SHiPS Resource Center
for Sociology, History and Philosophy in Science Teaching

"Creative" History Strikes Again?:
The Myth of the Crucial Experiment

Is scientific knowledge ironclad? Can single experiments offer definitive proof? Popular notions of monolithic science would suggest so. Nowhere is this more evident than in our stories about science and its history—which naturally embody our current views of the nature of science. Even textbooks that do not delve deeply into history often celebrate the dramatic evidence offered by single "classic" experi-ments. —And many such experiments become enshrined in lab books as simplified exercises for students.

The notion of crucial experiments deserves a skeptical eye, however. The closer we dissect history, the more difficult it generally becomes to identify any one test or fragment of evidence that the entire scientific community found persuasive or conclusive. Often, the "critical" results must be interpreted in the context of several other experiments. At other times, a mixed constellation of results was important. Several articles here reveal the complexity behind several "crucial" experiments that have achieved iconic status in textbooks. We might always consider how, given such stories, students will respond when advocates in current scientific controversies claim—usually on both sides(!)—that they have simple, incontravertible evidence.

  • Pasteur and Tyndall on spontaneous generation: Whose studies were better (versus more memorable)?
  • The Michelson-Morley Experiment: not a precursor to Einstein
  • Mendel's Mistake?: a historical critique of dominance
  • Kettlewell's Missing Evidence: what the textbooks omit about the peppered moth

    The SHiPS Resource Center provides science teachers with materials to integrate history, philosophy and sociology into science teaching. We link teachers for sharing their experiences and provide updates on recent developments in Science Studies. To join the network and receive the quarterly News or to submit articles, materials or valuable internet links, contact the Editor at