Are We Giving Credit Where Credit is Due?

Stigler’s Law, for you non-math types, states that no theorem is named for the actual person who dreamed it up and proved it in longhand. In other words, no discovery is named for its true discoverer. And because of this collective disregard for the truth, we may never know the real identities of the world’s greatest inventors, mathematicians, alchemists, cartographers, and philosophers.

Now I like misinformation as much as the next compulsive liar, but I worry about the ramifications of going through life believing with all certainty in “facts” that turn out to be mere fiction. For example, you might be familiar with boldface names like Christopher Columbus (from Columbus Day, the holiday) or Amerigo Vespucci (from America, the continent). These famed Italian Jews are widely credited with discovering the land we call our own. But you might not have heard of Zheng-He, the Chinese eunuch who, according to renowned pseudo-historian Gavin Menzies, sailed all the way to the “West Indies” in 1421. Now, I hate to fill this column with more math, but that’s a whole 71 years before the Santa Maria and the Pinta ever arrived upon these golden shores. My Norse editor might be tempted to interject here and point out that the Vikings predated all other explorers and that the whole idea of “discovering” a place where other human beings had lived for centuries is, at best, dubious—my point exactly.

When we accept status-quo information as the correct version of events, we let the braggarts and boasters take credit for ideas that were not theirs, for deeds they did not do, for work that was not their own. And there are consequences. Without a serious re-evaluation of our behavior, how can we prevent another Rosalind Franklin from having her X-ray DNA diffraction images stolen by those fame-whores Crick and Watson? How can we distribute credit accurately and justly?

To be sure, it may not be possible to revise the past or correct centuries of injustice, especially now that textbook publishers in Texas are in charge of writing history. But looking forward, I think we could make some cultural changes. We are a take-credit kind of society where people routinely feel the need to attach themselves to achievements or claim singular greatness. It’s hard to share in success equally, and few find it easy to appreciate the talent of others unless, of course, they gave birth to them. Even though it’s rare that anyone accomplishes much alone, our individualistic society unwisely looks to reward just one person. Maybe that’s just the way the capitalist system works; I wouldn’t know, I’ve never taken a single econ course.

As a religious studies major, however, I’ve learned about the power of generosity and the ability or even the inclination to give instead of taking. I love generous people. Generous people look for the good in others and are less concerned with self-promotion. They recognize that in turn for the help they receive on their way to fame and fortune, they should spread the goodwill and extend a hand to fledgling college grads who are looking for a first job.

Good credit, bad credit, credit score report dot com, insufficient credit to graduate—credit is really on my mind these days. I want to conclude, however, that the only kind of credit that really matters is not your Visa or Mastercard, your Golden Globe or ESPY, your bank account or your paycheck, but the kind you remember to give to the anonymous and forgotten heroes of our history, like the penis-less man who sailed from China nearly 600 years ago.

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