November 23, 2014 | David F. Coppedge

Time Magazine Distorts Science History

Seen that magazine “Great Scientists” at the checkout counter?  It’s a mixed bag.

The latest “Time Inc. Specials” entry is called Great Scientists: The Geniuses, Eccentrics and Visionaries Who Transformed Our World.  As expected, it’s heavy on images (some rare), and written with flair.  Ten authors each managed a chapter covering a field of science.  Time puts this Editor’s Note on the last page: “The chapter editors of Great Scientists selected the individuals to be featured in their disciplines and wrote each of the profiles within the chapters.”  Howard Carter’s peering into the tomb of King Tut provides a running subtext on science’s peering into the darkness to see “wonderful things.”

In the introductory article, Jeffrey Kluger admits that “No list of science’s greatest figures can hope to be comprehensive,” but the selections seem a bit odd, more intent on political correctness (diversity) than real impact, with notable exceptions.  The space devoted to each biography is not necessarily a function of the person’s historical importance; for example, Hubble, Kepler and Brahe combined fill two pages, but Rachel Carson gets three.  Interestingly, Darwin gets less coverage than Mendel, Pasteur, and James Lovelock.  Descartes is Time’s lead mathematician-philosopher, while Francis Bacon is left offstage.  Some relatively unknown scientists are given prominence, and others are not mentioned at all (Faraday, Euler, Lord Kelvin, George Washington Carver, von Braun), though Faraday gets one quick sentence under Humphrey Davy’s entry.  Then there are controversial individuals whose scientific credentials are strongly disputed (Hobbes, Freud, Kinsey, Margaret Mead); Freud merited two full pages, including some discussion of his controversial claims.  Evolutionists are prominently featured, such as E. O. Wilson, Donald Johanson (see ENV), the Leakey family, and Harold Urey.

Other than the broad categories, there is no clear arrangement of the biographies.  There is no timeline, and little sense of historical progression.  It’s hard to sense whose ideas contributed to others.  Readers will learn quite of bit of interesting trivia (Paul Dirac’s bizarre autistic personality, August Kekulé’s snake dream, Feynman’s bongos) and will be exposed, probably for the first time, to some living scientists, although Time’s choice of “Scientists for Tomorrow” could be disputed.  It seems odd to celebrate John Kovac as a great astronomer right at the time when his BICEP2 claim about inflation is possibly being falsified (9/25/14; see this PhysOrg headline that mocks it).  The magazine admits that “the push-pull of science plays out,” but there are other great astronomers who might have been given his space.

Like inaudible violas in a symphony of secularism, the religious motivations of many great scientists have been downplayed.  Newton‘s religious writings are mentioned only for their bizarreness and heresy.  The Galileo myth (science vs religion) is not given adequate correction.  No Biblical archaeology is celebrated other than Kathleen Kenyon’s re-dating of Jericho; readers will not know that later work by Bryant Wood found errors in her dates (ABR).  Look in vain for any mention of the intelligent design movement.  Any mention of creation is given only in a pejorative sense.  Mostly, though, the faith of leading scientists described in CEH’s biographies suffers the indignity of ignoring and the shame of silence.

Don’t count on a balanced presentation in this volume.  Use it just as a reference to check certain facts, or to monitor what the secularist media is preaching.  No short book, of course, could possibly cover everything worth mentioning.  It’s just very troubling that people like Freud, Margaret Mead, Rachel Carson, Alfred Kinsey and other evolutionist-atheist-secularist darlings of the political left would be exalted in a list of “Great Scientists.”  Great bumblers, liars, and false teachers, maybe, but scientists?  Rachel Carson’s flawed work about DDT condemned millions in African children to death by malaria.  Kinsey misled a generation of politicians with his distorted surveys, motivated by his own sexual deviance that ended in suicide.  Sigmund Freud, for all his popularity and charm in his heyday, is laughed at today by most historians of science.  Educated people should know about these individuals because of their influence, but they don’t belong in “Great Scientists.”  Audacious Frauds in the Name of Science would be more appropriate.

Nevertheless, there is some good in the book.  We’re glad to see short but fair treatments of Mendel, Mendeleev, Kepler, Boyle, Pasteur, Lister, Harvey and Henrietta Leavitt, even if sanitized of their religious motivation.  There’s a good short explanation of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem.  It’s good to know something about Willard Gibbs, Richard Feynman, Linus Pauling, Alfred Wegener and others whose work has been influential.  The pictures are interesting.  The writing is interesting.  This is not, however, a scholarly work to depend on as a reference, but more as a source for anecdotes.  Come to our biographies for the “rest of the story” you won’t hear from the secular media.


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