Friday, August 29, 2008

Science Myths

History is starting to frustrate me. That's because for every easily told story about science history there seems to be a deeper, more confusing, less scientifically orthodox explanation. And this is for four major personalities in the history of science discussion.

I've heard:

1.) Galileo's imprisonment was more about politics than geocentrism. Galileo also remained faithful to his idea of God, in his way.

2.) The debate between "Darwin's Bulldog," Thomas Huxley, and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce about evolution did not include many of the most quotable parts to it -- those were made up or exaggerated after the fact for effect. (Side note: I was able to visit the room where this debate took place, which is now a storage room at the Oxford Museum of Natural History. It wasn't as big as I had imagined, meaning I had probably exaggerated it in my own mind!) Huxley may have wanted to promote warfare between science and religion because there were too many of the clergy doing science! Back then before grants and all, if you wanted to do science you needed someone to give you money to live on. A few rich patrons supported science, but the biggest patron of them all, the one that gave people money and time that allowed them to ask questions about the natural world? It was the church. Huxley wanted to sever that connection so he could be a scientist without being supported by the church. Looks like it worked.

3.) When Copernicus placed the sun at the center of the universe, it did not imply to everyone that humanity was dethroned. The center of the universe wasn't considered the best place to be -- after all, it's precisely where Dante placed Hell. At the time people were worried because placing the sun at the center of the universe dethroned the SUN! (An excellent talk on this topic, one of the best I've heard all year, is available here in mp3 format or as text here.)

4.) And now, there's even footnotes to the story of Giordano Bruno, the philosopher who was (according to CW) burned at the stake for suggesting the universe was infinite and that there were other worlds. A book reviewed here says he too was more a victim of politics and bad personal choices than scientific censorship. The description of the character from the book sounds like some people I've met: someone who's looking for a fight and then uses science as the weapon. That some of the science ended up being right is actually beside the point. He wasn't burned at the stake for having heretical ideas; he had heretical ideas because he was a misanthrope and was burned at the stake for that.

So, not being a historian and being unable to fully investigate these four claims, I'm left with the sense that some of them are right and some of them are wrong. But even if only half of these are right, there's still some major myths being taught as truth in science class. I'm not talking about evolution, I'm talking about the place of science in the history of ideas, and I think that is more important than the specific biological mechanism of creation.


andrewcaldwell said...

Throughout elementary school and high school my history book told me that everyone until Christopher Columbus thought that the world was flat. That's gotta be true, right?

PS - somebody is on a blogging-roll (a blog-roll?) lately :-)

andrewcaldwell said...

Just to bring it full circle, Andrew Dickson White is often blamed as one of the main perpetuators of this flat earth myth that exists in many history textbooks. He also was one of the cofounders of Cornell University. And, SPU uses Cornell's alma mater tune for our dear old SPU alma mater. Kind of funny I think.

lauriemc said...

I'm so sorry for Cornell. The tune is dreadful. But you can blame the late Professor Emeritus Lester Groom, my second year music theory professor at SPU for borrowing it. Off topic I know, but at least I'm commenting on my husband's blog...