thacker

    “Bruce, the claim is that there are enough previous “discoverers” that you can select a woman from the set, not that the first person in that set is a woman.”

    In that case, I would suggest not quoting her as saying that “it was first discovered by Y,” that Y is usually a woman, and then saying that she was right.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/johnthacker/ John Thacker

    “But surely we could do better than to say Bill Gates invented computer software.”

    Could we? The glorification of individual inventors and entrepreneurs demands that someone be crowned as the first or original discoverer. I daresay that one could not fix the problem without overturning the entire heroic myth. I just wonder what sort of myth would replace it– the myth that it’s all best done by large committees of the “best and brightest” working out standards?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    John, I changed the wording per your suggestion.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/halfinney/ Hal Finney

    The “glorification of individual inventors and entrepreneurs” can be seen as a way for society to con its members into working harder than they should at creating new inventions and new businesses. Robin’s paper describes how over-optimistic and unrealistic people are who being such endeavors. Society arguably benefits from this excess of entrepreneurial activity even though it works to the detriment (on average) of those who spend their efforts on a usually futile quest for success.

    In economic terms we would say there is a positive externality from entrepreneurial and inventive efforts because people do not recover the full benefit to society of what they create. Successful societies take measures to encourage greater degrees of investment in these areas, and glorifying individual successes is one such method. Perhaps we could say the same thing about glorifying sports heroes, another area where many young lives are tragically wasted in view of the long odds against success.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Hal, in many contexts there is an under-incentive to innovate, and yes, celebrating innovators can help. But if what we really celebrate are people who grab credit for innovations, rather than the actual innovators, we may make things worse rather than better.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    When I hear “It doesn’t matter”, what I hear is that science isn’t about the people, it’s about their ideas. A la “William Shakespeare’s plays were not written by him, but by someone else of the same name.” If tomorrow we found out that all Isaac Newton’s discoveries were really made by his cleaning lady, how would the history of science change? The same ideas would have been proposed in the same historical order, argued for the same reasons, accepted based on the same experiments, and finally replaced by the same improvements. We would flap our lips differently and make different noises while describing the ideas; but what difference does that make?

    John: The problem is not that, contrary to heroic mythology, staid committees made the discoveries rather than wild-eyed lunatics. Rather, the problem is that multiple wild-eyed lunatics carefully built on each other’s work, or unknowingly duplicated each other’s work, and then only one of them was crowned Innovator – often the very last one, after nearly all the prior work was accomplished.

  • MCP2012

    “But if what we really celebrate are people who grab credit for innovations, rather than the actual innovators, we may make things worse rather than better.” (Robin) *Precisely*.

    “Rather, the problem is that multiple wild-eyed lunatics carefully built on each other’s work, or unknowingly duplicated each other’s work, and then only one of them was crowned Innovator – often the very last one, after nearly all the prior work was accomplished.” (Eliezer) Again, *precisely*.

    The proximate “answer” is to encourage more responsible science-journalism and science history. But how to so “incentivize” those science journalist and science historians? Aye, there’s the rub. But Robin’s pointing out the problem is a start. Surely, awareness precedes efforts at greater responsibility on the part of sci-tech journalists/historians. We may then be dependent (in the short run, anyway) upon their own moral psychology and professional ethic…

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Journalists are in a competitive industry giving their audience what it wants. So rather than blame the messenger and call for “responsible journalism” it makes more sense to blame the customers, and call for responsible citizens. People want powerful impressive heroes and journalists supply that.

  • MCP2012

    Fair enough, Robin. How/Why, though, do journalist (mis?)perceive that their customers want heros—even if this means distorting the *facts*. And aren’t jounralists themselve **citizens**, if not “first & foremost”, then (one would hope) co-primarily with being journalists? And as for responsible citizens, this is a product of proper education and “enculturation”. How do (should) we encourage improvements in primary and secondary education vis-a-vis responsible citizenship?! (Hint: The lamentably late Milton Friedman’s voucher idea(s) is a good place for radical reform to start…)

    GREAT (and very needed) blog, guys. I’m honored to comment here…keep up the good work…

  • http://pdf23ds.net pdf23ds

    MCP, journalists for for-profit publications (i.e. the mainstream ones) are primarily driven by profit considerations–if not directly, then by selection by management. Considerations of good citizenship have little power compared to considerations of profitability.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    MCP, I don’t think journalists misperceive their customers – customers may well want facts distorted to give them heroes. Education isn’t obviously different – schools give their customers what they want as well, and that may also include distorting facts to various ends. “We” are not in charge of education, so we don’t get to change it to our ends.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/ericschliesser/ Eric Schliesser

    This last exchange suggests that competition may not itself be a terrific discovery mechanism if the aim is overcoming bias. (There has always been an optimistic connection drawn between democracy, capitalism, and science by some Classical Liberals and Pragmatists.) It requires institutions that can re-direct our desires (or values) to this end. I take it that Robin’s work on betting markets acknowledges and exploits this.

  • MCP2012

    pdf23ds: True enough, but nonetheless a bit problematic, no? Which is to say that if profit-driven journalism (journalists) is going to give the masses what (it entrepreneurially surmises, at any rate, that) they want, what mechanism can we (try to) strengthen to get the “masses” or “consumers” to be more “responsible” and/or more “enlightened”. And—and here’s the Hayekian/Keynesian question—how will this new “enlightened” gaggle of of consumers communicate to the (still standard-operating, same ol’ same ol’) media organizations ***that*** there (intellectual?) preferences have changed? By incremental (marginal) selections over time, of course. Well, OK…but how long will that take, and how successful will it be? Granted, there will be a market-process selection filter, that will filter through entrepreneurial efforts to get the public what it wants, ***based on its [NEW, enlightened] marginal choices***, how do we (we???) kick-start that change in the consumer preferences in the first place? Aye, there’s the rub!! Can it be done…? To some extent perhaps. But we might need a little (coercive??) (meta)paternalistic bootstrapping (of whatever sort—you decide) to get the ball rolling. Or else it’ll take a generation via hopefully improved education/enlightenment starting with kids and adolescents.

    In other words, at least in the short-to-medium run, you have self-sustaining feedback loop: less-than-optimally enlightened/sophisticated consumers going-ahead and marginally selecting sub-optimal (epistemically-speaking) journalistic pap, which sends precisely the signal to the journalist to “keep on keepin’ on” with said sub-optimal pap. And unless the consumers (the ultimate, long-run *drivers* of the market process selection filter(s) , at least for Misesians [and, arguably within even the mainstream neoclassical models as well], **bootsrap** themselves to a higher level of “enlightenment” or “sophistication” AND **effectively communicate this to the journalists via marginal market transactions**, there is little reason to expect that “better”, “more accurate”, more “optimal” journalism/journalists **will *ever* tend to become selected-for—at least not in the short-to-medium run.

    So how do we “wake-up” the masses of consumers to actually prefer AND ” **effectively demand** ” better journalism (of whatever sort)? Can it (be made, coaxed, to) happen? Well, yeah, hopefully; but it takes time…and *coaxing*…

  • MCP2012

    Well-said, Eric. As much as I like and appreciate markets, robust and well-defined property rights, and market process selection-filters, they may indeed not be very good at helping to select-against biases. That said, like democracy, what better choice do we have? But as a neo-institutionalist (more-or-less), I’d still like to find ways to “tweak” social institutions/processes more effectively towrad less bias, etc. But how to do this genuinely effectively and minimize unintended consequences/side-effects is, of course, the problem (or one of ’em).

    Robin: Precisely my point as well. It’s Alphonse & Gaston meets Chicken (as in both game-theoretic Chicken, and Chicken-&-egg). Which is to say that the masses of consumers choose journalist pap because **that’s what’s offered**—but then **that’s what’s offered** because that’s what (keeps being) marginally-chosen in a self-reinforcing (perhaps even self-exaserbating, to some extent) feedback loop. Now, yes, that just may be “them primates” as it were, but there you have it, *that’s* the problem (if one chooses to see it as problem, and in terms of diminishing/minimizing biases of all sort, as well as fact/truth discovery-&-publication, surely it IS, at least to *some* extent). It can be overcome to some (perhaps fairly significant) extent in the medium-to-long run, primarily, I would surmise, through improved educational institutions…

    And, sure, Robin, educational institutions give consumers more-or-less what they want, but that is a bit oversimplified. James Buchanan and Tom Sowell, among others, have over the last several decades, discussed the perverse incentive structures of both “public” and “higher” education. I don’t claim to have a solution. But Robin, bless your heart, and with tremendous respect, you sometimes seem to be a bit too *de facto* panglossian re the status quo—so panglossian that even idealized Pareto-optimality, say, pales in comparison. Though, I grant, it *is* difficult to articulate a minimally-biased, globally-consenual (as it were) “Archimedian Point” from which to meaningfully and fairly critique the status quo (see Rawls and Rawlsian “industry” liturature, Dave Gauthier (and Buchanan for that matter) and all the liturature grown-up around his works, etc., etc.) with regard to *any* institution, process, distribution(s), etc.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    MCP, the obvious place for us to start is here, with ourselves. Let us take the logs out of our own eyes before we try to take the motes out of the eyes of others. Especially since those others haven’t exactly begged us for our help with their eye motes.

  • MCP2012

    Robin: Indeed, true enough…

  • John Thacker

    “The problem is not that, contrary to heroic mythology, staid committees made the discoveries rather than wild-eyed lunatics. Rather, the problem is that multiple wild-eyed lunatics carefully built on each other’s work, or unknowingly duplicated each other’s work, and then only one of them was crowned Innovator – often the very last one, after nearly all the prior work was accomplished.”

    Yes, all true and I agree. However, my answer to the question of “how it could be worse” is that I fear that the popular press, rather than getting the story right, would merely replace the current type of heroic myth with a new kind of myth, the one about committees.

    Of course it’s “wrong,” in some sense, to give all the credit to the one winner rather than the giants on whose shoulders he stood. But it’s no more particularly morally wrong than the first-mover or other winner-take-all advantages in a free-market system. I’m not sure how you can resolve those without taking away large amounts of incentive to improve things and invent. The historical story reflects the same “unfairness” as the economic results.

    “But if what we really celebrate are people who grab credit for innovations, rather than the actual innovators, we may make things worse rather than better.”

    Yes. But please don’t go too far in insulting those whose skills lie in business organization, marketing, implementation, or any of the other things that also help improve our lives. There is, I think, sometimes an urge to overpraise the “real inventors” (people who are absolutely very important) while ignoring that things like proper supply chain management and the ability to market, manufacture, distribute, and sell a product more efficiently have also brought dramatic gains in welfare.

  • John Thacker

    “When I point out that these are mainly people with power associated with an innovation, they admit they are more interested in power than in the real innovators.”

    But it’s not like Henry Ford in your example was a wealthy monopolist who already owned a successful company and forced Nicolaus Otto to yield his inventions or anything. He was a automobile designer who produced technical innovations in his car *in addition* to process improvements in large-scale assembly line mass production, marketing, and other business organizations. Your statement gives the misleading impression that these are mainly people who had power who “stole” an invention.

    Rather, the people listed are generally the *successful* people who took an invention, made improvements, and were able to successfully sell it to a mass audience and build a large company out of it. That adds value to life and affects people directly in a way that a discovery never marketed does not. Call it a bias towards engineers and away from scientists if you like, but there is a real reason behind the interest.

    Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Willis Carrier and others were inventors who also founded successful companies to market their inventions. Yes, the incremental improvements to inventions are very important, but it’s understandable that attention focuses on the first person to make something widely commercially practical. Just as understandable (if a bit unfortunate) is the nationalistic bias that causes people to credit the “most significant” advance necessary for an invention to a citizen of their own country.

  • Michael Sullivan

    “MCP, the obvious place for us to start is here, with ourselves. Let us take the logs out of our own eyes before we try to take the motes out of the eyes of others. Especially since those others haven’t exactly begged us for our help with their eye motes.”

    But their motes are SO much bigger!

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    John, I didn’t mean to imply that there are not real and important innovations, such as in engineering, business, and marketing, nearer to final applications. My point was just that if all the credit goes to those people, there will be too little incentive to do the other earlier innovation.

  • http://www.iSteve.com Steve Sailer

    As with Columbus and America, after Darwin discovered the theory of natural selection, it stayed discovered.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Not that this is an excuse, but…

    Robin, the problem is a widespread perception that the last innovator in a chain deserves an overlarge share of the credit. People who share this bias don’t *think* that anyone is getting shortchanged on credit – that’s the *problem*. So long as innovators share the same faulty perception, they will think that the incentive structure is working properly, and invest their time accordingly.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Eliezer, I don’t think that innovators do share as much of the the same faulty perception about who is doing what innovation.

  • TGGP

    Reminds me of Stigler’s Conjecture. George Stigler came up with it, but it was named after his son Stephen.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stigler%27s_conjecture

    My algorithms teacher states that algorithms are typically named after the last person to discover them, fitting with Steve Sailer’s statement and the idea that “It’s always in the last place you look, because after you find it you stop looking”.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    TGGP, I hadn’t seen Stigler’s Conjecture – thanks! See also this essay by Krugman on “Ricardo’s Difficult Idea” mentioned at http://worthwhile.typepad.com/worthwhile_canadian_initi/2006/11/the_intelligent.html

  • http://profile.typekey.com/bayesian/ Peter McCluskey

    A book which provides a good deal of evidence of these biases is Einstein’s Luck: The Truth behind Some of the Greatest Scientific Discoveries by John Waller. Most people on this blog would mainly find it useful as evidence to convince skeptics rather than to improve their understanding of biases.
    Eliezer asks: “If tomorrow we found out that all Isaac Newton’s discoveries were really made by his cleaning lady, how would the history of science change?”
    It would change what history says about the kind of personality that makes important discoveries (e.g. do they typically have Aspergers?). Which might affect, say, how we should go about identifying the person who will create the first AGI and thereby target arguments about AGI risks at him.
    Also, the difference between one hero and many incremental advances has some implications for the patent system, whose desirability is partly based on the assumption that the important inventors are typically identified.