History, morals, ethics, reliability and authority.

This is almost certainly not going to be a very coherent or conclusive post because of the nature of its contents. One of my commentators doubted the truth of Galileo’s belief in astrology and offered up the old lame excuse of historians of science who don’t want their heroes to have feet clay (“no it can’t be true that Newton was an alchemist” or “Kepler only believed in astrology when he was young and naïve but he abandoned it as a mature scientist”) saying that he only did it for the money. As Ms Dr. Higgitts Higgitt correctly pointed out if that were the case why did he then cast detailed horoscopes for himself and his daughters? The commentator then asked for sources for the claim that Galileo was a practicing astrologer. I duly supplied some and included a paper by the historian of astrology Nick Kollerstrom. The commentator immediately responded with the information that according to Wikipedia Kollerstrom is a Holocaust denier and the question why then should we trust him as an authority on Galileo’s astrology?


Now I have to admit that I only knew Kollerstrom as a historian of astrology whose work is accepted by the history of science community and gets quoted by them without reservations. I also know that which I have read of his has hand and foot and appears to be in order. I never ever thought of looking him up on Wikipedia or Google and was not aware of his apparent Holocaust denial. If it is true, and it seems to be, that he is a holocaust denier then he is a scumbag but does his being a Holocaust denier invalidate his work as an astrology historian as my commentator seemed to imply? Even if his work on Galileo’s astrology is valid, which I think it is, should I/we refuse to quote or recommend it on ethical grounds? If he were a car salesperson I certainly wouldn’t buy a car from him. Where should I draw the line? Not to use his work would be difficult as he is co-editor with Nicolas Campion of the collected and annotated English edition of Galileo’s astrological papers, as far as I know the only such edition in any language. The papers mostly in the form of correspondence are not collected together but distributed throughout the official collected works of Galileo.


Of course Kollerstrom is not the only academic whose personal beliefs or behaviour in other areas make contact with his work ethically questionable. Where do we draw a line? How should I react? I live just down the road from the city of Nürnberg, The Reichsparteistadt (that is the home-base of the Nazi Party) where the laws depriving the Jews of their civil rights were issued (Die Nürnberger Gesetze) there is much here to keep the memory of the Holocaust very much alive. I detest and despise Holocaust deniers but I can’t answer my own moral questions. Do you have any thoughts, answers, rules of conduct, behaviour for me in this situation?


Filed under Autobiographical

16 responses to “History, morals, ethics, reliability and authority.

  1. Markk

    This revelation makes any statements by Kollerstrom have a much lower “prior” probability of being true – in my mind. I would instantly doubt anything he said unless verified. I would doubt the accuracy of his translations and the veracity of the book. It is a set back, but if a person is off the deep end that far on something, then everything he has ever done is pretty much useless, unless his co-author / editor has impeccable credentials, and can vouch for the accuracy of the work.

    It is not the moral issue that is the big thing to me, people can be morally reprehensible and still be reliable in terms of reporting something, it is the fact that to be a holocaust denier you must be deluded and willing to propagate falsehood.

  2. The cross examiner’s triumphant argument “If you’ve lied about x, why should we believe you when you say y?” is a pretty blunt instrument since veracity is not some sort of scalar quantity like mass. As Dr. House has usefully reminded us, everybody lies. The question of whether somebody’s lying in a particular case has to be addressed with an eye to motives and circumstances. Isn’t that something historians do all the time?

    In any case, like insisting that Obama wasn’t born in Hawaii, denying the Holocaust is not so much a factual assertion as a political stance. Calling it a lie is rather beside the point. Indeed, denouncing such heresies as lies is itself a political strategy that preempts an odious political position by ruling it out of court. Meanwhile, I don’t even know if Kollerstrom is an anti-Semite—eccentric characters are quite capable of riding hobby horses for disinterested motives or, more likely, out of sheer cussedness. If he is an anti-Semite, torturing the historical record to portray Auswitch as a resort hotel is just a way of saying that the Jews had it coming. Compare: I didn’t steal that pig. It wasn’t a very big pig. Anyhow, it was my pig.

    To judge from his bibliography, Kollerstrom may not be a Nazi but he certainly seems to be a crank who had a penchant for conspiracy theories and planetary influences, at least when he was off duty from the University. I don’t know the quality of his historical work on Galileo and astrology. I guess I’d be suspicious if he suggested he had found a secret meaning in the evidence, but one ought to be alert to possible outbreaks of the Da Vinci Code syndrome in the works of any scholarly writer since it eventually seems to afflict everybody who reads enough old books. Otherwise, if Kollerstrom assembles the evidence credibly and doesn’t fudge the references, what’s the issue? You don’t have to have lunch with the guy.

    • Kollerstrom’s work on Galileo was done several years before he started channeling the crazy and is academically solid. Looking at his bibliography he has got systematically more and more weird with each year.

      Strangely like Nicolas Campion one of the things that makes his early work on the history of astrology so good is the fact that he is a practicing astrologer.

      • I think that you need to emphasize a lot more that he did good work before he went crazy. There’s a related issue here, which is that the Holocaust is a historical event, so the crazy is more closely related to his actual expertise (thus for example, I wouldn’t be inclined to strongly doubt claims made by say a mathematician about math just because the mathematician was a YEC or a Holocaust denier.)

        In general, the goals of academia and intellectual inquiry should be paramount. I’d say that if the paper is the best paper in question on the subject one should cite it no matter how bad the person in question is personally. However, if one had two papers of about equal worth on a subject with no easy way to distinguish them, I could see one choosing to cite one over the other based on the author’s other actions.

  3. I’ll follow this discussion; I’ve reblogged it because as a practicing scientist I find it quite relevant to my work.

  4. Chris

    The best thing would be for you to verify his primary and secondary sources for yourself (after all, many scholars have inaccurately or dishonestly quoted sources), or find alternate secondary sources for the purposes of this discussion, since, given your interests, this subject will certainly come up again. That way you can avoid using his work at all, which will only – as it has here – be used against or undercut your thesis, even if that is unfair.

    • Unfortunately this is, within the grand scheme of things, a very minor point in the history of astrology or the lifelong work of Galileo and within the even wider and more general history of science microscopically small. This being the case historians say the work has been done by Kollerstrom, we don’t need to repeat it, so there is only the one source. If you quote other sources, such as the Heilbron Galileo biography that I gave in my original answer to the request for sources, they are nothing more than a regurgitation of Kollerstrom. Even if I was capable of doing so, which I am not, I’m not going to sit down and retranslate Galileo’s astronological correspondance out of the original 17th century Tuscan dialect into English just to be able to say occasionally that even the supposed ‘father of modern science’, Galileo, was a practicing astrologer.

      A friend of mine recently translated a short passage from Galileo’s observation log from the original Tuscan into German (an English translation exists but not a German one) together with his father in law, who is a Tuscan. It took the combined efforts of around half a dozen experts on the history of astronomy about two weeks to finally make sense of one particularly warped sentence!

      I’m a synthesist, that means I’m a historian who tries to paint big pictures based on the detailed work of other historians. Naturally one tries to control as much as possible the reliability of the sources one uses but if I was forced to repeat one for one the research of all of the people whose work I use then I would literally never finish anything!

      • Chris

        Wow, that’s surprising that Kollerstrom is the only source of translation into English. But I suppose you’re right – the idea that Galileo was an astrologer doesn’t seem to be unlikely or controversial, so it probably isn’t worth the effort to retranslate the primary sources (for that reason anyway). Of course, this means that you are not a fanatic about winning arguments.

  5. sbej

    His claims of Holocaust denial are not based on history but on his own chemical analysis of Gas Chambers. But then given his perspective he really has to ignore the history of this period.

    Its a science claim rather than a history one, based on “hard scientific data” according to him.

    Not that it makes things less problematic.

  6. Ian H Spedding FCD

    However detestable Kollerstrom’s views on the Holocaust might be, they do not necessarily have any bearing on his views on unrelated issues in science or history or his practice thereof. In any event, his views on the Holocaust or any other question should all be subject to the same rigorous academic scrutiny. If his denial of the Holocaust can only be sustained by ignoring all the evidence that it happened then his willful and perverse blindness should be exposed for what it is. If, however, his work on Galileo is shown to be well-founded then it should be upheld for that reason. What counts, in a sense, is not the man but the quality and integrity of his work.

    The general consensus seems to be that Newton was not the sort of chap you would want to sit down and have a beer with, that he would probably have felt the same about you and said so in no uncertain terms. But that does not alter the fact that his physical theories were a pretty handy piece of work.

    • If you were one of Newton’s scientific rivals then you would almost certainly have felt the rough edge of his tongue or his pen. However during the thirty years that Newton lived in London he regularly held court at a coffee house surrounded by a large circle of his admiring acolytes, which included many of the leading young British mathematicians of the day. He could be sociable under the right circumstances.

  7. sbej

    “However detestable Kollerstrom’s views on the Holocaust might be, they do not necessarily have any bearing on his views on unrelated issues in science or history or his practice thereof.”

    No but understanding his background may help understand in part how his detestable views have been formed and presented.

    “What counts, in a sense, is not the man but the quality and integrity of his work.”

    I agree, but I still think their are still problems. If you are a specialist presenting to other specalists in this area of history I don’t think it presents any difficulties. If however you are not and presenting to a wider readership I think the issue becomes somewhat more problematic.

    I was thinking of the 6th century historian John Morris responsible for editing a wide range of 6th century sources before destroying his reputation. Thony may be familiar with him . Not an exact fit but may prove helpfull.

    I can think of a few historians who have greatly shaped my perspective but I would not want to sit down and have a beer with. I also have no idea about Nick Kollerston’s personality, he may be nice to old ladies, small animals for all I know but it is of no relevance.

    His politics are; it’s such a basic factor of history and how you do it. You have to be aware of the full range of potential motives that may effect what is being presented in a primary or secondary source. Regardless of wither it actualy plays out on the text or not.

    How you present information in this case to a more general reader is not without its headaches unless you favour a more patrician style of selective presentation that is certainly still popular amongst some academics.

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