Tuesday, 14 July 2009

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.

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