Professor Cohen’s lecture questioned the three core elements of the scientific revolution. He asked, how scientific was it?, how unique was it?, and how revolutionary was it?. There are varying degrees of legitimacy to each claim about the scientific revolution, but one element that is virtually inarguable is that in the popular conception, the scientific revolution was scientific, unique, and revolutionary. Professor Cohen concluded that scientific revolution was indeed revolutionary because it introduced revolution as metaphor. The fact that the scientific revolution lives up to its name in the popular conception of history affects its influence today more than the actual merits of this so-called revolution.
The scientific revolution looms large in many basic level history and science courses. Children are taught about Newton’s gravity-induced falling apple, Galileo’s quest to discover all he could about the stars, and Francis Bacon’s ‘invention’ of the scientific method. These people, who all had many interest and many real accomplishments, have taken on a folkloric character. They seem ethereal, staring down at us from oil paintings with their infinite wisdom. The accuracy of such personas does matter in the grand scheme of early education, as their deeds are meant to instill an interest in science and a curiosity in the possibilities of discovery.
In more advanced courses and discussions in STS and other subjects, the legitimacy of the bold claims about the importance of the scientific revolution comes under scrutiny, but the goal of these discussions should be about the effects of the perceived impact of the scientific revolution on modern society. The cultural effects of the idealized version of what went on in the laboratories and observatories of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are arguably more important from a social perspective than the actual effects on modern science. The ins and outs of the mechanical and theoretical results of this time are secondary to how we remember them.
However, there is a place for refuting the legend of the scientific revolution. The accuracy of popular conceptions of Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, particularly the idea that many concepts originated there, leaves out the non-white, non-Christian participants in the world’s scientific discovery. An historically accurate representation of who came up with what and how those ideas spread is important in understanding the past, but the popular perceptions of how the scientific revolution occurred are important in contemplating the present.
In order to understand the social ramifications of the scientific revolution, whether or not the events under that name (and what events are included in that categorization) were in fact revolutionary is beside the point. To study the social impacts, including impacts on the public view of science, of the scientific revolution, a study of the perception of the scientific revolution in various places at various times would prove useful. The legend of the scientific revolution might have begun with the men who participated in it, but it was fed, and continues to be fed, by the way the story of those men is told in classrooms, conversations, and the culture at large.