Myths of scientific discovery

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Here it comes, Newton!

(Originally posted on Activating TOK) “The mythical stories we tell about our heroes are always more romantic and often more palatable than the truth. But in science, at least, they are destructive, in that they promote false conceptions of the evolution of scientific thought.” So writes Leonard Mlodinowmay in an article in the New York Times forwarded to me by my co-author and friend Lena Rotenberg.  It’s a good article for any TOK reading list, taking aim at  myths of scientific discovery and their implications for understanding any complex field:

“Even if we are not scientists, every day we are challenged to make judgments and decisions about technical matters like vaccinations, financial investments, diet supplements and, of course, global warming. If our discourse on such topics is to be intelligent and productive, we need to dip below the surface and grapple with the complex underlying issues. The myths can seduce one into believing there is an easier path, one that doesn’t require such hard work.”

The article chooses examples of Darwin, Newton, Hawking, Aristotle to emphasize the gulf between the myths of inspired insight and the reality of the hard work behind reaching insight and grounding it in sound justification.  “The Darwin, Newton and Hawking of the myths received..instant gratification. The real scientists did not, and real people seldom do.”

My only lament about this article is that it is rather scolding and humourless.  Having recently enjoyed the movies The Theory of Everything (Hawking) and The Imitation Game (Turing and the enigma code), I’m inclined to cheer when the hero of a gripping film is a major thinker.  Yes, we do have to distinguish between reality and story.  Yes, we do have to recognize the crucial role of hard work in gaining understanding in any complex field.  And then — let’s enjoy the stories and the elevation of brilliant mathematicians or scientists to the ranks of cultural heroes.  May they be appreciated for their hard work — but may they also shine brightly for their genius in our stories!


Leonard Mlodinowmay, “It Is, in Fact, Rocket Science”, New York Times, May 15, 2015.

Photo: Apples by Jennifer C, CC BY 2.0 via Flicker