Skip to main content

The importance of historical context

I've just reviewed a book with the catchy title The Selfish Genius by Fern Elsdon-Baker. (The book's name is a play on Richard Dawkins' most famous book, The Selfish Gene - Elsdon-Baker makes it clear she considers him neither selfish nor a genius.)

The book neatly exposes the limitations of Dawkins' particular version of evolution and the negative effect his attacks on other people's beliefs has on science communication. (For another review of the book, and an example of how Dawkins' fanatical followers are rather like religious fundamentalists in the comments it received, see Dawkins' website.)

Now, generally speaking, I rather like the book - but it does at one point forget the importance of historical context, even though context is essential if you are to understand science. To be fair, the error seems to be Wittgenstein's as much as Elsdon-Baker's.

She is describing the way a sudden change of view in science (the process that Kuhn gave that really irritating label, a paradigm shift) involves a transformation in the way of looking at things, not necessarily a huge change in the underlying data:

A famous anecdote about Wittgenstein illustrates this quite well. Wittgenstein apparently once asked one of his students why people would ever have thought the sun went round the earth, rather than the other way around. The pupil reportedly answered 'Because it look as if the sun goes round the earth,' to which Wittgenstein posed the question 'And how would it look if the earth went around the sun?' Of course the answer is that it would look exactly the same.

No it wouldn't. This totally misunderstands the situation. The student was right. But the reason that early civilizations thought the sun went around the earth was because of the earth's rotation, not because of its movement around its orbit. They thought the sun went around the earth once a day. Later on, as early science developed and it become obvious there was a more subtle motion that could equally have been interpreted as the earth going around the sun or the sun around the earth, the mindset was already there from that early model that the earth was fixed and the sun moved around.

With that context, there's no 'of course' about it. Context might not be everything, but it helps a lot.


Popular posts from this blog

Is 5x3 the same as 3x5?

The Internet has gone mildly bonkers over a child in America who was marked down in a test because when asked to work out 5x3 by repeated addition he/she used 5+5+5 instead of 3+3+3+3+3. Those who support the teacher say that 5x3 means 'five lots of 3' where the complainants say that 'times' is commutative (reversible) so the distinction is meaningless as 5x3 and 3x5 are indistinguishable. It's certainly true that not all mathematical operations are commutative. I think we are all comfortable that 5-3 is not the same as 3-5.  However. This not true of multiplication (of numbers). And so if there is to be any distinction, it has to be in the use of English to interpret the 'x' sign. Unfortunately, even here there is no logical way of coming up with a definitive answer. I suspect most primary school teachers would expands 'times' as 'lots of' as mentioned above. So we get 5 x 3 as '5 lots of 3'. Unfortunately that only wor

Why I hate opera

If I'm honest, the title of this post is an exaggeration to make a point. I don't really hate opera. There are a couple of operas - notably Monteverdi's Incoranazione di Poppea and Purcell's Dido & Aeneas - that I quite like. But what I do find truly sickening is the reverence with which opera is treated, as if it were some particularly great art form. Nowhere was this more obvious than in ITV's recent gut-wrenchingly awful series Pop Star to Opera Star , where the likes of Alan Tichmarsh treated the real opera singers as if they were fragile pieces on Antiques Roadshow, and the music as if it were a gift of the gods. In my opinion - and I know not everyone agrees - opera is: Mediocre music Melodramatic plots Amateurishly hammy acting A forced and unpleasant singing style Ridiculously over-supported by public funds I won't even bother to go into any detail on the plots and the acting - this is just self-evident. But the other aspects need some ex

Which idiot came up with percentage-based gradient signs

Rant warning: the contents of this post could sound like something produced by UKIP. I wish to make it clear that I do not in any way support or endorse that political party. In fact it gives me the creeps. Once upon a time, the signs for a steep hill on British roads displayed the gradient in a simple, easy-to-understand form. If the hill went up, say, one yard for every three yards forward it said '1 in 3'. Then some bureaucrat came along and decided that it would be a good idea to state the slope as a percentage. So now the sign for (say) a 1 in 10 slope says 10% (I think). That 'I think' is because the percentage-based slope is so unnatural. There are two ways we conventionally measure slopes. Either on X/Y coordiates (as in 1 in 4) or using degrees - say at a 15° angle. We don't measure them in percentages. It's easy to visualize a 1 in 3 slope, or a 30 degree angle. Much less obvious what a 33.333 recurring percent slope is. And what's a 100% slope