Friday, January 23, 2015


This book should lend some support to the skeptics claiming that the term " the scientific revolution" is another one of those prejudicial historical labels that explain nothing.
James Hannam, The Genesis of Science

When I reviewed James Hannam's book a couple days ago, I mentioned his contention that the Dark Ages were not really as dark as we have been led to believe, that some important scientific progress occurred during that period of history. Furthermore, he argues the Renaisance was not, in all ways, an improvement over the Middle Ages. In some ways it was a step backwards.

Hannam criticizes what he terms "value-laden names" given to historical periods. In the quotation cited above, he points out the prejudice inherent in the phrase "the scientific revolution," usually applied to the period from Copernicus to Newton. But that ignores the revolution that took place during the Middle Ages that made the work of Copernicus and Newton possible, as well as the scientific revolution that has taken place in every century since then.

Historians are not alone in using value-laden labels. Scholars in other fields do it, as do journalists, writers, politicians and others. Labels are a shorthand way to categorize not just periods of history but also people and places. In high school we probably placed classmates into boxes, the jocks, the nerds, the popular kids, whatever. This can prove a bit embarrassing years later, perhaps at a class reunion, when we notice how successful someone from an outcast group has been since graduation.

Decades often get labels that may or may not accurately reflect what was going on in that decade. We had, for example, the Gay Nineties, the Roaring Twenties and the Swinging Sixties. Such terms hardly tell the whole story about what took place during those periods. The Eighties were often called the Decade of Greed, which never made sense to me because people really didn't seem any more greedy then than in any other decade before or since. Then I realized the name was probably intended to besmirch Ronald Reagan, who was president during most of that decade. If more people enjoyed prosperity while Republicans were in power, it must have been because they were greedy and got their money by taking advantage of others.

The labels red states and blue states, indicating how states have voted in presidential elections in the past, have been used and misused by members of both parties to refer to the people of those states, never mind that states often vote one way in one election and another way in another or vote for one party in a presidential election and another party in the same election for governor or other offices.

Generations, too, get labeled. We have, for example, Baby Boomers, the Lost Generation, Generation X, etc. Sometimes the labels may be useful. Other times they are just a way of placing people into handy boxes, just like high school.

No comments:

Post a Comment