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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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As stories are shaped to heighten their apparent informativeness, certain types of details will tend to be lost. The particulars of the discovery—details of time, place and culture, contingencies of personality, biographical background, coincident meetings, etc.—become secondary. For example, the myths highlight “positive” contributions. Errors or “failures” are eclipsed. Mendel’s 15 “confusing” pea traits are forgotten. Harvey’s microcosm analogy is discounted. The story about Semmelweis frequently omits all the possibilities that he first considered, then (critically) ruled out. All these details seem to drag down the plot. In a good story, the pace is exhilarating. As a result, stories tend to preserve just the elements needed to justify the outcome narratively. Indeed, this might seem appropriate if one intends the history as a lesson in the nature of science.

The stories of science thereby become idealized and universalized, in accord with their monumental status (above). Although the achievement of any given mythic scientist is singular, their methods are cast as transcending their particular occurrences (Milne, 1998, pp.

178–179). They illustrate a method of science, writ large. Here, the details or contingencies cannot be too important, lest they subvert the general lesson. Consequently, the idealized narratives foster the conventional school philosophy of a scientific method, in the sense of an algorithm guaranteed to find the truth. Bauer (1992) profiled well many deficits in the standard account of “the scientific method.” He even labeled it a “myth.” Yet Bauer did not consider the role of narratives. In my view, the persistence of perceptions of an algorithmic scientific method is strongly linked to the attractiveness of the myths that sustain it. By myths, of course, I mean the narratives of science in which it is inscribed. Telling these stories surely perpetuates the mythic method by embodying it. But I suggest further that the storytelling tendencies may themselves be a source of the problem. In my view, educators should reconsider the power and impact of these narratives.

SCIENTIFIC MYTH-CONCEPTIONS 345 The power of the idealization in narrative is especially evident in the various errors it generates. While the stories are all about history—events that happened—they sometimes drift into stories of what “should” have happened. Witness Harvey’s imagined prediction of capillaries. Or Mendel’s Second Law. Or Fleming’s posture on penicillin’s use for humans.

Sometimes, the desire for a cozy story may overtake the historical facts. Simplification may seem inevitable in education. Simple concepts, even if flawed by overgeneralization, seem essential foundations. However, this leaves educators with the additional responsibility of articulating how such simple concepts can “lie” (Allchin, 2001a).

While method is unquestionably important in science, the mythic structure oversimplifies the process. It seems flawless. When coupled with the monumental scale, it overstates the guarantee on the claims it generates. With no place for error, except as pathology, the process appears more efficient than it actually is. In failing to understand the work of scientists, people sometimes expect too much of science. Like Wells (Case 2) perhaps, they can feel betrayed when science does not perform according to the idealized account.

Recently, several individuals have sued scientists for making mistakes (Steinbach, 1998).

What fostered such a stark frame of mind that expects science never to err? Did textbook accounts of famous discoveries help shape their thinking? Virtually all the recent calls to promote “scientific literacy” appeal to the role of science in social decision-making. Most such issues are quite complex. They often deal with scientific uncertainty and incomplete and/or conflicting results (Anand, 2002). Yet partisans of a particular view appeal to science in simplistic black-and-white terms (nicely profiled in Martin’s account of the fluoridation controversy [Martin, 1991] and in Toumey’s analyses of creationism, cold fusion and HIVtesting [Toumey, 1996]). Their expectations seem to echo the idealized classroom-histories.

Again, there is opportunity for more research on how public sentiment about science is related to the implicit promise of scientific myths. In seeking to remedy misimpressions about science, as recommended in recent reforms, applications of history of science should be a solution, not a source of the problem.

Affective Drama A third element of the mythic architecture is literary techniques whose purpose is entertainment and persuasion. One may enhance a story’s power to engage and persuade with many rhetorical devices—that is, literary constructs or familiar plot patterns. They intensify images, heighten drama, and deepen the aesthetic response. They make a story more compelling, possibly even more persuasive or believable. Through their emotional effect, the stories become more memorable. I suspect, this is one reason why the culture perpetuates the myths even though they are false or misleading: simply because we remember them and enjoy telling and re-telling them (Milne, 1998, p. 177). But it is all in the literary craft: the style, the plot construction, relationships among characters, word choice, etc. Among these rhetorical devices—and I hope that this phrase enters the lexicon of science educators—one may list

• The thrill of the moment of discovery (the stereotypical light-bulb cartoon)

• Vindication

• The surprise of chance

• The reward of integrity (loyalty to evidence, resistance to social prejudice)

• Shame (for example, challenging an ultimately correct idea)

• Tragic irony Truth always triumphs, but typically only after dramatic conflict. The “aha!” phenomenon deserves special note. Nothing drives a discovery plot quite like a well framed “eureka!” 346 ALLCHIN For added effect, it comes in the wake of despair. Another very strong rhetorical device, epitomized in melodrama, is amplifying the good by contrasting it with the bad: hero versus adversary, scientist versus suppressor of the truth, Harvey versus Galen, Semmelweis versus his Austrian critics, Darwin versus Lamarck, Lavoisier versus the phlogistonists, Galileo versus the Church, and so on. I hope the concept of rhetorical devices becomes a standard and familiar element in educating teachers. Good teachers, I think, understand what elements make stories persuasive—and manage them responsibly in their own storytelling.

Explanatory and Justificatory Narrative The final element that makes these histories mythic is their explanatory role. They are not “just” stories of science. They are “just-so” stories of science. Like Kipling’s fables—“How the Leopard Got His Spots,” etc. (Kipling, 1902)—they explain a certain outcome through narrative. Every history—every story—has an implicit “lesson,” or moral. Historical tales of science implicitly model the scientific process by showing how a series of events leads to a certain result: in our cases, a renowned scientific finding. The narrative inherently couples process and product. As idealized accounts, most are rational reconstructions and serve to justify the authority of the scientific conclusion. Right method, right ideas. Wrong method, wrong ideas. The story of a discovery explains, narratively, the methods of science and, hence, the authority of science.

The architecture of scientific myths, then, ultimately serves a function of explaining and justifying the authority of science. The elements conspire together to collapse the nature of

science into an all too familiar just-so story of “How Science Finds the Truth”:

• Science unfolds by a special method, independent of contingencies, context, or values.

• All experiments are well designed and forestall any mistakes.

• Interpreting evidence is unproblematic, and yields yes-or-no answers.

• Achievement relies on privileged intellect. (Scientists are special, extraordinary people, whose authority is beyond question.)


• Science leads surely and inevitably (and uniquely) to the truth, without uncertainty or error. (Anything less abandons objectivity and reduces to relativism.) No one need critique these features yet again. They have also already been labeled as “myth” (Bauer, 1992). I wish to highlight, however, how they tend to derive legitimacy from the explanatory power of the narratives. Because of the monumental scale, the resulting authority is monolithic. Because of the idealization, simple method seems sufficient to account for all scientific achievement. Because of the rhetorical devices of affective drama, the features, however misleading, are immensely persuasive and emotionally commanding.

Myths of science also exhibit another important, related feature of classical mythology.

Traditional myths often explain natural phenomena—e.g. the movement of the sun, the seasons, the rainbow, etc.—through the actions of human-like gods. While appearing to interpret nature, the myths also, conversely, inscribe human behavior in nature. Thus, the myths function implicitly to legitimize certain actions or norms of human conduct by framing them as “natural.” In a similar way (especially clear in Harvey’s case), particular views of science benefit by being inscribed in history. The historical tale is not just an illustration.

It is a persuasive tactic. The author’s view of scientific norms seems to emerge naturally SCIENTIFIC MYTH-CONCEPTIONS 347 from the history. Here, the myth’s lessons derive status from the recognized value of historical scientific achievements. But the act of persuasion is not betrayed by any “arguments.” The story conceals the rhetorical work. The reader focused on the story sees the history and the norms as real causes. Unless trained, they rarely see the framework for composing the story. This is why histories are more potent cognitively than mere descriptions of sciences and its methods. The architecture is invisible. Sometimes even to the storytellers themselves.

Myths of science are myths, not just idle stories, because their architectures—the syndrome of elements including monumentalism, idealization, rhetorically crafted drama—are all designed to explain and buttress the unqualified authority of science.


In the Introduction section, I suggested that educators need to replace the types of history that students learn. It is the mythic “classroom histories” that mislead students. They distort the nature of science, even as they purport to show how science works (see Footnote 8).

They are pseudohistory of science (Allchin, 2001c). Like pseudoscience, they foster false beliefs about science—especially about the nature and limits of scientific authority. One might imagine that the only solution would be to purge science textbooks—and the culture at large—of all historical error. However, such a utopian goal is hardly necessary. Nor does every teacher need expert credentials in history at the outset—although educators might surely seek guidance from professional historians. Educators might begin with two simple strategies, profiled below. First is reflexivity. With just a few powerful analytic tools and a few good examples, one may recognize the rhetoric of myth for what it is. Second, teachers may profit from a small repertoire of discrepant myths: stories that break the conventions of mythic storytelling in science and may (like any anomaly) provoke rethinking and lead to deeper understanding.

First, then, we should equip teachers (and students) with the tools to recognize and deal with the misleading myths they will inevitably encounter. The cases above are examples.

In addition, teachers new to history may rely on a few brief maxims to help evaluate any history. For example (based on the analysis above): Suspect simplicity. Beware vignettes.

Embrace complexity and controversy. Discard romanticized images. Do not inflate genius.

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