Early Scientists Chose Influence Over Credit

Last June I wrote:

If what you want is influence, instead of credit, the choice should be easy: you should want people to steal your ideas

A recent Nature illustrates

The popular caricature locates the origins of modern science in the natural philosophies of ancient Greece and the rediscovery of their spirit during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. It passes decorously over the intervening period, deemed to be a hotbed of superstition. In fact, the notion of a Universe governed by laws accessible to human reason – the precondition for science – emerged in Western Europe largely during the twelfth century, several hundred years earlier than we have come to imagine. …

One of the most active translators, the Englishman Adelard of Bath, was a startlingly original and perceptive thinker. Rueing how difficult it was to get his ideas accepted, he wrote: "Our generation … refuses to accept anything that seems to come from the moderns. Thus when I have a new idea, if I wish to publish it I attribute it to someone else." This is why so many of the works of natural philosophy from antiquity to the Renaissance have apocryphal attribution: a book apparently by Pliny or Aristotle was more likely to be read. The progressive thinkers of the early Middle Ages hid their new wine in old flasks, so that others would take them seriously.

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  • hm, looks like abelard of bath did translations of works that wouldn’t have been well known, i don’t think, to european audiences. he seemed uniquely situated to pass off his ideas as someone else’s. nowadays, maybe the opporunities might come for scientists in claiming that some dead scientist they knew who was influential said this or that privately, when in fact he didn’t, and the idea is actually the living scientist’s.

  • George Weinberg

    “People will treat your ideas with more respect if you tell them Ben Franklin said it first” –Mark Twain

  • Peter St. Onge

    There seems an ever-present trade-off between bolstering one’s authority and claiming credit. Some modern examples would be the practice of less prestigious academics inviting a star to “co-author,” or the phenomenon of ghost-writing (seemingly prevalant in low-innovation fiction), or the practice of intellectual activists to create fictitious precedents for their utopian ideals (ie “noble savage”).

  • Peter St. Onge

    sorry, meant low-innovation NON-fiction eg autobiographies which don’t use novel literary techniques.

  • I think it’s also true in low-innovation fiction, as in the famous case of Kaavya Viswanathan’s “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got In, and Got a Life” or whatever that case was. I believe the practice of ghost writing (or something much like it) is also popular in long book series in romance, westerns, mystery, and young adult/children’s literature. I believe at least some Robert Ludlum novels were written after he died, by other authors, though I can’t remember if that’s the right name or not.