Stigler’s Law of Eponymy

Alois Alzheimer by Nicholas Wade

Stigler’s law of eponymy [uh-pon-uh-mee] is a process proposed by University of Chicago statistics professor Stephen Stigler in his 1980 publication of the same name. In its simplest and strongest form it says: ‘No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer.’ Stigler named the sociologist Robert K. Merton as the discoverer of ‘Stigler’s law,’ consciously making ‘Stigler’s law’ exemplify Stigler’s law.

For example: Alzheimer’s disease, though named after Alois Alzheimer, had been previously described by at least half a dozen others before Alzheimer’s 1906 report which is often (wrongly) regarded as the first description of the disorder. Historical acclaim for discoveries is often allotted to persons of notoriety who bring attention to an idea that is not yet widely known, whether or not that person was its original inventor – theories may be named long after their discovery.

In the case of eponymy, the idea becomes named after that person, even if that person is acknowledged by historians of science not to be the one who discovered it. Often, several people will arrive at a new idea around the same time, as in the case of calculus. It can be dependent on the publicity of the new work and the notoriety of its publisher as to whether the scientist’s name becomes historically associated.

Stigler’s law is an example of the idea of multiple discovery, which stands in contrast with the heroic theory of invention and scientific development. Stephen Stigler’s father, the economist George Stigler, also examined the process of discovery in economics. He said that ‘If an earlier, valid statement of a theory falls on deaf ears, and a later restatement is accepted by the science, this is surely proof that the science accepts ideas only when they fit into the then-current state of the science.’ The Matthew Effect was coined by Robert K. Merton to describe how eminent scientists get more credit than a comparatively unknown researcher, even if their work is similar, so that credit will usually be given to researchers who are already famous.

Boyer’s Law was named by H.C. Kennedy in 1972. It says Mathematical formulas and theorems are usually not named after their original discoverers and was named after C.B. Boyer, whose book ‘History of Mathematics’ contains many examples of this law. Kennedy observed that ‘it is perhaps interesting to note that this is probably a rare instance of a law whose statement confirms its own validity.’ ‘Everything of importance has been said before by somebody who did not discover it’ is an adage attributed to English mathematician and philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead.

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