Harter's precept, Johnson's view of scientists

Glenn Morton (grmorton@psyberlink.net)
Sat, 15 Mar 1997 19:49:50 -0600

I was recently pointed to a book review by Phillip Johnson which clearly
shows the disdain in which Johnson holds scientists. It is in Books and
Culture, March/April 1997, p. 11 This is a review of a book review.
Phillip Johnson begins his review as follows:
"The German biochemist Bruno Muller-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 near-sighted. 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
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 non-functioning; it was closed by a
cover over the lens. Indeed, no one could see anything through

"Muller-Hill reports that one of the docile students became
a professor of philosophy and a 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 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."~Phillip E.
Johnson, "The Emperor's New Theories," Books & Culture, March
April 1997, p. 11
******end quote****

Johnson and Muller-Hill get the wrong lesson out of this. The
first thing is that regardless of future profession, kids will be
kids and are generally unwilling to stand out in a crowd of their

Secondly this is not a story about the docility of science or
scientists, but is a story about young children. Thirteen year
old children are NOT scientists. As a manager of a group of
geophysicists, whose numbers over the past year have ranged from
5 to 10, I can personally attest to the fact that scientists are
anything but docile. When I want one of these guys to treat the
data in a particular, but scientifically acceptable manner, if
they disagree with that approach, they can be as stubborn as
mules. This is the case, even when they acknowledge that my
suggestion would be scientifically plausible. And I can also
tell you that these guys don't give a flip about getting along
with me, even though I write their annual performance reviews.
And, I wouldn't have it any other way. If they are not
challenging me, they are not doing their job. Any geophysicist
that is so maleable that I can make him do anything I want with
the data, is of no use to me. I have had members of my group tell
my boss, in front of me, that they don't think we should do what
I think we should do. This is no threat to me and I encourage
them to deal with the data honestly and thoroughly even if they
come to a different conclusion than I do. Of course, the lawyer,
Johnson, has no experience of what real scientists are like.

If Johnson had any experience with science himself, especially
astronomy, he would have noticed several technical errors in this
story and would have been more skeptical about this tale that I
think may be false. For someone who has set himself up as a judge
of science, his knowledge of how it works is quite weak. Anyone who
has had a telescope will recognize the following problems in
the above tale.

First, this was a portable telescope. Johnson apparently has had no
experience with telescopes because he does
not know that a portable telescope must be carefully aligned
(often by trial and error). You can't simply set a telescope out
in a playground and have it automatically be pointing at the
object of interest. To align the scope, the teacher would have
had to have looked through the scope and make adjustments to its
aim, even if it were pointed in the general direction of the
planet. It is absolutely impossible for the professor NOT to have
noticed that the lens-cap was on the scope prior to showing the
students the planets. If the professor didn't know this simple
truth about scopes, then this is a story about stupid teachers,
not slothful scientists.

Secondly, if Johnson knew science, he would also have known that
a telescope does not stay pointed at the object in question
unless it has a motor which then requires an extension cord.
Those types of telescopes were very expensive even as late as the
1960s [presumably Muller-Hill was a child during or before that
time], costing as much as a thousand dollars even back then. (I
know because I always wanted one for my telescope as a child.)
There is no mention of this type of equipment at the school, but
I would be surprised if it had had it. Most schools don't have
the budget for such expensive devices. If the scope didn't have a
motor, it would require continual manual movement to maintain it
on target. Thus I question why the professor didn't have to look
in the scope to keep it on target. (Once again, this is possibly
a story about a stupid teacher). But even if it did have such a
device, unless the telescope is precisely aimed and leveled, so
that the axis points to the pole?(I can't remember), it will
wander off target and require realignment. The time it would take
for forty students to look through the lens would be significant.

Third, the constant fiddling with the focus (which is mentioned
in this story) would be quite likely to cause a problem.
Motorized and unmotorized telescope mounts can be moved by
putting too much pressure on the scope. A slight bump is
often enough. This has happened to me a lot. Surely
one of these inexperienced students would put too much pressure
on the mechanism, causing the telescope to rotate off target.
This in turn would cause the teacher to have to realign the scope.
But Johnson's inexperience with telescopes shows through as he
gullibly believes Muller-Hill's tale.

Fourth, it was not the "docile" students nor was it the
scientists,who forced poor Harter to work in a factory. It was
most likely his financial condition or temperment, or the lack of
patience with the stupid teachers he had to endure.

Fifth, the docility of the students might be explained by the
treatment Harter received when he challenged the teacher. "You
idiot" the teacher shouted. I would assume that this was not the
first such name-calling incident that the students had endured.
Knowing the temperment of their teacher, why would they want to
provoke him? No one enjoys being a target of name-calling.

Sixth, I might step on some toes here, but I don't think a
teacher is necessarily a scientist. I have known science
teachers for my children who were excellent scientists (those in
High School), but unfortunately(in Junior High), most had little
knowledge of their topics. I do not know the structure of German
gymnasiums, but I doubt that the best science teachers end up
teaching 13 year olds. Thus this is not a tale of a scientist
teaching his charges to go along in order to get along, but
simply a bad teacher.

Unfortunately, this story reveals more about Johnson's opinion of
scientists than it reveals about scientists themselves. Johnson's
contempt for scientists colors all that he writes, and it appears
to be getting worse with time. It also would appear that Johnson
is susceptible to the same self deception that he accuses scientists
of. Afterall, he can tell no difference between a thirteen-year-old
school child and a trained scientist. This must be self-deception
of the highest degree.


Foundation, Fall and Flood