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Harter's Precept

It is always startling to find your name in the hands of creationists and others of their ilk, even if the name is attached to someone else bearing your name. Here is the beginning of an essay by Phillip E. Johnson:

Harter's Precept
Review of The Social Misconstruction of Reality: Validity and Verification in the Scholarly Community
by Richard F. Hamilton (Yale University Press, 1996)
Phillip E. Johnson

The German biochemist Bruno Müller-Hill tells a memorable story to illustrate his thesis that "self-deception plays an astonishing role in science in spite of all the scientists' worship of truth:"

When I was a student in a German gymnasium and thirteen years old, I learned a lesson that I have not forgotten.... One early morning our physics teacher placed a telescope in the school yard to show us a certain planet and its moons. So we stood in a long line, about forty of us. I was standing at the end of the line, since I was one of the smallest students. The teacher asked the first student whether he could see the planet. No, he had difficulties, because he was nearsighted. The teacher showed him how to adjust the focus, and that student could finally see the planet, and the moons. Others had no difficulty; they saw them right away. The students saw, after a while, what they were supposed to see. Then the student standing just before me -- his name was Harter -- announced that he could not see anything. "You idiot," shouted the teacher, "you have to adjust the lenses." The student did that and said after a while "I do not see anything, it is all black." The teacher then looked through the telescope himself. After some seconds he looked up with a strange expression on his face. And then my comrades and I also saw that the telescope was nonfunctioning; it was closed by a cover over the lens. Indeed, no one could see anything through it. [From "Science, Truth, and Other Values," by Bruno Müller-Hill, Quarterly Review of Biology, Sept 1993 (Vol. 68, No. 3), pp. 399-407.]

Müller-Hill reports that one of the docile students became a professor of philosophy and director of a German TV station. "This might be expected," he wickedly comments. But another became a professor of physics, and a third professor of botany. The honest Harter had to leave school and go to work in a factory. If in later life he was ever tempted to question any of the pronouncements of his more illustrious classmates, I am sure he was firmly told not to meddle in matters beyond his understanding.

One might derive from this story a satirical "Harter's Precept," to put alongside Parkinson's Law (bureaucracy expands to the limit of the available resources) and the Peter Principle (everyone rises in a hierarchy up to his level of incompetence). Harter's Precept says that the way to advance in academic life is to learn to see what you are supposed to see, whether it is there or not. As Sam Rayburn used to explain to new members of Congress, you've got to go along to get along.

Richard Hamilton's The Social Misconstruction of Reality indicates that many social scientists seem to have guided their careers by the light of Harter's Precept....

It's a good story, though one suspects that Müller-Hill might have elaborated it a bit. I am inclined to agree with his report of Hamilton's critique of social scientists, though I am not prepared to swallow it whole. I am not prepared to accept without question the scholarship of authors that Johnson quotes with approval. [1]

Is his "Harter's Precept" legitimate? Yes and no, sayeth I. It is well known that people try to see what they are supposed to see. In Müller-Hill's little story the people involved are not academics, they are thirteen year old students in a German gymnasium, an age at which the social pressure to conform is particularly strong. In short, the story is not evidence; rather it is an amusing anecdote.

Still, is it true about academia, or at least true enough to be a jibe, and, if true, does its truth depend upon the department that one is in? One can make the case that in the humanities, truth is ultimately political, whereas in the sciences the politics of truth is tempered by reality.

One of my little maxims is that one has to learn how to see. For example, part of learning to read is learning to see letters on the printed page as letters rather than as artistic squiggles. When I first viewed cells on a slide under a microscope all I saw were confusing blobs of color. It was only after I had learned how to see what I was looking at that I could see what was on the slide.

There is a general truth here; people are not born "seeing" - they have to learn how to structure what their eyes and ears present to them. The same is true of academic knowledge. There are endless false trails and confusions waiting for the innocent student. The structuring of knowledge is not simple; academia can and should illuminate known structure.

So in this sense to succeed in academia one should indeed learn to see what one is supposed to see. However Johnson's "Harter's Precept" has an additional clause, "whether it is there or not". That clause says rather more than it should, or at least it can be read that way.

One final thought: In the anecdote the students who "saw" the planet and its moons went on to become professors whereas honest Harter dropped out and became a factory worker. We are invited to believe that in academia self-deception is better than honesty. Perhaps, however, the real lesson is that the students who went on to become professors learned from their mistake whereas "honest" Harter was too pig-headed to learn anything.


Note:
Müller-Hill's anecdote doesn't make a whole lot of sense. First of all the teacher would have had to look through the telescope first to line it up so the lens would not have been covered. Secondly, with forty boys peering through it, the telescope would have had to be realighned from time to time. Thirdly, small boys aren't all that shy about speaking up, not even small German boys. If there is any truth to the story, what probably happened is that the boy before Harter covered the lens as a prank.


This page was last updated September 1, 2008.

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