Monday, October 10, 2011

Columbus and the Flat Earth

One of the great modern day myths surrounding science and religion involves Christopher Columbus and a flat Earth. Most of us were taught in school that Columbus wanted to travel the world despite all the dire warnings about falling off the edge of a flat Earth. He bravely set sail anyway and changed the world through his discoveries, or so the story goes. Many of us were taught in school that throughout the early and late Middle Ages most people thought that the world was flat. In addition, we are told that this state of affairs was the result of the oppressive religious authorities of the time. 

The truth, however, is that the West has known the Earth was a sphere since at least the 4th century B.C., when Greek philosophers like Pythagoras followed by Aristotle and Ptolemy all laid out arguments for a spherical Earth (a few, like Eratosthenes, even took a shot at calculating its circumference). This knowledge survived into the Middle Ages, and virtually all educated people and scholars still affirmed a round Earth. Columbus and company all believed the Earth was round; no one warned him about falling off any edge. He was warned about his faulty calculations, which led him to believe that the Earth was much smaller, and India much closer, than it really was. As we all know, he ended up in North America instead.

So how did we end up believing this fable about Columbus and the rest of Medieval Europe? Historians have traced this flat Earth myth to the 19th century. One of the first appearances was in the early 19th century in Washington Irving’s fictional account of the Columbus story, and sometimes Irving is given most of the credit for the flat Earth myth. However, recent scholarship shows that the myth became a staple in textbooks in the late 19th century after the publication of two books by John Draper and Andrew White. These men were overzealous secularists who wrote distorted (but highly influential) histories of science. Their intent was to provide a narrative involving science and religion where science is struggling for truth and progress and religion is doing its best to hamper scientific advances. The flat Earth myth was one pillar in their overall thesis: religious superstition is always trying to snuff out scientific progress. 

How exactly did Draper and White convince us that Medieval peoples believed in a flat Earth? They found two minor figures (no others have been found), Lactantius (245-325 A.D.),  a North African writer, and Cosmas Indicopleustes (fl. 540 A.D.), a Christian merchant from Europe, that wrote in support of a flat Earth and made this minority opinion appear to be the norm from the Dark Ages and onward. In fact, from the patristic period to the late Middle Ages (i.e. whenever you look), all church scholars, ranging from the Venerable Bede to Augustine to Aquinas, affirmed a spherical Earth.

Historians of science have dismissed Draper and White’s books as sloppy, selective scholarship that ignores the bulk of the historical data. Unfortunately, the myth persists. When I was teaching, I would ask my students each year if they had been taught the Columbus myth, and each year at least half of the hands were raised (I suspect most of the rest had also been taught it, but had forgotten). This is kind of sad. Here we are in the 21st century believing that people in the Dark and Middle Ages were fooled by religious authorities into believing in a flat Earth, when in fact we are the ones clinging to a discredited myth.

Further Reading: 
Stephen J. Gould's essays Dinosaur in a Haystack 

Saturday, April 30, 2011

I Liked the Old Atheists Better

Stephen Prothero, a scholar of religion at BU, recently wrote a book titled God Is Not One. It is mostly an interesting read and is essentially a brief tour of major world religions with the intent of highlighting their differences. He includes a chapter on atheism which, while not a religion, is nonetheless an important and influential worldview (some contemporary forms of atheism, however, do seem very much like a religion).

Atheism is not new. It has been a significant intellectual viewpoint since at least the ancient Greeks, though atheists have always been in the minority. Prothero points out that some of greatest intellectuals (e.g. Nietzsche, Marx, Sartre) as well as some of the worst dictators (Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot) have been atheists. The so called "New Atheists" (e.g. Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris) have given a new public face to atheism and have written some of the best-selling books of the past decade. Prothero observes that this particular group of atheists seems to be very religious, holding their beliefs "with the conviction of zealots and evangelizing with verve." Chris Hedges, a former writer for the New York Times, sees the New Atheists as a "secular version of the Religious Right." These self-proclaimed freethinkers end up being just as hate-filled, bigoted, and dogmatic as the religious fundamentalists they usually take aim at.

Prothero writes, "One of history's most dangerous games begins with dividing the world into the good guys and the bad guys and ends with using any means necessary to take the villains out. New Atheists play this game with brio, demonizing Muslims, denouncing Christians and Jews as dupes, and baptizing their fellow "brights" into their own communion of smarter-than-thou saints. Like fundamentalists and cowboys, they live in a Manichean world in which the forces of light are engaged in a great apocalyptic battle against the forces of darkness. They, too, are dogmatic and uncurious and every bit as useful to neoconservative policymakers as right wing televangelists."

Prothero asks why we can't recognize that we can just as easily kill in the name of progress (the French Revolution and the brutal dictatorships of Stalin and Lenin come to mind) as in the name of God. Sam Harris actually writes, "Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them." The problem here is the strange but seemingly attractive notion that it is OK to be ultra-dogmatic and aggressive as long as you are "right." To me, the Spanish Inquisition would still not be acceptable even if the Roman Catholic Church's dogma was correct and the heretics indeed held false beliefs.

Prothero also mentions an interesting tidbit about the French New Atheist Michel Onfray. Onfray accuses fellow atheists like Dawkins and Dennett of being "Christian atheists." In other words, these atheists embrace Western moral values (which are predominantly Judeo-Christian) while rejecting Christianity and Judaism. Onfray, to my mind, is a bit more honest when he follows Nietzsche and insists that if atheism is true then there is no need for man to follow conventional morality. Onfray too recognizes the religiosity of many of today's atheists, writing (quoted by Prothero):

"The tactics of some secular figures seem contaminated by the enemy's ideology: many militants in the secular cause look astonishingly like clergy. Worse: like caricatures of clergy. Unfortunately, contemporary freethinking often carries a waft of incense; it sprinkles itself shamelessly with holy water."

Prothero doesn't only discuss St. Dawkins and St. Hitchens, though. He also tells the story of Amanda Gulledge, an "Alabama mom" and an atheist whose children have been shunned by other neighborhood children because they "haven't accepted Jesus as their Savior." Gulledge spoke at an atheist conference Prothero attended, and he noted the sharp contrast between the apparent goals of the more public New Atheists and "normal" atheists like her. One group wants to eradicate religion from the planet and the other wants atheism to be considered a valid viewpoint "deserving of a fair hearing." Prothero further contrasts the two different approaches in terms of the gay rights movement: "One is like trying to turn everyone gay and the other is like trying to secure equal rights for homosexuals."

I appreciate Amanda Gulledge's story, and I am ashamed that Christians would treat children like they have treated Amanda's children. I find it much harder to appreciate what the New Atheists seem to bring to the table: angry, overblown rhetoric and an astonishing level of close-minded, self-righteous hubris. I like how Prothero closes his chapter:

"I wouldn't walk around the block to hear Christopher Hitchens take cheap shots at Christians. But I'd get on the subway, and maybe even a plane, to hear Amanda Gulledge tell me why her kids are good people too."

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Pagans, Sex, and St. Paul

So a while ago I wrote a little bit about God and sex and attempted to clarify what Christianity actually teaches about sex. In that post I mentioned the apostle Paul.

In one of his letters to the Corinthians, Paul writes that it is good for husbands and wives to have sex and says that it is perfectly all right for people to get married if they want to. I see this as a pretty clear endorsement of sex and marriage, but Paul also states that while it is fine and good if people marry, it is better to be celibate. Paul doesn't say this because he thinks sex is bad, but because those with the gift of celibacy (which, Paul writes, only some possess) have more time to devote to God. Still, in my mind this put a bit of a damper on the endorsement.

I'm currently reading The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity and came across an interesting note. Early Christians varied in their beliefs regarding whether or not they still had to strictly follow Jewish law or if they were free from the law or other social conventions. According to historian Henry Chadwick, "the pagan world was familiar with the widespread belief that sexual contact between man and woman hindered the soul's rise to higher things." This belief was adopted by some groups within the church, and was one of many reasons Paul wrote to them. Paul was not writing to people who thought that sex was good and telling them yes, sex is fine, but refraining from sex is better. He was writing to people who thought that sex was bad and was telling them no, sex is good, even if being celibate is better. Set in this context, Paul's affirmation that marriage is a good and acceptable thing is a stronger statement than I originally thought.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Limits of Science: Debating "Denialism"

Last time we saw one problem with having an exaggerated sense of the objectivity and purity of science. Another has to do with how many scientists and non-scientists (mostly self-proclaimed rationalists) deal with people who disagree with them over one theory or another. This view seems to be epitomized by Michael Specter is his book Denialism.

I haven't read the book, and don't plan to, but I read the introduction and I think that was enough to get a flavor of the book. I'll sum it up for you: if you don't love science as much as I do and disagree with scientists on anything than you are obviously stupid and irrational and should be sterilized. And your children should be kidnapped.

Attitudes like this drive me nuts for several reasons. One, scientists themselves disagree about a great many things in science. There are equally "scientific" papers that argue for either the primacy of astronomical causes (e.g. orbital changes) or terrestrial causes (e.g. greenhouse gases) of past climate change. There is disagreement over the composition and source of the early Earth's atmosphere. Or, think about how many times we've heard things like chocolate is good for you, wait it's bad for you, oops now it's good for you again. There is simply no such thing as "science says this about something and that's the end of it." Within the scientific community there exists a myriad of viewpoints, theories, and interpretations of facts relating to just about any scientific topic. To adopt one particular theory and dismiss everyone else as being part of "denialism" seems to be a bit of a stretch.

Secondly, philosophers of science as well as scientists themselves often write about how science will never truly end, about how there is always more to discover, and that this fact is partly why science is so exciting. Nicholas Rescher lays out rigorous philosophical arguments for this idea in his excellent book Nature and Understanding, and this was also the main topic in a recent editorial in the journal Science. Though frequently acknowledged, many people fail to appreciate what this means for any particular scientific theory: it is subject to revision and/or complete reworking.

A brief look at the history of science reveals the same story over and over again. Proponents of one particular theory demonize, ridicule, or ignore their opponents for daring to question established wisdom. Consider Ptolemy's geocentric universe, Wegener's theory of continental drift, or Newton's theory of gravity. Wegener was ridiculed viciously for his "wild" ideas by the geological community, yet now the fact that continents have moved over time has become the new established wisdom. There isn't any reason to think that we are so special as to be immune to this sort of thing. Our scientific theories are also under constant revision and scrutiny. It is ironic that self-proclaimed rationalists end up speaking of particular scientific theories in the same way others might speak of an unquestionable religious dogma.

Dreaming up some perjorative labels for people who disagree with you is not new. Mike Specter just adds "denialism" to the vocabulary of people who want a way to pat themselves on the back for being right while being comforted by the fact that all those other people who disagree with them are so obviously stupid and irrational. It's not that people can't be irrational. They can be, and many people are. But Specter's particular approach to this problem strikes me as profoundly unhelpful, anti-intellectual, and dare I say it, unscientific.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Limits of Science: when scientists speak

Rich Lewontin, in his book Biology As Ideology, writes that science is "a social institution completely integrated into and influenced by the structure of all our other social institutions." Lewontin is a leading geneticist and is certainly not anti-science. He simply calls for a "reasonable skepticism" when it comes to evaluating scientific claims and theories because scientists, like everyone else, can be influenced by a variety of other factors.

Having an exaggerated view of science's objectivity and purity can lead us to make some mistakes. First, it can lead to an exaggerated belief in the objectivity and purity of scientists. We need to be careful to distinguish between science (i.e. empirical claims) and what scientists say. It is common for scientists to express personal opinions within the pages of science texts, and it is also common for these pronouncements to be seen as "scientific" by the public. For example, in his influential book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, E.O.Wilson makes sweeping claims about human nature that go far beyond what any empirical biological studies can tell us. One example, described by Lewontin:

     "He [Wilson] says, 'Human beings are absurdly easy to indoctrinate. They seek it...Man would rather believe than know.' That statement is, we must note, found in what is called a scientific work, used as a textbook in courses all over the world, filled with the mathematics of modern population biology, crammed with observations and facts about the behavior of all kinds of animals, based on what Time magazine has called the "iron laws of nature."

For many readers Wilson's statement will be perceived as having the same scientific authority as other claims in the book. Please do not misunderstand my point; I am not commenting on whether this particular claim is true. Rather, I wish to point out that Wilson's claim, though thrown in with the mathematics and science, is not itself supported by that science. It is actually an expression of Wilson's own social and political views.

Another example comes from zoologist (my favorite and yours) Richard Dawkins, who in his book River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, writes that, "the universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference." Really? Which microscope, telescope, or meter stick did he use to discover this? The content of this statement falls almost completely outside the bounds of science. Science may have something to say about design or purpose in the universe, but good, evil, or "pitiless indifference"? No way. This is his particular view and interpretation of the how things are, and we need to be careful to distinguish between someone's scientific work and the opinions of a scientist in areas outside of their own expertise.   

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Limits of Science: is science ever pure?

Philosophers of science have tried for over a century to establish a rigorous, logical foundation for science, one that justifies science as an objective source of knowledge. No obvious solution is forthcoming. Instead, historians and philosophers of science have come to realize that, despite the protests of self-proclaimed rationalists, science is not the ultimate, infallible source of knowledge we might like it to be.

In case some relativists out there are getting too excited, it is equally clear that science is not merely a social construct or a human invention that has no connection to an underlying reality. As mentioned in a previous post, the success of science is indisputable. Someone once said that thanks to modern science, an elementary school student now knows more about the world and the universe than Aristotle did. Science is a not a social construct, but it is a human enterprise that is influenced by everything that affects humans.

Examples of the influence of culture and ideology on science abound. Probably the most famous example is Darwin's particular theory of evolution by natural selection and sexual selection. Darwin's theory of individuals struggling to survive has an undeniable parallel to Victorian ideas about economic competition and societal progress. His ideas about sexual selection also came straight from his cultural view of men and women. Genetecist Rich Lewontin writes, "In reading Darwin's theory, one can see the proper young lady seated on her sofa while the swain on his knees before her begs for her hand, having already told her father how many hundreds a year he has in income."

Another example involves the religious and philosophical views of James Hutton and Charles Lyell. Together they are often regarded as having started the field of geology and are hailed for their "modern" scientific outlook. In fact, their views on the Earth were rooted in beliefs in Deism and an eternal Earth. This led to the formulation of "uniformitarianism," the idea that everything about the Earth (both in the past and now) can be explained by the sorts of slow, everyday processes that we currently see. This idea proved to be helpful in getting scientists to think correctly about many of the formations we see on the Earth (e.g. mountains, river valleys, etc.).

Uniformitarianism, though, being rooted ultimately in ideology also hindered science in some ways and was flat out wrong in others. The obvious problem is that the Earth is not eternal, and in fact has a history. It has not always been the same, and therefore not everything can be explained through the processes we see at work today. The existence of ice ages and the massive glacial erosion they can cause was at first denied by scientists who followed Hutton and Lyell's methodology. They insisted that "catastrophes" had no place in the science of geology. As we now know, unique, catastrophic events have played an important role in the history of the Earth. These include everything from the formation and cooling of the early Earth, to ice ages, to asteroid impacts. These phenomena were initially ruled out because science had been influenced by a preferred ideology.

This is not to say that the influence of ideology is always bad. After all, most scientists consider Darwin to have been right about a great many things and geology no doubt benefited from Hutton's insistence on paying attention to the slow processes happening around us. Acknowledging the influence of culture on science does not mean giving up on science. It simply means that we must pay close attention to be able to distinguish where the empirical claims end and the ideology begins. In other words, to be aware of the limits of science.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Limits of Science

The success of science is indisputable. One only needs to look at modern medicine and technology for convincing evidence that science works. In the approximately 400 years since the birth of what we might recognize as modern science we have undoubtedly gained considerable knowledge of the natural world and its inner workings. In that time science has become a central part of our culture and, in many ways, has replaced religion as a major source of authority.

Since the Enlightenment there has been a steady trend of secularization in public life. Where once the Church wielded tremendous social and political power to uphold their own dogmas (e.g. the flat earth; just kidding, they actually never said that), some critics allege that the scientific establishment has in some ways taken the Church's place, forming a kind of scientific priesthood.

In fact, one famous proponent of science in the Victorian age and one of the first professional scientists, Thomas Huxley, had exactly that in mind. To Huxley and his supporters, science needed to replace religion as the supreme source of cultural authority. Historian Peter Bowler observes that the great museums of natural history built in Britain and America during the 1800s are rather cathedral-like (see the London museum above), and that this "helped confirm the role that science had usurped as the source of moral authority in the modern world."

Leaving aside the problem of "science" being a source of moral authority, what does this mean for us? One thing it means is that science's dominant position in our culture can cause people to accept pronouncements or conclusions uncritically. No doubt it was common in earlier centuries for people to uncritically accept what religious authorities told them, and we can have the same problem with scientific authorities now. In fact, in some ways it is probably worse today because science has become so specialized that it is sometimes hard for other scientists, nevermind lay people, to make sense of theories and concepts outside of their own fields.

As a former science educator, I am interested in helping people achieve science literacy, part of which includes being able to critically evaluate scientific claims and evidence as well as being aware of the nature and history of science. Over the next few weeks I intend to write further on these topics because while science is clearly an important source of knowledge, science (and especially scientists) are hardly infallible. Let's not accord to scientific theories the same blind faith and adherence to dogma that rationalists are so quick to criticize in our religious forebears.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Science and Culture, or, who needs kingdoms and phyla anyway?

I recently finished reading The Earth Encompassed, a history of the environmental sciences by Peter Bowler. A major theme in the book is to show how all sorts of things can influence the development of scientific knowledge. Commonly viewed as having a lofty epistemic status and often claimed to be the sole source of objective knowledge, science is in fact strongly influenced by culture, political ideologies, religious ideologies, and even geography.

I plan on posting more on these topics later, but I'll start with an interesting discovery made by philosopher Michel Foucault while he was looking through an ancient Chinese encyclopedia. While discussing the history of classification (i.e., the different ways that different cultures have categorized parts of the natural world), Bowler relates the story of how Foucault became interested in questions of language and representation in the first place.

We are probably all reasonably familiar with the Western approach to taxonomy in which we divide plants and animals primarily according to their physical characteristics (kingdoms, phyla, genus, species, etc.). As Foucault discovered, however, the ancient Chinese apparently had a very different approach to classification which resulted in placing animals in the following categories: a) belonging to the Emperor, b) embalmed, c) tame, d) sucking pigs, e) sirens, f) fabulous, g) stray dogs, h) included in the present classification, i) frenzied, j) innumerable, k) drawn with a very fine camel hair brush, l) et cetera, m) having just broken the water pitcher, n) that from a long way off look like flies.

Anyone have a good mnemonic to help memorize that?

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Quantum Physics and...the Iraq War?

The other day I was listening to the radio and heard a surprising story about the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square in Baghdad. This event was one of the most memorable of the Iraq War and was replayed ad nauseam by the media (Fox replayed it every 4 minutes or so for almost an entire day). The story has an interesting parallel to one interpretation of quantum physics: that observers have a direct effect on the events they are witnessing.

Erwin Schrodinger, one of the founders of quantum mechanics, was aware of how absurd some descriptions of the world at the quantum level were. At the quantum level, reality stops making sense. Electrons, for example, the little bits of mass that “orbit” around the nuclei of atoms, seem to be able to do something that most of us are incapable of: be in more than one place at once doing more than one thing at once. Physicists call this being in a superposition of states; the electron has multiple speeds, directions, and spins at the same time. If that’s not strange enough, it turns out that when a human observer is present the electron “collapses” into a more normal state of only being in one place and doing one thing at a time. In order to illustrate this paradox, Schrodinger came up with his famous thought experiment that has become known as Schrodinger’s cat.

My version goes something like this: a cat has been placed in a high-tech box. Inside this box is a laser gun pointed at the cat’s head. A fancy contraption that monitors an electron’s spin controls the trigger on the laser gun. Electrons can either spin “up” or “down,” and the contraption will cause the gun to shoot if the electron is spinning up but will not shoot if it is spinning down. According to quantum theory, the electron is spinning up and down at the same time, so the gun is both shooting and not shooting, and the cat is both alive and dead. That is, until someone opens the box and looks inside.

The presence of an observer changes the reality. A similar thing seems to have happened in Firdos Square in Iraq in 2003. We all saw the footage where crowds of Iraqis toppled the statue of Saddam, a symbol of liberation and victory for the people there. Unfortunately, the real story is somewhat different. Rather than an area full of jubilant Iraqis knocking over a symbol of oppression, it was actually a mostly empty area with a large number of reporters, some Iraqis near the statue, and some American soldiers around the perimeter.

A handful of Iraqis decided that they wanted to topple the statue, but were unable to do so. An American commander noticed what they were trying to do and, seeing the crowds of reporters in the square, thought about how it would look if TV stations showed footage of Iraqis trying in vain to knock over the statue of Saddam. He ordered some soldiers to help them out and, voila, reporters zoomed in on the event and broadcast it around the world. An iconic moment in the war, seen as a symbol of victory by many, was actually more or less manufactured because of the presence of reporters. A full view of the area would have shown that the reporters outnumbered the active participants. This would have lessened the drama, to say the least. Some have speculated that the way the media portrayed this event, as well as the number of times it was replayed, led to a false sense of victory and ultimately disappointment as it became clear that there was a long road ahead for both Americans and Iraqis.

While maybe not as complicated or surprising as quantum physics, it is interesting to think about how the presence of observers changed what happened, how it was reported, and ultimately ended up influencing how many of us saw the war in Iraq.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Can "green" apps save the planet?

Last Spring I was listening to an On Point program about our ecological footprints and the hidden environmental costs of many of the products we buy. For example, manufacturing an e-reader like an iPad has the same impact on climate change as about 100 old-fashioned books; count the electricity you use for the life of the iPad (which mostly comes from coal-burning plants) and it becomes clear that, as Daniel Goleman and Gregory Norris say, the most ecologically friendly thing to do is to walk to your local library.

Anyway, the show also discussed some "green" apps that are now available for your iPhone which rate various products based on a calculation of their impact on the environment. So, for example, it might suggest buying this brand of vacuum over another because the former company uses more recycled plastic. Now, I have no problem with educating people about the ecological impact of the products they buy (in fact, I'm quite convinced this is a great idea), but, one person who called in to the radio program reminded me of the larger problem we face.

I'm kind of assuming a lot, but from the way it sounded to me, the caller was probably a wealthy suburban housewife who drives a Lexus SUV, goes shopping a couple of times a week, and who purchases the latest, greatest smartphones for herself and her family every couple of months. She described how wonderful the new green apps were and how much they helped when she was shopping for that new vacuum or phone or flatscreen TV and she was very excited that she could be "green" while doing this. Unfortunately, she has completely deluded herself: the problem is not just that we buy new vacuums made without any recycled plastic, or that we buy a new car that gets 5 miles per gallon less than another one; the main problem is all of the constant buying itself. We are consumers through and through, and, while I'm too lazy to look up the exact statistic, Americans have consumed more of the earth's resources in the last century than the rest of the world has throughout all of history, or something crazy like that.

There is something amusing about us driving around consuming everything in sight but patting ourselves on the backs while we do it because we have some "green" apps on our smartphones.