Taleb provides yet more fodder for skeptical enquiry. In the middle of Chapter 16 of Antifragile ("A lesson in disorder") where he is arguing that science isn't the source of practical applications of technology but the product of it, he argues:

An extraordinary proportion of work came out of the rector, the English parish priest with no worries, erudition, a large or at least comfortable house, domestic help, a reliable supply of tea and scones with clotted cream, and an abundance of free time ... The enlightened amateur, that is. The Reverends Thomas Bayes (as in Bayesian probability) and Thomas Malthus (Malthusian over-population) are the most famous. But there are many more surprises, cataloged in Bill Bryson’s Home, in which the author found ten times more vicars and clergymen leaving recorded traces for posterity than scientists, physicists, economists, and even inventors. In addition to the previous two giants, I randomly list contributions by country clergymen: Rev. Edmund Cartwright invented the power loom, contributing to the Industrial Revolution; Rev. Jack Russell bred the terrier; Rev. William Buckland was the first authority on dinosaurs; Rev. William Greenwell invented modern archaeology; Rev. Octavius Pickard-Cambridge was the foremost authority on spiders; Rev. George Garrett invented the submarine; Rev. Gilbert White was the most esteemed naturalist of his day; Rev. M. J. Berkeley was the top expert on fungi; Rev. John Michell helped discover Uranus; and many more.

Again, his general argument deserves a well developed question of its own, but this specific claim, that the amateur clergyman contributed more science and technology to posterity than those employed or recognised as scientists seems to demand proof. Is his claim right?

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    The obvious first thought is, how many professional scientists (etc) even existed for much of the 19th century, compared to clergy. A "scientist" wasn't even a thing until the 1830s by my recollection.
    – Jivlain
    Feb 24, 2013 at 23:16
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    Specialization came after agricultural revolutions. Back in the Renaissance, the methodologies used for Theology, like systematic references and proofs are an application of science. By contrast, in the mid-19th century, doctors refused to wash their hands after autopsies despite strong evidence that it decreased the death rate. From that, I'd say that the theologists of the time applied more actual science that what today's people view as 'scientists'.
    – Muz
    Feb 25, 2013 at 0:03
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    I reject the premise of the question. How many professional mathematicians (i.e. paid for doing mathematical research) were there before the 20th century? Most had other jobs and did mathematics as a hobby. Does this mean that lawyers (Fermat) contributed more to mathematics than mathematicians? Ridiculous. Feb 25, 2013 at 10:36
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    @AndrewGrimm it seemed surprising and, especially on this site, it is often assumed that anything related to religion is a major impediment to progress nor a source of it.
    – matt_black
    Feb 26, 2013 at 23:17
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    Can we really say that Thomas Bayes was not a mathematician? He published a number of pamphlets on mathematics (as well as pamphlets on religious topics). True, he was as a Presbyterian pastor, but in the early 1700s there were very few "professional" mathematicians. .... so maybe instead of saying "clergymen contributed more than scientists" we should say "most scientists were clergymen".
    – GEdgar
    Jun 29, 2015 at 13:43

1 Answer 1


The question is kind of nonsensical since it assumes a contradiction between being a clergyman and being recognize as a scientist. Historically most scientists have been either amateurs and hobbyists (i.e. somebody with a day-job), or nobility or "gentlemen" - people earning enough from land possessions that they didn't need to do regular work. Before industrialization very few people were employed specifically to do science or research.

(To verify this, check out the fellows of the Royal Society through the years. This is a selection of eminent scientists of their day, and you will note how any of them are nobility, gentlemen, clergymen, officers etc., up until modern times)

Charles Darwin wasn't "employed as a scientist" for example. Nobody paid him to do his research. He he just happened to have the means to be able to devote all his time to his hobby. Still, he is clearly recognized as a scientist.

Even Albert Einstein had a day-job (at a patent office) while he developed his theory of special relativity and the photo-electrical effect, which earned him the Noble price.

Given how rare "professional scientists" were pre modern society, it is not surprising they would be outnumbered by amateurs of a different occupation. The quote explains why many amateur scientists were clergymen: They were educated, had a relatively comfortable life, and had time to spare.

Furthermore, even people we would confider full-time scientists could be clergymen. Fellows at Cambridge, where Isaac Newton was employed, were required to be ordained priests. (Newton avoided this by special permission by the King though, because of his unorthodox views).

In short, seeing a contradiction between clergymen and scientists does not make sense.

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    Please add some references to support your claims
    – Sklivvz
    Oct 25, 2016 at 19:09
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    The other side of this is that a person did not have to be particularly religious to be an Anglican clergyman in the 19th century. The local gentry typically had the power to give (or even sell) the 'livings' of parishes - that is, tax money collected for support of the Church. They were often given to younger sons in order to provide them with a comfortable life, since they wouldn't inherit the estate. So with a guaranteed income, some education, and not much to do except on Sundays, some of these clergy turned to science.
    – jamesqf
    Oct 26, 2016 at 5:34
  • @jamesqf: Good point, it could also be added that since science was considered a "gentlemans occupations" it was a very respectable and something which could earn you respect among your peers.
    – JacquesB
    Oct 26, 2016 at 6:40
  • I think this is a good answer and it could be backed up with the fact that the word "scientist" was not in common use until the 1880s. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – Avery
    Oct 27, 2016 at 3:10

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