I'm a new lecturer. Part of my course (one lecture) teaches the origins of our scientific understanding of the solar system. I talk about the ancient Greeks, the preservation of their work by eastern scholars, the renaissance, Copernicus, Kepler, De Brahe, Galileo, Newton... etc. Much like how I was taught, and also following the course text (that I inherited).

In some student feedback I have been accused of giving the impression that everything was discovered or worked out by white european men. It's made me feel very lazy. I want to improve and avoid giving this impression. But firstly, how should I respond?

closed as off-topic by Federico Poloni, user3209815, Florian D'Souza, Enthusiastic Engineer, scaaahu Nov 3 '17 at 2:58

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    If the point of the lecture is to describe the origins of significant advancements in understanding the solar system and the majority of them (or at least the ones you wish to talk about) were discovered by white European men, then what's the problem? Sounds like the student is looking for something to outraged about. – Eppicurt Oct 27 '17 at 5:02
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    I think this question is off topic here, as it's so specific to the subject you're teaching. But it seems like it would be a good question for History of Science and Mathematics. – ff524 Oct 27 '17 at 5:30
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    @ff542: I disagree with that assessment as the question basically asks how to deal with the accusation of being one-sided (in particular in a way that could also be related to some form of discrimination, e.g. by nationality, or ethnicity) about something that might, by its very nature, actually have only one side. Whether or not this premise is accurate in the particular case at hand may be pointed out in comments or in addendums of answers, but is not the focus of this question. – O. R. Mapper Oct 27 '17 at 6:58
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    Ask him to give an example. – Mark Oct 27 '17 at 7:37
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    I agree with your student. You could give your students project work where they research the history of astronomy in different world regions and let them present their findings. – Roland Oct 27 '17 at 7:43

[I want to] avoid giving the impression [...] that everything was discovered or worked out by white european men.

I'm not a science historian, so I can't really say if the impression is actually right or wrong. It seems counter-intuitive, however, that a small local fraction of the earth's population should have "worked out" science alone. That's puzzling enough to examine this assumption.

I want to improve.

This is a great example for how questions from students can trigger a researcher to advance their own research and understanding. I'm sure there's a huge literature on non-western science history. Knock yourself out.

But firstly, how should I respond

By admitting that you know little about non-western science history, and that, naturally, your previous knowledge and specialization have shaped the syllabus of your course. After asking colleagues and/or doing your own literature search (it doesn't have to go into any depth), you may feel confident enough to give some pointers to your students who want to read up on non-western origins of science. The main point here is to acknowledge your perspective (and you already did that) rather than to claim a "neutral" viewpoint based on unexamined assumptions.

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    Why does it seem counter-intuitive that a small fraction of the world population did most of the work? It is an example of an 80-20 Pareto principle / power law. – Federico Poloni Oct 27 '17 at 9:16
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    Scientific endevour is a cultural phenomena, so why would it be counter-intuitive that a certain cultural subgroup would be overrepresented in this area? – Alex Oct 27 '17 at 9:21
  • @FedericoPoloni I know what you mean by Pareto principle, but I don't understand how it applies here. – henning Oct 27 '17 at 9:32
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    We don't suggests explanations for why precisely the west has been more influential, we counter the statement It seems counter-intuitive, however, that a small local fraction of the earth's population should have "worked out" science alone. Of course the west haven't worked it out alone, but we argue that there is nothing strange that a cultural phenomena like organized science is strongly connected to culture and as such to geopolitical history. Organized science is a comparatively complex cultural thing, families not so much. – Alex Oct 27 '17 at 10:23
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    @Alex I'd argue that every people living outside the tropics has systematically studied astronomy (often this was done by religious elite). You need astronomic observations to understand the seasons. That predates even ancient Greece by far. Modern astronomy might have evolved mostly in Europe but other cultures have made successful discoveries independently. – Roland Oct 27 '17 at 10:50

"When everybody else is colonized/enslaved/segregated/not allowed to be educated by you..., your scientific discoveries tend to progress faster."

I think the way to avoid this "impression" is to provide an accurate historical account as to how Europeans scientific discoveries came into dominance and provide examples of scientific discovery made by non-white or non-Europeans scientists.

As mentioned in the comment by Obie 2.0, during the pre-colonial period, discoveries in medicine and mathematics were more advanced in the Arab world, and many key results were independently discovered in India and China. For example, many modern mathematicians have ancestry with Arab mathematicians such as Ibn al-Haytham (even though many will usually claim a better-known, white European man such as Gauss or Laplace as their ancestor). As another example, the Pascal triangle was discovered and documented centuries before Pascal.

The rise of European science was intimately linked with colonialism. Again using the math genealogy example, there is a clear surge in the number of descendants by mathematicians in the 18th, 19th and the early 20th century, at the heights of European colonialism, during which over 90% of the continent were directly affected by European colonialism. The whole continent of Africa, Australia, the Americas, India and various parts of China were directly under European control, and it has largely remained this way. I think it is pretty easy to imagine why, for instance, no famous Native American or African mathematician emerged during this time, and in the centuries after. By the way, much of these technological discoveries were used for things like warfare, espionage, surveillance, social control, resource extraction, deforestation, etc., instead of humanitarian purposes.

This, however, does not preclude significant modern discoveries made by non-white or non-European scientists. They can be found everywhere, particularly in mathematics and medicine. A recent article in my field mentions https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tu_Youyou, whose discovery saved millions of lives. Just because she is not mentioned as much as Alan Turing or William Shockley doesn't render her work any less important and groundbreaking.

It should be clear now, even with this brief exposition, why European scientific discoveries dominates how we think about scientific discoveries. Does it make sense to only mention the achievements, while simultaneously hide the reason as to why those achievements were made by a particular subset of people?

For a modern example, sure, Steve Wozniak "the Woz" made great discoveries in the field of computer hardware, but this is during the time black people cannot go to school, so is it really surprising that a white European male made those discoveries instead of other people? It seems to be that we are not being intellectually honest when uttering the phrase "all modern science was discovered by the white man".

As a multilingual person, I know that many discoveries by French and German scientists are not well publicized in the Anglophone community, I regularly edit WIkipedia articles of dead links of non-English European scientists and mathematicians. I can only imagine how poorly represented are people of color in the Western, English-speaking spheres.

To avoid European bias in teaching, we must clearly address the European bias in how history is presented.


The comment by Eppicurt is correct: in this case, history is dominated by the discoveries made by white European men. This fact cannot and should not be ignored.

To address this fact however, you can state at the beginning of the lecture course (or at another relevant point) that, while science in the 17th/18th/19th centuries was dominated by European men, it is no longer so homogeneous and there is much work done to increase diversity in science (which is a good thing).

It might be worth setting the students a small exercise to research the work of a female or non-white scientist and then discuss their findings as a group. This may help the students understand how the history of science and scientists has changed (in my opinion for the better) over the past few years.

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    Chinese astronomy, Indian astronomy, Islamic astronomy, Maya astronomy could all be included in OP's lectures. – Roland Oct 27 '17 at 7:38
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    Yes Roland these could be included. In terms of breakthroughs leading to our current understanding of how our solar system actually works, and telling this story, these are not as significant (given the available lecture time). It's worth noting that Chinese, Indian and Islamic astronomical science was influenced by translations of the ancient Greek texts. (Perhaps the Mayans had more understanding but Europeans destroyed almost all of their written knowledge so we don't know.) – flashliquid Oct 27 '17 at 9:00
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    @flashliquid Chinese, Indian and Islamic astronomical science was influenced by translations of the ancient Greek texts Citations, please. Or, please give an example. – scaaahu Oct 27 '17 at 9:03
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    @flashliquid May I ask you what textbook you are using? I would like to take a look at it because what you say here in the comment and in the question are really something I never heard of. I am a native Chinese speaking person. I never heard of Chinese ancient astronomy was influenced by ancient Greeks. I would like to learn how this was done. Thanks. – scaaahu Oct 27 '17 at 9:20
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    The domination of science by men in the last few millenia, and by Europeans in the last few centuries, might have more to do with social dominance than anything else. Going back to the Middle Ages (before the period of European colonization), for example, mathematical and medical research proceeded faster in the Middle East than in Europe. It probably shouldn’t surprise us that when the conditions for the marginalization of a group are removed, their contributions to society proportionately rise.... – Obie 2.0 Oct 29 '17 at 4:33

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