Historical Myths About Science

Scientists think they’re too objective to believe in something as folklore-ish as a myth. (Nicholas Spitzer)

The idea that being scientific simply means being irreligious is a particularly naive one. It has caused a lot of confusion and will get us nowhere.

(Mary Midgley, Science as Salvation: A Modern Myth and its Meaning)

Until about the 1970’s, the dominant narrative in the history of science had long been that of science triumphant, and science at war with religion. But a new generation of historians both of science and of the church began to examine episodes in the history of science and religion through the values and knowledge of the actors themselves. Now Ronald Numbers has recruited the leading scholars in this new history of science to puncture the myths, from Galileo’s incarceration to Darwin’s deathbed conversion to Einstein’s belief in a personal God who “didn’t play dice with the universe.” The picture of science and religion at each other’s throats persists in mainstream media and scholarly journals, but each chapter in Galileo Goes to Jail shows how much we have to gain by seeing beyond the myths. (Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, edited by Ronald L. Numbers, Harvard University Press, 2010)

galileo goes to jail

  • Myth 1. That the Rise of Christianity Was Responsible for the Demise of Ancient Science [David C. Lindberg]
  • Myth 2. That the Medieval Christian Church Suppressed the Growth of Science [Michael H. Shank]
  • Myth 3. That Medieval Christians Taught That the Earth Was Flat [Lesley B. Cormack]
  • Myth 4. That Medieval Islamic Culture Was Inhospitable to Science [S. Nomanul Haq]
  • Myth 5. That the Medieval Church Prohibited Human Dissection [Katharine Park]
  • Myth 6. That the Copernican System Demoted Humans from the Center of the Cosmos [Dennis R. Danielson]
  • Myth 7. That Giordano Bruno Was the First Martyr of Modern Science [Jole Shackelford]
  • Myth 8. That Galileo Was Imprisoned and Tortured for Advocating Copernicanism [Maurice A. Finocchiaro]
  • Myth 9. That Christianity Gave Birth to Modern Science [Noah Efron]
  • Myth 10. That the Scientific Revolution Liberated Science from Religion [Margaret J. Osler]
  • Myth 11. That Catholics Did Not Contribute to the Scientific Revolution [Lawrence Principe]
  • Myth 12. That René Descartes Originated the Mind-Body Distinction [Peter Harrison]
  • Myth 13. That Isaac Newton’s Mechanistic Cosmology Eliminated the Need for God [Edward Davis]
  • Myth 14. That the Church Denounced Anesthesia in Childbirth on Biblical Grounds [Rennie B. Schoepflin]
  • Myth 15. That the Theory of Organic Evolution Is Based on Circular Reasoning [Nicolaas A. Rupke]
  • Myth 16. That Evolution Destroyed Charles Darwin’s Faith in Christianity—until He Reconverted on His Deathbed [James Moore]
  • Myth 17. That Huxley Defeated Wilberforce in Their Debate over Evolution and Religion [David N. Livingstone]
  • Myth 18. That Darwin Destroyed Natural Theology [Jon H. Roberts]
  • Myth 19. That Darwin and Haeckel Were Complicit in Nazi Biology [Robert J. Richards]
  • Myth 20. That the Scopes Trial Ended in Defeat for Antievolutionism [Edward J. Larson]
  • Myth 21. That Einstein Believed in a Personal God [Matthew Stanley]
  • Myth 22. That Quantum Physics Demonstrated the Doctrine of Free Will [Daniel P. Thurs]
  • Myth 23. That “Intelligent Design” Represents a Scientific Challenge to Evolution [Michael Ruse]
  • Myth 24. That Creationism Is a Uniquely American Phenomenon [Ronald L. Numbers]
  • Myth 25. That Modern Science Has Secularized Western Culture [John Hedley Brooke]

Newton's apple

A falling apple inspired Isaac Newton’s insight into the law of gravity—or so the story goes. Is it true? Perhaps not. But the more intriguing question is why such stories endure as explanations of how science happens. Newton’s Apple and Other Myths about Science brushes away popular misconceptions to provide a clearer picture of great scientific breakthroughs from ancient times to the present.

Among the myths refuted in this volume is the idea that no science was done in the Dark Ages, that alchemy and astrology were purely superstitious pursuits, that fear of public reaction alone led Darwin to delay publishing his theory of evolution, and that Gregor Mendel was far ahead of his time as a pioneer of genetics. Several twentieth-century myths about particle physics, Einstein’s theory of relativity, and more are discredited here as well. In addition, a number of broad generalizations about science go under the microscope of history: the notion that religion impeded science, that scientists typically adhere to a codified “scientific method,” and that a bright line can be drawn between legitimate science and pseudo-science. (Newton’s Apple and Other Myths about Science, edited by Ronald Numbers and Kostas Kampourakis, Harvard University Press, 2015)

  • I. Medieval and Early Modern Science
    • Myth 1. That There Was No Scientific Activity between Greek Antiquity and the Scientific Revolution [Michael H. Shank]
    • Myth 2. That before Columbus, Geographers and Other Educated People Thought the Earth Was Flat [Lesley B. Cormack]
    • Myth 3. That the Copernican Revolution Demoted the Status of the Earth [Michael N. Keas]
    • Myth 4. That Alchemy and Astrology Were Superstitious Pursuits That Did Not Contribute to Science and Scientific Understanding [Lawrence M. Principe]
    • Myth 5. That Galileo Publicly Refuted Aristotle’s Conclusions about Motion by Repeated Experiments Made from the Campanile of Pisa [John L. Heilbron]
    • Myth 6. That the Apple Fell and Newton Invented the Law of Gravity, Thus Removing God from the Cosmos [Patricia Fara]
  • II. Nineteenth Century
    • Myth 7. That Friedrich Wöhler’s Synthesis of Urea in 1828 Destroyed Vitalism and Gave Rise to Organic Chemistry [Peter J. Ramberg]
    • Myth 8. That William Paley Raised Scientific Questions about Biological Origins That Were Eventually Answered by Charles Darwin [Adam R. Shapiro]
    • Myth 9. That Nineteenth-Century Geologists Were Divided into Opposing Camps of Catastrophists and Uniformitarians [Julie Newell]
    • Myth 10. That Lamarckian Evolution Relied Largely on Use and Disuse and That Darwin Rejected Lamarckian Mechanisms [Richard W. Burkhardt Jr.]
    • Myth 11. That Darwin Worked on His Theory in Secret for Twenty Years, His Fears Causing Him to Delay Publication [Robert J. Richards]
    • Myth 12. That Wallace’s and Darwin’s Explanations of Evolution Were Virtually the Same [Michael Ruse]
    • Myth 13. That Darwinian Natural Selection Has Been “the Only Game in Town” [Nicolaas Rupke]
    • Myth 14. That after Darwin (1871), Sexual Selection Was Largely Ignored until Robert Trivers (1972) Resurrected the Theory [Erika Lorraine Milam]
    • Myth 15. That Louis Pasteur Disproved Spontaneous Generation on the Basis of Scientific Objectivity [Garland E. Allen]
    • Myth 16. That Gregor Mendel Was a Lonely Pioneer of Genetics, Being Ahead of His Time [Kostas Kampourakis]
    • Myth 17. That Social Darwinism Has Had a Profound Influence on Social Thought and Policy, Especially in the United States of America [Ronald L. Numbers]
  • III. Twentieth Century
    • Myth 18. That the Michelson-Morley Experiment Paved the Way for the Special Theory of Relativity [Theodore Arabatzis and Kostas Gavroglu]
    • Myth 19. That the Millikan Oil-Drop Experiment Was Simple and Straightforward [Mansoor Niaz]
    • Myth 20. That Neo-Darwinism Defines Evolution as Random Mutation Plus Natural Selection [David J. Depew]
    • Myth 21. That Melanism in Peppered Moths Is Not a Genuine Example of Evolution by Natural Selection [David W. Rudge]
    • Myth 22. That Linus Pauling’s Discovery of the Molecular Basis of Sickle-Cell Anemia Revolutionized Medical Practice [Bruno J. Strasser]
    • Myth 23. That the Soviet Launch of Sputnik Caused the Revamping of American Science Education [John L. Rudolph]
  • IV. Generalizations
    • Myth 24. That Religion Has Typically Impeded the Progress of Science [Peter Harrison]
    • Myth 25. That Science Has Been Largely a Solitary Enterprise [Kathryn M. Olesko]
    • Myth 26. That the Scientific Method Accurately Reflects What Scientists Actually Do [Daniel P. Thurs]
    • Myth 27. That a Clear Line of Demarcation Has Separated Science from Pseudoscience [Michael D. Gordin]

 

 

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