Fuller’s Law of Intellectual Influence

The law is simply stated: If you exert intellectual influence, it is not for the distinctive thing you say but for the conceptual framework that you had to assume in order to say it.

What this means is that you end up receiving credit for both more and less than your actual contribution. The current scientific citation culture – represented by the so-called Harvard style of referencing – outright encourages this behaviour, but of course did not originate it. In any case, whenever a work is cited without page or chapter, it probably says more about how the citer came to acquire the framework assumed by the cited party than the cited party’s own distinctive position in that framework.

In historical terms, the paradigm case of Fuller’s Law is Darwin, who is popularly credited with the theory of evolution, full stop. Of course, he did not invent evolution. Lamarck probably did. Moreover, Darwin’s particular version of evolution – based on natural selection — was for many decades the most controversial, on both empirical and more metaphysical grounds. However, there is no doubt that Darwin’s Origin of Species was understood to be a game-changing book shortly after publication. Why? Because in order to put forward his particular theory of evolution, Darwin had to assume that evolution was broadly speaking true, which meant that certain non-evolutionary theories (e.g. special creationism) just become irrelevant to a discussion that involves much fine-grained natural history. Darwin never polemicizes against creationism: He simply ignores it.

Here it is worth recalling that before Darwin, there was no generally recognized categorical difference between evolutionary and creationist accounts of natural history. Many, if not most, commentators occupied what we would now regard as hybrid positions. However, after Darwin the distinction in accounts becomes clearly marked, which is then backdated to some allegedly perennial ‘war’ between science and religion, usually starting with the trial of Giordano Bruno or Galileo, 300 years before Darwin. And so it continues to this day. To be sure, this manufacturing of the science-religion controversy did not necessarily make it easier for people to accept Darwin’s own theory of natural selection. On the contrary, it has arguably delayed acceptance. Nevertheless, wherever you stood on this manufactured controversy, Darwin was framing the key issues, which in the long term served to make his name synonymous with ‘evolution’ itself, even after the details of evolutionary theory had strayed far beyond what Darwin could have imagined.

People familiar with media theory will recognize what I’m talking about as ‘agenda setting’. Darwin is modern biology’s agenda setter. More generally, intellectual influence is more about agenda setting than about getting people to take a particular side in the agenda, though that may well be a long-term effect of adopting the agenda. Kuhn got close to this point with his idea of paradigm, the scientific theory that exerts a hegemonic control over the research agendas of scientists in a particular field. However, Kuhn presumed that you first had to buy the theory before you can buy the world-view that makes the theory possible. Thus, you had to accept Newton’s account of planetary and projectile motion before accepting the idea that reality is one big machine. Indeed, this is the sense in which ‘scientific revolutions’ are science-driven for Kuhn.

I am proposing something rather different in spirit. Newton’s empirically grounded theories constituted an elaborate marketing device – perhaps even baiting — to get you to buy into the Newtonian world-view. The theories didn’t need to be true in the sense of being the foundation stones on which an epistemic edifice is built. Rather, they just needed to be true enough for you to think that any problems that are later thrown up will be solved by more of the same. Apple’s radical consumer incorporation strategy extends this model into everyday life. Thus, one becomes a member of a ‘community’ through a ‘gateway product’, such a particular make of iPhone. This locks you into a certain way of thinking about how your needs are to be serviced. To be sure, some other company may come along to service those needs better, but they too would be part of the same framework. The difference between science and Apple, of course, is the former’s frameworks are collective and the latter’s corporate, which boils down to a difference in the concentration of social power.

Categories: Mediated Matters, Outflanking Platitudes, Rethinking The World

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  1. Tomorrow is going to be the 350th anniversary of the scholarly journal on March 6, 1665. The publication permitted easier exchanges between members of the Royal Society of London, and is still in print. The royal society adopted a motto of ‘nullius in verba’ meaning don’t trust claims, but check them out. Scholarship hovers around this motto.

    To what degree is the influence of a scholarly mind frame, ‘nullius in verba,’ the warrant that allows for intellectual upheaval and influence?

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