Correcting false assertions about the history of science

As a scientist interested in the history of science, I have become acutely aware that much of the science ‘history’ we picked up in the course of our scientific training is largely folklore (what Richard Feynman referred to as ‘myth-stories’) and highly unreliable. Hence it is advisable not to make sweeping conclusions based on them. Via PZ Myers over at Pharyngula I came across an interesting article that looks at a recent discussion between Sam Harris and Ben Shapiro, where they use history to draw conclusions about the relationship of science to religion. You could not pay me enough to listen to these two people but Tim O’Neill, an Australian atheist who writes the blog History for Atheists: New Atheists Getting History Wrong did, and he has done a thorough analysis of the historical assertions made by both and finds them, especially those of Harris, utterly wanting.

I am not that interested in Harris’s views on science history (I am sure that he and his acolytes will bring out the usual accusation that O’Neill has misunderstood Harris or is deliberately distorting his views) but O’Neill uses the discussion as a stepping stone to explore some interesting topics in history such as the role of Christianity in the fall of the Roman Empire, the stories of Copernicus and Galileo and the church, and the development of science in what is called the Middle Ages. I found it all quite fascinating. It is a long article that seeks to combat many wrong understandings that are propagated within the scientific community. Here is how he deals with Harris’s casual dismissal of the place of science in the Islamic world.

So, for Harris, the Islamic scholars and thinkers who gave us algebra, fundamental aspects of chemistry, advances in accurate astronomy, trigonometry as a separate mathematical field, the collation and expansion of Galenic medicine, critical expansions in optics, key concepts in physics and everything from “algorithm” to “zenith”, only did so because of some kind of “happy convergence”. But he is quick to add that all this happened in a “brief period”, after which Islam presumably reasserted its true nature and this “convergence” was quashed. Nothing to see here, says Harris, please move along.

This view makes very little sense. The idea that a state of affairs that continued for six whole centuries could somehow be an mere abnormality is clearly ridiculous – about as ridiculous as Harris calling this 600 year span “a brief period”. That aside, there is far too much evidence of on-going proto-scientific natural philosophy continuing after the supposed end date of this “brief period” for the idea that it had been stifled by theology to work. Long after the villain of Renan’s story – al-Ghazali – we see the “Spanish Aristotelianism” of Ibn Bajja, Ibn Tufail, Ibn Rushd, and al-Bitruji. Then in the eastern regions of the Islamic world in the thirteenth century there was a newfound interest in astronomy, as seen in the huge Maragha observatory in what is now Iran, built under the patronage of Hulagu Khan, and then the later astronomical centre of Ulugh Beg in Samarkand. The latter’s meridian sextant, with a radius 40 metres wide, was the largest astronomical instrument of the time and one of remarkable sophistication. These centres and the schools and libraries associated with them continued to do valuable and innovative scientific work, including reform of the Ptolemaic model. Even if Copernicus was not aware of or influenced by the work of Ulugh Beg’s disciple, Ali Qushji, the fact that the latter was doing sophisticated work on the motion of the earth long after the supposed end of the “brief period” shows that the notion of a short Islamic scientific golden age is an artefact of western prejudice. As George Saliba notes, “if we only look at the surviving scientific documents, we can clearly delineate a very flourishing activity in almost every scientific discipline in the centuries following Ghazali” (Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance, 2007, p. 21).

But people like Harris get their grasp of history second or even third hand. The convenient fiction of the “brief period” of Islamic proto-science, brought to an end by the wicked theologian al-Ghazali has become entrenched in New Atheist circles, partly thanks to it being peddled as a moral fable by another scientist and public educator, Neil deGrasse Tyson. Tyson tells this fairy tale in several of his public lectures, one of which can be found in a YouTube video that is regularly circulated on New Atheist fora. As already noted, the idea that Islamic proto-science ended with al-Ghazali’s influential book, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, is simply wrong. So is the claim that al-Ghazali argued against the pursuit of scientific knowledge.

There is a lot more interesting stuff in the article.


  1. mnb0 says

    It’s a very good article except for the fact that it hardly taught me anything new, which O’Neill can’t help. For many years I have found it amazing how many atheists are impressed by quackery just because it suits their agenda and confirms their prejudices. While I tend to find it annoying -- for a staunch atheist like me it’s easier to mock the others, ie christians, for their silly nonsense -- since long I’ve concluded that unbelievers by no means tend to be more rational than believers. And as I’ve made clear several times on this blog the propaganda for the conflict thesis is not the only example. Regarding this I recommend to start with a first step: there are more options than either “christianity founded modern science” vs. “christianity always hampered science”. Second step: distrust anyone who thinks the Dark Ages lasted from 500 to 1500 CE.

  2. jrkrideau says

    I have become acutely aware that much of the science ‘history’ we picked up in the course of our scientific training is largely folklore

    That is putting it mildly. Myth is more likely in most cases. My personal bugbear is the “Galileo Myth” story. As it is usually told, roughly 99% of the story is wrong.

    Or the story of the steady progress of medicine from Hippocrates to the current day. See David Wootton’s great book Bad Medicine. He suggests than doctors probably killed more patients than they cured, up to the early 20th C.

    Most times, when a scientist talks or writes about historical facts it is like Deepak Chopra lecturing on quantum theory. Neil deGrasse Tyson drives historians of science wild.

    Come to think of it, I just found where I put one of my favourite epigraphs by scientists. Well, distinguished urban planners at least.

    As late as the end of the 19th century, even a visionary like Jules Verne could not imagine a city with more than a million inhabitants.

    Jonas Rabinovitch and Josef Leitman Scientific American March 1996 .

    The problem is that, according to William Playfair, London UK had a population of 1,100,000 in 1811. Jules did not need much imagination.

    Tim O’Neil’s blog is very interesting and usually great fun to read. I have been reading it for about a year.

    If you are interested in the history of science,concentrating on but not limited to the Renaissance, Thony C’s The Renaissance Mathematicus is a great starting place.

  3. Holms says

    There are plenty of wrong things said about Galileo, which one would “the Galileo Myth” be? Or do you mean the collection of wrong things said of him as a whole?

  4. Zera says

    As a student of history and being a non-theist I find that too many Atheists are ignorant about history. I think the problem is that anyone who picks up a popular history book, reads something online, or hears a lie enough times will style themselves as experts or educated enough. Harris being the terrible person he is and Shapiro who utterly disgusts me, it comes as no surprise that they are ignorant about history. This is infuriating though. The study of history is extremely difficult but it’s a field that is demeaned by people like Harris, Pinker, and Right- Wing pundits. (The latter being anti- intellectual in general) Islam is one of the most attacked topics today and most of it is ill informed. For example there was a wave of amazing scholarship from Hui Muslims in China in regards to science and philosophy. They successfully described and wrote on Buddhism, Daoism, and other Chinese religions centuries before Europeans arrived and did it objectively without attacking or belittling those other religions. Muslims in China were brilliant scientists, scholars, or officials from the 7th century right up to the present day. And that’s just one case of a tragically obscure historical fact. Since atheists or most Westerners don’t get educated about these types of things, not just do we have a severe case of science illiteracy but also of history illiteracy. It becomes more tragic that history (part of the Humanities) is really under appreciated and underfunded compared to STEM fields. I don’t have a grudge against science or anything. I find it fascinating and is the best way to discover truths about our universe but a better appreciation for history and the Humanities can go a long way.

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