Stigler’s Law: Why nothing in science is ever named after its actual discoverer

Do you want your share of scientific immortality? You can devote your life to mastering your field, examining the mysteries of the universe, and then finally arriving at one great discovery…but according to Stigler’s Law, you won’t get the credit.

Stigler’s Law of eponymy holds that scientific laws and discoveries are never given the names of their actual discoverers. We can find it everywhere throughout the history of science, in physics, medicine, chemistry, mathematics, you name it – and even someone as legendary as Nicolaus Copernicus wasn’t immune. But this isn’t just (or even mostly) about credit-stealing. This is about the difference between how we tend to think science works and how it actually works.

What is Stigler’s Law?

In its strongest, simplest form, Stigler’s Law tells us “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer.” The term was coined by University of Chicago statistics professor Stephen Stigler (left) in a 1980 paper. Stigler was building on a number of earlier ideas, including that of the sociologist Robert K. Merton, whose Matthew Effect held that scientists who are already famous are more likely to get credit for a new discovery than their still unknown peers, no matter if the former’s research is identical or inferior to that of the latter.

The Law in Action

Stigler's Law: Why nothing in science is ever named after its actual discovererYou can find examples of Stigler’s Law in pretty much any area of science you care to look at. Let’s take a look at medicine. Alois Alzheimer (left) gets the credit for describing in the early 1900s the degenerative disease that bears his name, but the real credit for first discovering the illness probably goes to a Dr. Beljahow, who first linked plaque and dementia in 1887 but is now so forgotten that I couldn’t even find records of his first name.

Edmond Halley did some crucial work computing the orbit and period of his famous comet, but its actual discover is probably an unknown Greek living in the 3rd century BCE. Freeman Dyson popularized the concept of Dyson spheres as a form of mega-engineering around stars, but he has repeatedly pointed out that early sci-fi author Olaf Stapledon deserves the credit for coming up with them. Sometimes we get entire regions wrong – the Arabic numerals we use very day actually originated in India, but Europeans gave them that name because they were first introduced to the numerals in the 10th century by Arabs from North Africa.

A particularly egregious example is the Kuiper Belt, the second asteroid belt that lies beyond Neptune and includes Pluto and other dwarf planets. Frederick C. Leonard was the first to theorize the existence of such a belt shortly after Clyde Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto in 1930, while its actual discoverers were David Jewitt and Jane Luu, who announced they had found the first definitive evidence for its existence in 1992. Either way, the credit really shouldn’t go to Gerard Kuiper, who in 1951 said such a belt could have existed in the early days of the solar system, but he was pretty certain that it wasn’t around anymore.

Then there’s salmonella, which you might not even have realized was named after somebody. The bacterium was first identified in 1885 by Theobald Smith (left), who went on to more lasting fame as America’s first globally important epidemiologist. But when he discovered salmonella, he was just an inspector at the newly formed Bureau of Animal Industry and only a couple years out of college, so it was his boss Daniel E. Salmon who got the credit instead. Admittedly, smithella doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, and I’m guessing Smith wasn’t too torn up over not attaching his name to that particular discovery.

As a general rule, Stigler’s Law tends to favor more established scientists, a fact that we’ll discuss further in a moment. But even these have exceptions. For instance, the 16th century English merchant Thomas Gresham isn’t particularly well-known these days, but he lives on with Gresham’s Law, which is an economic principle that is often simplified as “bad money drives out good.” But the law had already been described in 1519, the year of Gresham’s birth, by a Polish scientist named Nicolaus Copernicus, who went on to slightly greater fame with some mildly controversial theories about astronomy. (Of course, whether he got proper credit for that in the wake of Galileo is another matter entirely.)

Edited from Stigler’s Law:

This entry was posted in Science. Bookmark the permalink.