Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Newton: no stutterer!



So Newton is a stutterer, according to Stuttered Speech Syndrome, Veil of Stuttering, and others.
Isaac Newton asked that the windows of Parliament be closed so the public wouldn't hear his stuttering.
Check out the picture above, and read the following quotes:

Newton was elected to parliament to represent Cambridge. It is reported that the only time Newton spoke in parliament was to give the speech, "The window needs closing."
and this one
He stood.
The entire house fell silent.
The great man was about to speak.
He opened his mouth.
Everyone opened theirs in expectation.

"Excuse me, you lot, but would someone mind closing the window? There's a bit of a draft this side and my wig may fall off."

He sat down.

There is no record of what the general reaction was, or if anyone actually closed the window.
Again an urban myth on a "famous stutterer". Anyone who has ever been to Westminster Parliament, to the Public Galleries to hear Parliament in session realizes how nonsensical the stuttering statement would be. The public has free access to the public galleries and there is no window between them in any way like a balcony area in a theatre. There are windows in parliament but these open to the courtyards or lawns outside. No public is allowed to these areas, and why would they stand outside to listen to parliament when they can be in the public galleries. But it makes perfect sense that Newton asked the Speaker or a clerk to have the windows closed because of a strong draft or to irritate his colleagues!!! You can of course speculate as to why he did not speak more, but that's a wholly different matter! [CORRECTION: Norbert pointed out that there was a different hall hosting Parliament in the 17th century, but it looks similar in setting to the present one. See Picture below.]


What drives me nuts is that even I took years to realize that I was swallowing such obvious non-sense. ;-) However, I will defend myself with the argument that I did not actually spread the myth, because I tend to only spread information as true that I have checked myself, or I say "I heard that some say". There is no evidence Newton was stuttering. I am equally skeptical about Winston Churchill. It just shows the level of critical thinking in the stuttering community: parrots we are.

18 comments:

Norbert @ BSA said...

Tom - just a nit-pick: you can't base your argument on Newton's supposed stammering on what the House of Commons looks like today. The current building only dates back to the mid-19th century after the Old Palace was destroyed in 1834; Parliament in Newton's day would have looked rather different - and would probably have met in St Stephen's Chapel which is now the main gateway between St Stephen's entrance and the Central Lobby.

Tom Weidig said...

OK. I agree with you on that point.

Still it does not seem to make sense to close the windows so the public cannot hear his stuttering?

In any case, there seems to be no record of Newton speaking. So why would he ask to have the windows closed?

The whole stuttering story does not make sense.

Dave Rowley said...

I agree Tom. I think we need to be very sceptical about which historical figures stutter.

Ora said...

For anyone who wants to pursue this question by doing further research on the layout of St. Stephens Chapel, where the House of Commons used to meet... see http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/Pcommons.htm (note picture) and
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palace_of_Westminster#The_Old_Palace.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I can't see the evidence that Newton was a non-stutterer. I see a considerable doubt. But why should I believe in your sources or reasons? What are your sources? Whom do you quote? A contemporary witness?
Newton is one of my favorite fellow stutterers. I would be sorry to dismiss him from my family. I won't let him go recklessly.

Tom Weidig said...

You have to be joking. It is not up to me to prove Newton is NOT a stutter, but up to others to prove that Newton was a stutterer.

Let me re-write your message:

Sorry, I can't see the evidence that my mother is not a witch. I see a considerable doubt. But why should I believe in your sources or reasons? What are your sources? Whom do you quote? A contemporary witness? Newton is one of my favorite fellow stutterers. I would be sorry to dismiss him from my family. I won't let him go recklessly.

Ora said...

Tom - You should further amend your re-write of Anonymous's message, maybe as follows:

Sorry, I can't see the evidence that my mother is not a witch. I see a considerable doubt. But why should I believe in your sources or reasons? What are your sources? Whom do you quote? A contemporary witness? My mother is one of my favorite witches. I would be sorry to discover she's not. I won't let her go easily.

Tom Weidig said...

Of course, Ora, I was just too lazy to re-work it completely! ;-)

Anonymous said...

Certainly I’m not joking. My mother is a witch (and, psst, our surname is “Weasley”). There is no doubt about that fact, there was always plenty of evidence.

In the case of the stuttering of Sir Isaac Newton there are two propositions. First: Newton did stutter. Second: Newton did not stutter. One should be able to verify or falsify each proposition. Sure, if it would be obvious that Newton stuttered, you can falsify the second one. Is it obvious Newton did not stutter? I'm not convinced. His speech habits were at least eccentric, for example. Stuttering could be an explanation.

Do I Stutter? How can you find the truth? I’m quite popular. My friends and admirers call my – speech issue “a lisp”.

Tom Weidig said...

1% of the population stutters, so the ad hoc probability that Newton stuttered is 1%, and the probability that he did not stutter is 99%.

So you need to prove that Newton indeed stuttered.

Where is your evidence?

And what is beyond any doubt to me is the story of "He closed the window so the public didn't hear him stutter." That is just so ridiculous.

Lumo said...

Dear Tom,

isn't the word "stuttering" from Newton himself just a modest way to refer to his normal talking?

By the way, you write "non-nonsensical" once in your article. Is it a double negation meaning "meaningful", or is it a written form of stuttering? :-)

Best wishes
Lubos

Tom Weidig said...

Hi Lubos,

Yes, had Newton used the word "stuttering", it might just refer to stumbling over words or meaning or expressing modesty or lower authority.

But I am not aware that Newton ever used the word stuttering?

If his entourage were to refer to him as stuttering, he is really stuttering. But again no sources that I am aware of. Just interpretations.

Thanks for the spelling mistake on "non nonsensical"...

Best wishes,
Tom

ac said...

Tom wrote:
1% of the population stutters, so the ad hoc probability that Newton stuttered is 1%, and the probability that he did not stutter is 99%

Not really. The background frequency only corresponds to the probability in the absence of other information. The fact that the idea the Newton was a stutterer is in circulation makes it more probable compared to picking a random figure from history.

Your failure to find evidence makes it less probable, but not that much, because I don't think you looked very hard.

Tom Weidig said...

Adding the existence of the myth to the probability by Bayesian probability is a subjective interpretation, unlike population statistics. You can add it but don't have to add it.

It is up to the people making the claim to prove the claim. I cannot prove that he did not stutter.

They provided a claim with the window and I proved them wrong.

Where is the evidence?

Andrew said...

Thank you for advocating skepticism with regard to historical figures who stuttered. I've looked into other favorite "stutterers" from history that our community uses to bolster self-esteem, and from the Bible and from Plutarch, it's really not that clear that either Moses or Demosthenes stuttered either. Self-esteem is great, but intellectual honesty is important too! Good research,
-Andrew M.

Anonymous said...

I just happend to stumble across this and felt the urge to post a comment...Tom why are you trying so hard to prove Newton wasn't a stutterer.Newton is an inspiration for many stutteres, that your stuttering shouldn't effect your ambitions to achieve something in your lifetime. You know what they say Silence is gold

Anonymous said...

No one here knows if Newton was really a stutterer or not.So please dont try to prove something right when you are not 100/100 sure.Maybe he was maybe he wasnt.Now, my question is:Then why has he the fame of being a stutterer?I mean why isnt Galileo reffered as stutterer?And let me tell you this,it may not be a stutter but it could be another speech impediment.I just cant understand why your trying so hard to prove people wrong.You have no evidence and me neither.And just to inform you maybe Newton wasnt a stutter but what about Demosthenes the most important orator of the ancient years?Even ancient artists tried to show his stutter by not forming his mouth properly.Or this also a lie?
And if you are a Newton fanatic,and thats the reason why you say all this thing,then you should know that when people learn that he had a stutter,that makes them immidiately appreciate him more.

Anonymous said...

Demosthenes was a stutterer.Look at his statue and youll understand immediately!And study a little bit of ancient greek history and then youll understand better!OK i agree that not everyone is a stutterer, but dont overdo it!It seems as if you are just trying totell that nobody was a stutterer,which is not right,cause its not true!1/ of the population is 1/ of the population.This means 1 stutterer among 100 people.Why cant this one person be a famous scientist,philosopher,historian etc.?Not to mention that stutterers have been proven to be really intelligent.Moeses was also a stutterer,it is cleary stated in the Bible.So the examples you chosed werent really good!

PS Im not a stutterer myself,i just happened to fall on this site.I am studying ancient greek history at university and im a christian so im familiar with what is written in the Bible.

-Jason L.