Tag Archives: Richard Carrier

Bias in the history of science

I am currently reading Retrying Galileo, 1633-1992 by Maurice A. Finocchiaro. This certainly provides some background to the current mythology about the Galileo affair (see The Galileo myths). Apparently Galileo’s trial never stopped with his sentencing in 1633 – he has been continually re-trialled ever since. So many myths, both anti-Galileo and anti-Church, have been promoted over the intervening years.

On the one hand this does show how susceptible history is to the confirmation bias of the individual historian. But it also provides plenty of “authentic” quote-mining material for the current Galileo mythologists.

Where is the sympathy for science?

What drives this common bias on such subjects? I naively expected that experts from other fields who make a living studying or commenting on science to be sympathetic with scientific processes and understanding of scientific method. Retrying Galileo shows this is not always the case.

We can see plenty of examples where such experts have been hostile to science. For example, the proponents of intelligent design (ID) had “philosophers of science” as expert witnesses at the Kitzmiller v Dover trial (see Intelligent design and scientific methodThese “philosophers of science” were effectively defending a perverted “theistic” science. Similar the “sociologist of science” Steve Fuller was an expert witness supporting ID. He has since written posts on the ID blog site Uncommon Design and authored a book defending ID – Science v. Religion? Intelligent Design and the Problem of Evolution.

When I realised that sociologists of science study and advise on science management and funding that had me worried. Mind you, perhaps it explains the phenomenon I noticed during my career – some of those managing our science were actually anti-science!

This tweet from historian of science James Hannam is another example that concerned me:

@DrJamesHannam: Could science come to regret claiming to have all the answers? It can cost you when you get it wrong. “

Now as the author of God’s Philosophers and The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution – how does Hannam make such a mistake? Who the hell claims science has all the answers – certainly not the practitioners of science. Nor should a respectable historian of science.

Back to the Galileo myths

Another example of confirmation bias is the attitude of Elaine Howard Ecklund, author of the book Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think (see Are scientists hostile to religion? for my review). She claimed many of the scientists she interviewed  gave the Galileo affair as “a central piece of their evidence that religion and science are in entrenched conflict.” But as she says – “Galileo was never tortured; that’s a myth.”

True – and I wonder how many scientists specifically claimed he was tortured. She does not quote a single example. (See The Galileo myths for my point that these sort of claims are themselves myths – no reputable history of science makes this claim today and I seriously suspect not many informed scientists do either). But Ecklund felt it necessary to expand on her assertion by presenting a lengthy quote from Koestler’s history of the affair in The Sleepwalkers. This is one of the anti-Galileo “histories.” In Retrying Galileo Finocchiaro claims that Koestler “disliked Galileo” and described Koestler’s history as a “popular libel against Galileo”. So her quote implied that Galileo did not deserve our current assessment of him as one of the great fathers of modern science. And made a number of straw man assertions aimed at discrediting Galileo – eg., “Galileo did not invent the telescope; nor the microscope; nor the thermometer; nor the pendulum clock . . and did not prove the truth of the Copernican system.”

In his book Sense and Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism, philosopher and historian of science Richard Carrier discusses methods of gaining knowledge at length. He points to problems that historians face in obtaining reliable knowledge but suggests they can usually do so by adopting specific historical methodologies.

I really like his warning to “recognize that almost any story can be an invention”:

“So the First Rule of Historical Method is: don’t believe everything you read. A believable history has to be constructed from several converging lines of evidence that have been critically and skillfully examined, and not every piece of evidence is equally trustworthy. Humans are notorious liars, eager exaggerators, and happy to believe almost anything they agree with. Skepticism is a virtue—but unfortunately a rare one, even rarer than honesty.”

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Clarifying some myths in the history of science

I want to deal here with some myths about religion and science. Specifically the religious apologetics claim that Christianity was a requirement for the scientific revolution. And the more widespread popular belief that blames early Christianity for the “dark ages.”

I have been reading about that early period lately. A couple of historical novels on the philosopher and mathematician Hypatia‘s murder by a Christian mob in 415 CE were interesting. These were Hypatia’s Feud by Nicholas Fourikis and Selene of Alexandria by Faith L. Justice. I recommend both, but especially Selene of Alexandria. Both authors have taken care with  known historical facts.

The religious mysticism of that early period is undeniable. But the causes may not be as  the popular concepts imply. Reality is, after all, never simple.

So I was pleased to read Richard Carrier’s comments on these myths. The science of the ancient Greeks and Romans is a research speciality of his.

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Early history of science

Richard Carrier

Historians of science tend to neglect the ancient period. There is an attitude that science really didn’t happen before four centuries ago. And promoted by others. Christian apologists promote that attitude claiming, for example, that the Christian religion was a necessary requirement for the scientific revolution.

This chauvinistic claim is easily discounted by the real history of science during the times of the ancient Greeks and the Roman empire. And also by the fact that Christianity existed for a millennium before the scientific revolution without any clear attempt on its part to revive the science of the ancients.

Historian and philosopher Richard Carrier has specialised in the history of science during the ancient period. he has also studied the attitude of early Christianity towards science. He is a very clear writer and speaker.

Recently videos of two of his lectures have become available. I have watched them and recommend them to anyone with an interest in the history of science and the region/science conflict. These are:

From Robots to the Moon which describes ancient science and technology, and

Ancient Christian Hostility to Science which describes how the church fathers of the first three centuries reacted to all that science and technology.

I have embedded the first parts of these videos below together with links to the complete playlists.

Complete playlist for Richard Carrier on Ancient Science

Richard Carrier on Early Christian Hostility to Science

Complete playlist for Richard Carrier on Early Christian Hostility to Science.

via Richard Carrier Blogs: New Podcast & Vids.

Carrier is working on a book about the science of the ancients and I am sure it will go a long way to fill this gap in history. Some idea of his findings were presented in his chapter of the book The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Failsedited by John Loftus and Dan Barker. The Chapter is appropriately titled “Christianity Was Not Responsible for Modern Science.” I commented on this chapter in my review of the book (see Some pesky delusions).

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Deriving “ought from is” scientifically?

Dr Richard Carrier

There has been a lot of debate recently about the role of science in deciding moral questions. And I am sure this will continue as scientific investigations reveal more about our morality.

One issue which keeps coming up, though, is the question of telling an “ought from an is.” Often this is presented dogmatically (“You can’t tell an ought from an is”) and justified as almost an ancient philosophical truism.

But this is now being challenged by some of the participants in this debate. recently I heard Richard Carrier, a philosopher and historian of science, on this. He rejects this specific dogma. In the interview Richard supplies a clear example:

“A surgeon ought to maintain high levels of hygiene in her work.”

Seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it. And we can get there from two “is’s.”

  1. Unhygienic surrounding enable fatal infections, and
  2. A surgeon protects human life.

I thought it useful for him to divide the argument in this way. Too often we think only of the first is – the facts which have an immediate effect. Most people will acknowledge that science usually has a role in this area – and that is clear in our example. Science has established the role of hygiene in prevent fatal infections.

So there is wide acceptance that science can “inform” moral decisions such as these. But Many people, not just religious believers, will maintain that step 2 is not an “is.” One can’t prove logically or scientifically that “A surgeon protects human life” or the equivalent.

Well, I think in the case of surgeons it goes with the job, the definition of the profession., But the more general case would be the “is” that humans have such attributes. The claim that you can’t prove it is human to protect life, to desire the flourishing of human life, etc.

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Some pesky delusions

Book review: The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails, editors John W. Loftus and Dan Barker

US$14.28; NZ$44.97

Paperback: 422 pages
Prometheus Books (March 31, 2010)

As the title indicates this book is about delusions often promoted by Christians. These are many and varied. The show up in areas such as the history of science, cosmology, morality/ethics, history, culture and anthropology, the nature of the mind and consciousness, ideas of gods, the Christian bible and the historically authenticity of biblical history. Religious leaders and theologians promote them and congregations uncritically accept them. That is the nature of faith and is Why Faith Fails, as the book’s subtitle says.

It is a collection of articles by nine different authors. The advantage – most readers will find some articles which specifically interest them. The disadvantage – few readers will have the same interest in all the articles.

Another advantage of different authors is that they are all experts in their own fields and write authoritatively on the subjects of their articles.

So I should declare my interests.  Part I: Why Faith Fails and Part 5: Why Society Does not depend on Christian Faith specifically interested me. Part 3: Why the Christian God is not Perfectly Good and Part 4: Why Jesus is not the Risen Son of God would interest those with a background or interest in theology. Readers interested in biblical history and analysis might prefer Part 2: Why the Bible is not God’s Word.

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