Alas! All that stolen credit!

  • SumoMe

I came across the Stigler’s law of eponymy the other day. It stated somewhat casually and unseriously (I know that’s not a word!): “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer.” Of course, it made me sit up and take notice. I mean we all know of people who have got to be the most useless dorks around but are annoyingly and consistently good at making themselves look good to people who matter and then garnering all the superior grades in internal assessments or impressing professors with views overheard from the discussions of less boisterous colleagues. How really unpleasant it would be if these people were to go down the annals of history as some of the most intelligent people of their time! Turns out, many of the famous people we think intelligent didn’t do half the things we give them credit for. Serendipitous incidents and being in the right place at the right time were more likely the cause of their success rather than any real work and the people who are actually responsible for the good work are buried in obscurity. Turns out, being nosey really helps.

The examples that Stigler gave are staggering. In his own words, “It can be found that Laplace employed Fourier Transforms in print before Fourier published on the topic, that Lagrange presented Laplace Transforms before Laplace began his scientific career, that Poisson published the Cauchy distribution in 1824, twenty-nine years before Cauchy touched on it in an incidental manner, and that Bienaymé stated and proved the Chebychev Inequality a decade before and in greater generality than Chebychev’s first work on the topic.” I found it so fascinating that I googled to see if there are other cases where the practice of eponymy concurred with Stigler’s law. To my surprise, the incidents where expressions for scientific discoveries honoured individuals with little to do with them are many. In fact, Wikipedia had an overwhelming list of examples. Below are some of them:

* Alzheimer’s disease, though named after Alois Alzheimer, had been previously described by at least half a dozen others before Alzheimer’s 1906 report which is often (wrongly) regarded as the first description of the disorder.
* Arabic Numerals were invented in India and not Arabia.
* Cobb-Douglas: A production function named after Paul H. Douglas, and Charles W. Cobb, was actually developed earlier by Philip Wicksteed.
* Euler’s number: the “discovery” of the constant itself is credited to Jacob Bernoulli, but it is named after Leonhard Euler.
* Euler’s formula: an equivalent formula was proved by Roger Cotes 30 years before Euler published his proof.
* Evolution by Natural Selection. Charles Darwin mentions, in an annex to “The Origin of Species”, eighteen people who had previously expounded the idea, including Lamark, Saint Hilaire, Herbert, Grant, Matthew, Haldeman and of course Wallace. And even then it is called Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection.

And last but most interestingly, Stigler’s law itself is consistent to the theory propounded by him. It was an idea that came originally from the head of Stephen Stigler but attributed by Stigler himself to Robert K. Merton.

It was indeed shocking and disappointing that all this while I had been reading about Cobb-Douglas production function thinking it to be the result of his( I thought it was one person!) genius while it was someone else’s. The discovery of the fact that the Pythagorean Theorem was in use long before Pythagoras was shocking. The fact is that there are so many ideas out in the open that it does not matter who came up with them first, what matters is who let the world know of them first, who the world assumed was the first. I know life is not fair but it makes me doubly sad to reach the conclusion that fairness does not exist even in the world of reason and hard facts and hypothesis and observation.

The world of science is replete with allegations of stolen credit, stealth, unethical practices observed by even the scientists of immense repute. Science never intrigued me much and neither did scientists, probably because I saw them as dull beings and not human is some respect: cold detached laboratory creatures who studied a lot, were unsocial and calm except for the brief ‘eureka’ moments. In short, I had a totally parochial, biased view of them, largely shaped by movies. This new light of looking at them as people who backstabbed, who lied, who practiced deception, who took professional rivalry to giddying heights was unpleasant but interesting.

The very thought that Edison might have been a thief stealing other people’s ideas or Graham Bell, a con buying off other people’s inventions was unpalatable at first. I had earlier read about the whole Newton- Leibniz issue and I did not give Leibniz a stinking chance. But as I read more about the debate, I wasn’t too sure about Newton’s integrity any more. But there were things worse than that to come: like Einstein was never the discoverer of the Theory of Relativity. It was Henri Poincare who was most likely the first person to formally present the idea. And incidentally despite Poincare publishing more than 30 books and 500 papers on the subject before Einstein, does not receive a single reference or even a footnote in Einstein’s writings. The debate that Einstein might have not read him at all falls flat when we take into account the kind of discussions that Einstein had with his fellow scientists at their group called The Olympia Academy: they centered on a lot of Poincare’s works.

I think it is time our textbooks stop repeating incomplete facts and biased information to us. I think we deserve to be told the truth and the real geniuses deserve to have the record put straight. Frankly, the scale of the deceit and unduly awarded credit disgusts me.

Pronoti Baglary

[Image courtesy: http://www.usefilm.com/images/5/4/8/0/5480/1403072-medium.jpg]

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