‘You have no love for truth’: 19th-century British scientists accused each other at every turn

Lack of manliness, avaricious or too imaginative. These are just a few of the accusations with which British scientists discredited each other over a hundred years ago. PhD candidate Léjon Saarloos researched British scientists around the year 1900 and their idea of what makes a good – and therefore also a bad – scientist. PhD defence 24 June

A first, because it is the first book about scientific vices. ‘Recently, there has been some research into the character of a scientist, but then they only look at the positive side. For example, a standard work has been written about the history of objectivity,’ says Saarloos. ‘But when I started reading sources, such as journals and diaries, it was never just about one virtue. It is about a balance of character traits. Of course, that balance can also turn and then they suddenly become vices. Vices are character traits that get in the way of good science.’ In the nineteenth century, these were things like a lack of masculinity, avarice or being too imaginative.

Terrified

These scientific vices were not taken lightly: British scientists were terrified of them. ‘On the one hand, they were afraid that they could not resist money, fame or distraction. But they were also afraid of other scientists’ vices,’ Saarloos explains. ‘It is very useful to talk about vices when you quarrel with another scientist. Then you attack him not only for his thoughts and methods but also for his character. The use of vices in statements (you lack discipline and your imagination is running wild) was therefore a common way of settling a debate.’

‘The accusations sound fierce, but they believed that the success of science depended on the behaviour of the people doing science. If we cannot trust humans, we cannot trust science,’ Saarloos explains. It is no coincidence that such discussions arose in this period. ‘The period from 1870 to 1910 is seen as the birth of modern science. They had developed a modern scientific method – so the infrastructure was already there – but who was the modern scientist?’

Science and behaviour

The impact that such an accusation could have on a scientist is today regarded as a rather dramatic reaction. ‘To give an example: a scientist was hired as an expert in a court case. He had to check whether someone’s patent was legitimate or not. The judge accused him of possibly having spoken an untruth. What happened? The man fainted because he couldn’t handle the accusation. He only came to his senses when the judge assured him that he didn’t mean it,’ says Saarloos.

Such incidents were not restricted to the professional sphere. Scientists used journals to settle arguments in public. ‘These discussions were followed by a large readership. The reactions of the scientists in question would go back and forth. It got steadily worse until the editor-in-chief called a halt to it. A few years later, the argument would flare up again in another journal, and so the story repeated itself.’

Contemporary science

According to Saarloos, the value attached to character traits still plays a role in today’s scientific world. ‘Philosophers still write today that you need certain character traits to be a good scientist. They also talk about patience, respect for evidence and curiosity. So it is still about the person behind the scientist. But these days you’re unlikely to see someone being attacked on the grounds of a lack of masculinity

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