Times Literary Supplement: Big flat lies

In Newton’s Apple and Other Myths about Science, twenty-eight academics refute some of the most pervasive myths about science.

Isaac Newton discovered gravity, when he sat in the orchard and an apple fell on his head, according to one of the most famous stories of scientific discovery. During his life, Newton told the apple anecdote four times, and it only became well known much later, in the nineteenth century. The notion that the apple fell on his head was in fact an embellishment introduced by Benjamin Disraeli’s father, Isaac D’Israeli, in the early nineteenth century.

In the mid-nineteenth century Oxford University Museum installed a statue of Newton as a schoolboy looking down at an apple, to inspire students. But this “stereotype of innate brilliance implicitly minimizes the role of systematic scholarship”, writes Patricia Fara in her chapter on Newton. The myth of the apple resembles “romanticized episodes of dramatic discovery”.

We hold dear notions of the unexpectedly inspired creator – Archimedes’s shout of “Eureka” from his bath, or James Watt’s childhood fascination with a boiling kettle. Fara argues that Newton worked methodologically his whole life. “Whatever insights Newton may have gained from contemplating a falling apple”, she writes, “another twenty years went by before he published his theory of gravity.”

In 2014, John Kerry likened climate change deniers to those who used to believe the Earth was flat. The assumption that before Columbus, geographers and other educated people thought that the world was flat is yet another enduring myth. In the Middle Ages only very few people believed the world to be flat, argues Leslie B. Cormack. As early as in antiquity, the Greeks, including Aristotle and Aristarchus of Samos, had based their geographical and astronomical work on the theory that the earth was a sphere. Likewise, Roman commentators such as Pliny the Elder agreed that the earth must be round.

Indeed, Aristotle’s proof of the earth as a sphere was used by many thinkers throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance. In The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri described the world as a sphere, with the Southern Hemisphere covered by a vast sea. Geoffrey Chaucer spoke of “This wyde world, which that men seye is round”. With a few exceptions, most thinkers interested in the shape of the earth “from the fall of Rome to the time of Columbus, articulated the theory that the earth was round”.

That there is a clear distinction between science and pseudo-science is another myth, taken on by Michael D. Gordin. One of the central tasks of science pedagogy is to teach students how to distinguish “real science” from that of impostors.

“Every student in public and private schools takes several years of science, but only a small fraction of them pursue careers in the sciences”, writes Gordin. “We teach the rest of them so much science so that they will apply some of those lessons in their lives. For such students, the myth of a bright line of demarcation is essential.”

The philosopher Karl Popper, aware that “science often errs, and that pseudo-science may happen to stumble on the truth”, concluded that “the criterion of the scientific status of a theory is its falsifiability, or refutability, or testability”.

But separating science from pseudoscience is “devilishly difficult” according to Gordin. For one, many of the theories we now consider wrong, such as ether physics, were at one point unquestionably part of science. This course of events implies that many of the scientific things we now consider to be correct will eventually be discarded.

This article was originally published in the Times Literary Supplement on 13 July 2016: http://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/private/big-flat-lies/

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