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:
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. 
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
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….
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
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.
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.