Philsophy of Science - retreading in science, what is it called?
December 12, 2017 3:02 AM   Subscribe

Hello, I am looking for a word and/or papers about the notion of retreading already visited ground in the history of science. An example would be the flat Earth theory: through the scientific enterprise, the ancients knew the Earth was round, but for various reasons the idea of the flat Earth resurfaced in the middle ages, and was again debunked through scientific investigation. . . only to be revived more recently.

The flat Earth is a particularly egregious example but I know that ideas can be brought back to life either through ignorance of previous work, or for various revisions based on principled theoretical concerns. I am more interested in the former: where scientists are either unaware of previous work that bears directly on what they are doing, or they ignore it intentionally because they have some kind of ax to grind. What is this called? Has this been worked on? My feeling is that this kind of needless retreading is detrimental to the scientific enterprise and I am curious to know if any great minds have treated this concept in depth. Thanks!
posted by os tuberoes to Religion & Philosophy (7 answers total)
I think it's worth noting at the top that modern consensus tends towards the view that mediaeval scholars were always sufficiently familiar with classical scholarship to know that the Earth was round (and, of course, it's a readily observable fact), such that the genuine misconception is that of a widespread belief in a flat earth among educated people at any point in the last twenty-five centuries or so. The "myth of the flat earth" Wikipedia page is quite pithy and seems pretty well sourced on this.

I'd be interested to see good examples of the kind of behaviour you describe, but my knowledge of the history of science is a bit too patchy to know whether it exists sufficiently substantially to have attracted much scholarship.
posted by howfar at 4:01 AM on December 12, 2017 [4 favorites]

Creationism, the notion that Earth was created a few thousand years ago looking much as it appears now. Personally, I would not call either flat Earth or Creationism retreading. I'd call them bad old ideas that Just Won't Die.

A minor thing that came to mind was the use of leeches as a medical treatment which had a brief revival in the late 20th century. The proponents were not ignorant of the long ago use, though.
posted by SemiSalt at 4:54 AM on December 12, 2017

Just to note that you will want to distinguish between:

(a) Things that previous scientific or scholarly work had established that some later scientific or scholarly literature ignored, but that then was reintroduced -- this is what you're interested in

(b) Things that scientific or scholarly work established that (educated) popular culture didn't fully embrace or understand

(c) Things that scientific or scholarly work established, and that (educated) popular culture embraced and at least casually understood, but that uneducated or more-or-less obviously deranged people asserted was false anyway. By all accounts the flat earth is in this category.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 5:16 AM on December 12, 2017

To actually answer the question, I don't know that this has a specific name but you can easily find examples of this at disciplinary boundaries or in areas of research that cross disciplinary boundaries. For example, people in political science study legislative politics, duh, but so do people in public-choice economics, and understandably enough each "camp" pays more attention to the work that its own people are producing. As an occasional reviewer for Public Choice it's not unusual for me to have to tell authors who write like economists about the findings on the poli-sci side that they've ignored or even that what they're doing has been done. I assume the same is true in the other direction.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 5:23 AM on December 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

posted by srboisvert at 6:38 AM on December 12, 2017

"I encourage the authors to reexamine the literature on this topic"
posted by bonehead at 6:45 AM on December 12, 2017

Perhaps related is the recent amusing notice of a medical researcher inventing calculus. So: re-invention?
posted by sammyo at 9:53 AM on December 12, 2017

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