On Enlightenment scientists and the forgotten role of imagination.
Headlines today pop with accusations that traditional sources of knowledge and even experts are biased, ideological, and unreliable. Accusations of “fake science” have become particularly commonplace. The Heritage Foundation think tank reports on the pervasiveness of fake science, laying the blame on scientists themselves. In their view, climate change isn’t caused by humans, and scientists are mere lackeys for a liberal political agenda. In response, practicing scientists and advocates have responded vociferously: the 2017 earth Day “March for Science” took place not only in Washington DC, but in more than 600 cities worldwide. The Union of Concerned Scientists has reached out through panels, such as the one on “Defending Science and Scientific Integrity ” at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual conference.
As long as there has been modern science, there have been hoaxes. In 1726, Mary Toft, an illiterate English servant in Surrey, claimed to have given birth to dead animal parts and scores of rabbits, a wonder made all the more persuasive by the authorization of the royal anatomist, Nathaniel St. André. She was brought to London and revealed as a fraud. A year earlier, the physician Johann Beringer, Chair of Natural History at the University of Würzburg and chief physician to the city’s Prince Bishop, was duped into believing that 2000 pieces of limestone in the shape of animals, some engraved with the name of God, were fossils or were of divine origin fossils. They were really the prank of a jealous colleague.