Thursday, March 31, 2011

galileo and historical myths

Last post I looked at the conflict thesis - the idea that christianity (or even religion generally) opposed science down through history. Let's look at a few more myths....

I found the book Galileo Goes to Jail by eminent science historian Ronald Numbers in my local library. It's an interesting read, with chapters written by 25 leading scholars on commonly believed myths. To show its even-handedness, the scholars are split evenly between believers (Christians, a Jew, a Muslim and a Buddhist, and others) and unbelievers. It supports what I wrote previously on Galileo, Bruno and Hypatia, as well as reinforcing the conclusion that the medieval Christian Church did not suppress the growth of science.

a flat earth?

Many people criticise the medievals for thinking the earth was flat, but the chapter by Lesley Cormack lays that myth to rest also. The Greeks knew the world was round and the vast majority of the early church fathers and the medieval natural philosophers kept to that view. Far from trying to prove the world is round, Columbus' voyage was based on the understanding that it is round. Opposition to Columbus had nothing to do with flat vs round, but a disagreement about the size - and Columbus' critics were closer to the mark than he was on that question.

so did christianity give birth to modern science?

Noah Efron argues that this is too big a claim. Efron identifies a number of ways in which christianity had "crucial importance" in the growth of science (e.g. it motivated people to study nature systematically, it valued the insights into God's world that science provided, and "Christian churches were for a crucial millennium leading patrons of natural philosophy and science"). Nevertheless, he also identifies other key factors (e.g. classical, mainly Greek natural philosophy, the work of Muslim and Jewish natural philosophers in the 7th to the 12th centuries, commercial interests and secular thinkers in the 18th and 19th centuries). And just to keep everyone humble, Efron concludes by pointing out that science has been a mixed blessing, and any claimant on science has to accept the "blame" for bombs, global ecological damage and other negative effects.

other myths

Other myths that are debunked include:

  • that the Church prohibited human dissection and opposed anesthesia in childbirth (it was actually doctors who did so);
  • Copernicus did indeed show that the earth was not the centre of the universe, but this was not the great blow to human self esteem that some claim - because earth was previously considered to be "down" and therefore lowly, and, if anything Copernicus raised the status of the earth;
  • it is not historically clear if Thomas Huxley did indeed defeat Bishop Wilberforce in their much discussed debate on evolution;

There are many more myths discussed in the book. It shows you have to be careful what you believe - even things stated over and over again by apparently authoritative people can be wrong, so we should always check sources and references. We may legitimately ask if that scepticism should apply to this book too, but at least it is well referenced.

The question is, how long will it take for these myths to disappear from pubic acceptance?

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