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«Scientific Myth-Conceptions DOUGLAS ALLCHIN Minnesota Center for the Philosophy of Science and Program in History of Science and Technology, ...»

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Errors pervade Lawson’s brief two-page treatment of history. But the errors themselves are not as important as the source of the errors. Harvey is repeatedly shoehorned into a particular method of scientific reasoning for rhetorical purposes. When one delves into history to prove a point, rather than to “listen” to what it has to say, one can easily err.

Historians talk about respecting history—that is, regarding history (ethically) as an end, not an instrumental means towards some other goal. Historians ideally endeavor (intellectually) to find and decipher the details and complexities of historical context, and not just remap their own views onto the past. In Lawson’s account one finds the persuasive elements of the monumentalized Harvey and the historical errors intimately coupled. Mythic grandeur and misconception arise together. That is what constitutes a myth-conception.


Ultimately, historical reconstructions of scientific discovery—whether of Mendel, Fleming, Kettlewell, Semmelweis, or Harvey—designed to fit certain narrative patterns are the source of myth-conceptions in science. While the cases I’ve recounted are all biological, I trust that they are so familiar that even nonbiologists can recognize them and appreciate the analysis. One can equally find these trends in stories of Antoine Lavoisier and oxygen, Alfred Wegener and continental drift, Galileo and his advocacy of Copernicanism, or Isaac Newton and his optics. All narratives of science and of scientists risk drifting into myth. Teachers need to be mindful to respect history. In the spirit of recent reforms 342 ALLCHIN in science education, educators need to jettison mythic history if they want to portray the nature of science faithfully.8 In profiling the historical misperceptions in the five case-myths above, I do not mean to imply that every science teacher should be a professional historian. My primary concern here is not historical accuracy per se, but the mythic style.9 The lesson is not in the details of each history, but in their common narrative elements. Namely, what transforms plain stories into myths? Particulars aside, what features characterize this type of history? Can one generalize its internal structure? Teachers who understand the rhetorical dimension of stories, I hope, will be better able to regulate how their own storytelling affects students.

Here, then, my emphasis shifts from historical to literary, or rhetorical, analysis. What is the architecture of scientific myths? (See Footnote 1.) Monumentality First, all the scientists, as literary characters, are larger than life. They are heroic (Milne, 1998). Their personality exudes virtue. They exhibit no character flaws. For example, as scientists, they do not err. Also, as I have noted repeatedly, their achievements are inflated.

Discoveries that, historically, were gradual and distributed over several persons are concentrated in one person, and often in one momentous insight. Historians have long criticized hagiographies, idolizing biographies that willfully omit any trait deemed negative. But the cases here go beyond merely “sanitizing” history. They introduce historical error and transform human scientists into superhuman characters. The scientists thus share with their wholly fictional literary counterparts the traits of heroes, legends, and sometimes even gods.

Their monumental features serve a major function: to engage the reader.

For some, these mythic, superhuman characters function as role models that inspire students. Paradoxically, this seems to subvert the current goal of portraying science “as a human endeavor” (National Research Council, 1995, pp. 200 – 201, emphasis added; see also Rutherford & Ahlgren, 1990, pp. 9– 13). The situation is certainly more complex than when Brush (1974) famously suggested that history of science be rated “X” in the classroom.

Brush was concerned that students exposed to real, non-mythic scientists might not want to become scientists themselves. More recently, Brush (2002) has partly “recanted” and now considers some scientists, at least, to be good role models. But Brush has focused primarily on recruitment, and he has not addressed directly the topic of misrepresenting scientists or exaggerating their achievements. In any event, educational goals now address science for all students. Moreover, they incorporate history of science in roles other than as a vehicle for recruitment (National Research Council, 1995, pp. 2, 200 – 204; see also Rutherford & Ahlgren, 1990, pp. v–xi, 9 – 13, 135– 153). Still, the role of history—or mythic history—in providing role models may need to be addressed.

First, the assumption that role models must be universally positive has yet to be fully studied. Certainly, some anecdotal evidence suggests that some scientists have been inspired by such myths. But we do not know whether the mythic image alone was causally significant The phrase “nature of science” is ambiguous. It may be either descriptive or normative. That is, the educational objective may be to teach science as an idealized process or as it is practiced. There is a tension because, historically, science has not always realized the ideal. For my part, professional ethics seems to mandate that teachers portray (without endorsing) science as it is practiced in a real, human—even if imperfect—world. Teachers should also articulate the ideal “nature of science” and discuss how and why it may vary from the real.

Of course, I certainly hope that teachers endeavor to respect historical facts as much as scientific facts.

For example, many favorite classroom anecdotes of scientists are apocryphal. Here, I focus on what might cue the inexperienced teacher when to question such stories.

SCIENTIFIC MYTH-CONCEPTIONS 343 (such individuals may already have been oriented towards science for other reasons). We do not know if great, but less hyperbolic figures may serve the same role. Nor do we know whether the myths are significant across the entire population of scientists. Many, or even most, scientists may well be inspired by other factors. For example, other historical evidence (also anecdotal) indicates the importance of simple encouragement, even where no role model existed (for example, in the cases of some women and minorities). At the very least, educators need substantially better research on the causal relationship between mythic characters as role models and recruitment in science before asserting its importance.

Further, we do not know how many potential scientists are alienated by such myths. In what ways (that may now go unnoticed) do these mythic figures discourage students from pursuing science? They may be negative role models. That is, a student with a keen interest in science (but perhaps unproven ability) may infer that she or he cannot make a meaningful contribution, so why try? I have certainly encountered students who complain that “science is only for geniuses.” Research results on attitudes towards science and recruitment should certainly be interpreted in terms of different types of history (e.g., Martin & Brouwer, 1991).

Further, the assumption that heroes must be perfect to be role models may well be questioned.

Indeed, they are much more human and real—and more accessible to students, I contend—if educators acknowledge their flaws and limits as well as their triumphs (Milne, 1988, p. 184).

In addition, focusing exclusively on recruitment upstages questions of establishing “role models” in other contexts. That is, these mythic figures also generate expectations for how scientists should perform in society. They are role models of a very different kind.

How much is public sentiment towards science shaped by failure of scientists to meet the standards of the myth? How do the superhuman images of scientists shape public discourse on issues that are informed by science? Again, more research would be helpful. In any event, teachers ought not to confuse mere engagement with larger-than-life characters as personal inspiration. In summary, the importance of mythic scientists as role models in education is not clear.

One may, nonetheless, interpret their role within the mythic narratives themselves. Because it is not just the characters that are monumental. Everything is grand in scale. For example, Fleming did not just discover the antibacterial properties of some fungus. No, he “conquered some of mankind’s most ancient scourges” (Ho, 1999). Harvey did not discover circulation merely. Rather, he rescued us from a mistake that had persisted for 1500 years.

Kettlewell, by his own popular account (1959), discovered “Darwin’s missing evidence.” He thus apparently secured evolutionary theory from a century-long vulnerability. A single scientific study seems to have immense significance. All this has strong implications for the relationship between the storyteller and the hearer/reader. The storyteller feels more valued (and more powerful) by telling an important story. Likewise, the reader is impressed by its significance. The mutually favorable emotions seem to validate the story—and foster a similar story the next time.

Moreover, when cast in a grand scale, a story is more easily interpreted as representing all science. For Lawson, at least, this is explicit: Harvey’s reasoning should illustrate an important principle about science generally. These narratives of science, then, are “mythic” in proportion, both cognitively and affectively. Ultimately, this monumentalism amplifies the importance of the story—and whatever “moral” it contains.

Idealization A second architectural feature of myths in science is idealization. The case-histories exemplify phenomena about storytelling familiar to psychologists: sharpening and leveling (Gilovich, 1991, pp.


344 ALLCHIN What the speaker construes to be the gist of the message is emphasized or “sharpened,” whereas details thought to be less essential are de-emphasized or “leveled.” Qualifications are lost. Extremes emerge. What remains is a black-and-white image of science, rendered quite literally in the case of the peppered moths. The intermediate insularia moths are leveled. So, too, are the logistics of field tests. Meanwhile, the contrast between the Birmingham and Dorset woods is sharpened. So, too, is the clarity of the experimental control. In Semmelweis’s case, the intellectual and social contexts directly relevant to assessing his claims are not just leveled, but razed. Mendel’s and Harvey’s precursors are leveled, while the scientific heroes are sharpened. Sharpening and leveling for the sake of telling a “good story” easily leads to misleading oversimplification.

One particular consequence of simplified narratives is a streamlined plotline. The multiple lineages of thought and action that characterize a web of history (Figure 1) are reduced to a single timeline. Stories, like those about penicillin, are reduced to the “essentials” linking the past to the present. Fleming’s role becomes sharpened. Duchesne’s and others’ become leveled. Although many will acknowledge that science involves trial and error, stories of science rarely include blind alleys (except for dramatic effect). The resulting sequence of events, leading item by item to the discovery and then to its meaning to us today, is all too easily interpreted as inevitable. Historians have long criticized Whiggism: interpreting (or rewriting) history as leading to—and justifying—current states of affairs (Butterfield, 1959; Kuhn, 1970, pp. 136 – 143). Whiggism is conventionally construed as a political bias. Here I am suggesting, instead, that it may also be due to rhetorical bias. The storytelling tendency to sharpen and level leads to minimizing plotlines and excluding the alternatives. Hence, the narratives understate the uncertainty and mislead about the process as it moves forward. Teaching about the nature of science would suffer accordingly.

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