Posted in History & Literature

Stigler’s Law

In 1980, statistician Stephen Stigler suggested that in the history of science, no scientific discovery is really ever named after its original discoverer. This is because eponymous laws and discoveries tend to be named after the person that made it widely known.

Take the example of the famous Pythagorean theorem, which was known to Babylonians before Pythagoras was even born. Halley’s comet had been documented by astronomers since 240 BC. Fibonacci numbers were well-known to Indian mathematicians since 200 BC – 1400 years before being described by Fibonacci.

You could make the argument that these discoveries could not be traced to the original discoverer as it was too long ago and the discoverer’s name was never documented. This is certainly one reason for Stigler’s law being true. Usually, scientific discoveries tend to be popularised and named after the discoverer has already died, meaning that there is a chance they could be forgotten already.

There are plenty of examples where the original discoverer is known, thanks to historians of science, but it is too late to reverse the eponym as the name has firmly rooted itself into people’s vocabulary.

Take Alzheimer’s disease, which was discovered by Beljahow in 1887, but named after Alois Alzheimer in 1901. The bacteria Salmonella was identified by Theobald Smith in 1885, but as he was a junior inspector, his boss Daniel E. Salmon took the credit instead.

It is also worth noting that throughout history, there have been many cases of discoveries being made simultaneously by independent scientists.

Sometimes, the scientists credit each other and share the fame, such as Charles Darwin who decided to co-present his theory of natural selection with Alfred Russel Wallace, another scientist who came to similar conclusions at the same time.

Other times, scientists may fight aggressively to assert their credit, such as Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz, who both discovered calculus around a similar time, but fought to claim that they were first.

An important lesson to learn here is that as much as we love stories where a brilliant individual changed the course of history, most advancements in human history happen thanks to collaboration and inherited knowledge over time. Things rarely happen in a vacuum and we all rely on each other’s experiences and knowledge, building on our predecessors to achieve greatness.

Ironically, Stigler’s law follows its own law, as Stigler identified sociologist Robert K. Merton as the original discoverer of this law.