“The Invention of Science”—What I Learned

Share this Blog post

Author’s note: I am simulposting this post both at LinkedIn Pulse and at Bowlby Less Traveled.

I recently finished reading history professor David Wootton’s 2015 book entitled The Invention of Science—A New History of the Scientific Revolution. In my first career I was a petroleum geologist, so I have a soft spot for the so-called hard sciences. And I have to admit, I’ve never had a history of science class, so Wootton’s book seemed intriguing to me. It’s not for the faint of heart weighing in at over 700 pages. One nice thing about reading a book on a Kindle device is you have no tangible sense for where you are within the book. Before I knew it, Wootton’s Long Notes section popped up and I was presented with Kindle’s “Before You Go” rating page marking the official end of the book. The pages flew by. So, I thought I’d list a few of the things I learned about The Invention of Science.

• Allow me to put on my geologist hat for a moment. Wootton mentions a theory of the earth that I had never heard of before: the Two Spheres theory. Apparently up until medieval times, philosopher scientists (more on them in a moment) believed that the earth was comprised of two spheres: an ocean sphere and a land sphere. Let’s listen in as Wootton tells us that “when medieval philosophers talked of ‘the earth’ they normally meant the sphere of the element earth which, where it showed above the ocean, constituted dry land; this sphere floated in an ocean of ocean, itself a large sphere.” Now Wootton reveals that there were a number of theories similar to Two Spheres. There was one that had four spheres: land, water, air, and fire. Another had two land spheres effectively popping up at the poles. Wootton spends considerable time talking about these various models of earth as a way of introducing what he calls “a killer fact.”

• Wootton observes that most modern science historians do not believe in “killer facts.” What are killer facts? A single fact that makes a group of earlier “facts” obsolete. “According to contemporary history and philosophy of science,” writes Wootton, “there are no such things as killer facts.” Wootton begs to differ. Wootton points to Columbus’ discovery of America as a fact that killed the Two Spheres theory. Here’s another example of a killer fact provided by Wootton: “[W]e find that traditional Ptolemaic astronomy could not survive the discovery of the phases of Venus.” Back in the early 1980s when I was a geology graduate student, there was still talk of how plate tectonics killed the idea that land bridges, which would mysteriously rise and fall, explained how far flung land masses could have similar rock formations, flora, and fauna.

• The one idea that Wootton delivers that really caught my attention concerned the invention of discovery. Before, say, the time of Columbus (the proverbial 1492) there was no concept known as discovery. In essence, before science could be invented, discovery had to be invented. This got my undergarments in a tangle, that a concept like discovery—one we take today as air—had to be invented. Actually, Columbus’ discovery of America was the very embodiment of discovery. “The core meaning of ‘discovery’, after 1492, is not just an uncovering or a finding out: someone who announces a discovery is, like Columbus, claiming to have got there first, and to have opened the way for all those who will follow.” Let’s look at what else had to be invented before science could be invented.

• According to Wootton’s research, the printing press, a community of like minded thinkers, and certain technologies (like standards of measurement) had to be invented before science could be invented. This is why Wootton refers to the scientists of ancient times, such as Aristotle and even Archimedes, as philosopher scientists. In contrast, scientists who had access to widely distributed printed materials, belonged to a community of like minded thinkers, and employed technology such as standards of measurement, became essentially evidence scientists. Evidence scientists conducted experiments as a key way of arriving at evidence. And, yes, evidence was a central component of evidence (based) science. The concept of evidence was borrowed from the legal realm. Wootton makes it clear that one can use technology and not necessarily be a scientist. Clearly Columbus used sailing and navigating technology but was not a scientist per se. Wootton goes into detail over whether the first inventors of steam engines were scientists or technologists or both. We tend to view technology and science as the same thing, but Wootton makes it clear that there are times the two are inextricably intertwined, and times when the two remain in separate realms.

• Now to controversy. Throughout The Invention of Science Wootton keeps his eye on three distinct groups: relativists, realists, and scientists proper. Relativists are essentially postmodernists. Postmodernists believe that science is relative and local. In essence, postmodernists believe that different cultures develop different sciences, and that no particular science has more value than any other. “Alongside the political commitment to multiculturalism [espoused by postmodernism], honourable in intention though profoundly problematic in practice,” writes Wootton, “we must also acknowledge a powerful fantasy, the fantasy that we can remake the world in any way we choose, and, equally powerful, the fantasy that no one can tell us that what we are trying to do can never be done.” [1] Wootton characterizes postmodern thinking as a belief that “there are no obstacles to our remaking the world as we choose, apart from the ideas in our minds.” Wootton gives us this “bottom line” concerning postmodern thinking: “The world can be anything we want it to be, because thinking makes it so.” Wootton calls this form of magical thinking “the politics of wish-fulfillment.” I cannot help but think that the current fascination with superhero movies is an outgrowth of this politics of wish-fulfillment. Wootton suggests that “concealed within relativism there lies a dream of omnipotence….” Realism, on the other hand, is the belief that science delivers hard and cold facts. According to Wootton, science does not deliver hard and cold facts; what it delivers is theories. And these theories need to be tested by experiment. “In adopting the term ‘theory’ … scientists were thus freeing themselves from the philosophers’ preoccupation with truth in so far as it implied knowledge of causes and of what Aristotelian philosophers called substances, or forms,” writes Wootton.

• So, what if anything does The Invention of Science allow us to learn about Bowlby’s work. Just on the surface allow me to make one observation. Freud has been called a much better philosopher than scientist. It’s possible then that Freud was more of a philosopher scientist than evidence scientist. It’s no secret that John Bowlby wished to move psychodynamic theory in the direction of evidence based science. Sure, psychodynamic theory had (has) all of the trappings of a true science: a desire to discover, widely distributed printed materials, a community of like minded thinkers, and certain technologies (like the so-called talking cure). What psychodynamic theory lacked was evidence [2], and Bowlby knew this would be psychodynamic theory’s Achilles’ heel. So, in essence, Bowlby wished to move psychodynamic theory from philosophy science to evidence based science. I would say that Bowlby (along with a number of other researchers such as Mary Ainsworth, who created the Strange Situation Assessment, and Mary Main, who created the Adult Attachment Interview) was successful. Sadly, the evidence produced by science can be dismissed as the politics of postmodernism demonstrates.

I have only touched the surface (of a floating earth sphere) as far as revealing all that Wootton writes about in The Invention of Science. As an example, Wootton talks about how the concept of intelligence had to be invented before we could have the concept of Intelligent Design. I guess I was a bit surprised to learn that the concept of Intelligent Design—that an intelligence such as God created the universe—came into being back in the 1600s. According to Wootton’s research, there were many religious leaders in the 1600s who embraced science, and combined the two through the use of the God as Clockmaker metaphor. Apparently people like Darwin and Hume came along and said that there’s no need for a Maker; evolution can do it all on its own. This philosophical battle still wages today. There’s so much more (like the above) in The Invention of Science, so grab a copy and give it a read.


[1] If you hear echoes of the self-esteem movement, you’re not hearing things. The self-esteem movement is held by postmodernism. Bowlby took a dim view of the self-esteem movement because he probably recognized its politics of magical thinking and wish-fulfillment.

[2] It may well be that the evidence science of neurology is catching up with the philosophy science of psychodynamics. For an example, see the article entitled The Second Coming of Freud—Centuries-old Insights Shed New Light on the Brain in the April 2014 issue of Discover Magazine.