Derren Brown’s Whig History of Science

Hello! Short blog post inspired by the much better one to be found on The H Word. Here’s how I try and explain to people at dinner parties what I see as being the most important problem with Whig interpretations of history; Derren Brown.

In his episode ‘The System’, Brown convinces one member of the public that he (but they don’t know it’s him…look just watch it) has a system for accurately predicting the winner of horse races. They do it a few times, increasing the amount they bet, until they make a massive bet- then BANG! Mr Brown shows himself, and they find out the whole thing has been a trick. How so? Well (spoiler alert) it turns out that Derren has actually been in contact with many hundreds of people throughout the whole process. They are all told to bet on different horses, and every time one of them wins, they go through to the next round. To each individual it looks as though the system works, that they really are getting it right 100% of the time. Ultimately though, with each horse covered, someone is eventually going to get ten wins in a row. To see how this applies to Whig interpretations of the history of science, substitute horses for theories and their proponents. Whenever you narrow your gaze to the particular hero/idea you wish to hold up as a real winner in the history of science, you are completely ignoring the amount of contingency that goes into their success. Now, before I’m accused of making a naive relativistic argument (which it could well be interpreted as) let me remind you that all the horses that win really are horses- nobody wins on a fucking donkey. Bye!

p.s. You can also use this analogy on teleological accounts of evolution.

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One thought on “Derren Brown’s Whig History of Science

  1. Pingback: Betting on Theories | Darin Hayton

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