Three Types of Errors
We are apt to fall victims to three kinds of errors in our evaluation of scientific achievements. These may be called temporal error, cultural error, and nostalgic error.
Temporal error consists in the impression that our generation is somehow superior to previous ones, because in matters of scientific understanding we know a lot more. It also arises from the creature comforts and health benefits that have resulted from science. Temporal error was intense among many thinkers of the seventeenth century, soon after the emergence of what we call modern science. It has persisted to various degrees among the scientifically awakened peoples of the world.
Cultural error consists in the notion that science is an intrinsically culture-dependent enterprise. It attributes the capacity for science only to particular cultures. (This is not unlike the conviction, based no doubt on the current pathetic state in certain regions of the world, that democracy is unsuitable for certain races and religions.) There were periods in history when the Chinese thought they alone did science, the Hindus thought likewise about themselves, as did the Greeks and the Arabs in their turn. Not so long ago, it was a firm belief of some European thinkers that science was essentially a Western capability, and that even if it has roots in the past in other cultures, nothing of great scientific worth existed before the emergence of modern science. This view is still shared, explicitly or implicitly, by some scientists and commentators who refer to modern science as Western science. Narrower expressions of such views have existed within the confines of Western culture: Some have maintained that clear thinking is an essentially French trait; others that the empirical skill is characteristically British; yet others have argued that true science requires the keen mind of the Germanic race.
In the 1930s, some three hundred years after the rise of modern science, Nazi thinkers in Germany argued that some scientific theories were false because they had been proposed by members of the Jewish race.
Nostalgic error is of more recent vintage. It consists in the belief that some ancient peoples were already aware of the latest findings of current science. It is based on the conviction that the holy books of religions embody truths revealed by higher powers to extraordinary individuals who were thus made aware of the results of current cosmology. Apologists of various religions have authored with numerous volumes and scholarly papers to elaborate on this thesis. It is also more pronounced among some Non-Western thinkers in their efforts to show that their distant ancestors (if not more recent ones) were as good in science as post-fifteenth century Westerners.
All these errors persist in various forms and to various degrees because they add to the emotional satisfaction of those who entertain them. Yet, it is a fact that while cultural error is plain wrong and hurtful, and temporal error tends to minimize the insights of ancient scientists, nostalgic error distorts and even impedes the growth of modern science.