The mythology of science is just as valuable as the actual discoveries?

Votes are in for this one and I’m aware that it is also an ambiguous statement. My reason for asking it stems from the thought that we might be tempted to teach children anecdotes, reinforcing the popular myths littered in science, rather than focusing on the actual events and history of discoveries.

For instance, to quote Michael Stipe, “Newton got beaned by the apple good.” But is it true? We all expect to be true the story that Newton being hit on the head by a falling apple led to the recognition of the mechanisms of gravity. It’s what we were taught when we were little and we likely still believe it to be true. It seems that our trust was misplaced in this fact. Newton only started telling this story many years after the alledged event and just before his death. For longevity, it’s the sort myth Tolkien would have been proud of.

A couple from the field of psychology. One close to my heart is the experiment conducted by Solomon Asch who, according to most textbooks highlighted the incidence of conformity in a social setting. Indeed this was part of the focus in the ‘Greatest Smell’ experiment conducted at at the British Science Festival last year (see the earlier post). However, what is interesting is the data used by Asch himself in his report who focussed more on the independence of the participants rather than their conformity. Indeed only 5% fully conformed with the incorrect crowd compared with 25% of participants remaining completely independent, responding as they felt was correct. It is the manner in which it is reported in popular textbooks that have contributed to the myth rather than the facts of this science.

The story of Kitty Genovese is also popular in demonstrating the ‘bystander effect’ where 38 witnesses to her murder allegedly failed to act in preventing her murder, each believing it somebody else’s role to intervene. Ironic that when it can to the murder trial, only one person of three interviewed witnesses could possibly have seen the final murder, happening as it did, actually inside the apartment block. Plus, one witness called the police, while another scared off the attacker during his first attack. This truth is obviously not as convenient as the myth and so I’ll let you guess which one predominates in psychology textbooks.

In these two latter incidences, the myth does not help anyone. It is the product of either bad science or misinterpretation to suit different ends. Yes we may be able to replicate such studies as Asch’s conformity experiment, but this does not really help us to recognise the more important aspects of the research. Incorrect examples almost have to be beaten out of undergraduates during the first years of their degree. Are we still believing in Santa? It’s probably easier to dispel this myth.

Which leads to the first example used here. In the case of Newton, it may seem harmless to perpetuate the myth. it is one of the first examples of inspirational science we are presented with as children. It is a simple and beautifully inspirational story to demonstrate the principle. Likewise, shall we talk about Archimedes and the bath? Good simple stories that are beautiful illustrations of the discoveries in their own rights. The critical point for me is whether the myth taints the science, leading us to assumptions and misinterpretation, neither of which are products of good science.

So it’s a difficult one to call. There is no right or wrong. Which is probably why there was a unanimously ‘uncertain’ vote in this poll. I’d still welcome comments on this though.