The eloquently excellent Elegant Fowl (aka Pete Langman @elegantfowl) just drew my attention to a piece of high-grade seventeenth-century history of science rubbish on the website of my favourite newspaper The Guardian. In the books section a certain Ian Mortimer has an article entitled The 10 greatest changes of the past 1,000 years. I must to my shame admit that I’d never heard of Ian Mortimer and had no idea who he is. However I quick trip to Wikipedia informed that I have to do with Dr Ian James Forrester Mortimer (BA, PhD, DLitt, Exeter MA, UCL) and author of an impressive list of books and that the article on the Guardian website is a promotion exercise for his latest tome Centuries of Change. Apparent collecting lots of letter after your name and being a hyper prolific scribbler doesn’t prevent you from spouting rubbish when it comes writing about the history of science. Shall we take a peek at what the highly eminent Mr Mortimer has to say about the seventeenth-century that attracted the attention of the Elegant Fowl and have now provoked the ire of the Renaissance Mathematicus.
17th century: The scientific revolution
One thing that few people fully appreciate about the witchcraft craze that swept Europe in the late 16th and early 17th centuries is that it was not just a superstition. If someone you did not like died, and you were accused of their murder by witchcraft, it would have been of no use claiming that witchcraft does not exist, or that you did not believe in it. Witchcraft was recognised as existing in law – and to a greater or lesser extent, so were many superstitions. The 17th century saw many of these replaced by scientific theories. The old idea that the sun revolved around the Earth was finally disproved by Galileo. People facing life-threatening illnesses, who in 1600 had simply prayed to God for health, now chose to see a doctor. But the most important thing is that there was a widespread confidence in science. Only a handful of people could possibly have understood books such as Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, when it was published in 1687. But by 1700 people had a confidence that the foremost scientists did understand the world, even if they themselves did not, and that it was unnecessary to resort to superstitions to explain seemingly mysterious things.
Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I’m a gradualist and don’t actually believe in the scientific revolution but for the purposes of this post we will just assume that there was a scientific revolution and that it did take place in the seventeenth century, although most of those who do believe in it think it started in the middle of the sixteenth-century.
I find it mildly bizarre to devote nearly half of this paragraph to a rather primitive description of the witchcraft craze and to suggest that the scientific revolution did away with belief in witchcraft, given that several prominent propagators of the new science wrote extensively defending the existence of witches. I recommend Joseph Glanvill’s Saducismus triumphatus (1681) and Philosophical Considerations Touching the Being of Witches and Witchcraft (1666). Apart from witchcraft I can’t think of any superstition that was replaced by a scientific theory in the seventeenth-century. However it is the next brief sentence that cries out for my attention.
The old idea that the sun revolved around the Earth was finally disproved by Galileo.
By a strange coincidence I spent yesterday evening listening to a lecture by one of Germany’s leading historians of astronomy, Dr Jürgen Hamel (who has written almost as many books as Ian Mortimer) on why it was perfectly reasonable to reject the heliocentric theory of Copernicus in the first hundred years or more after it was published. He of course also explained that Galileo did not succeed in either disproving geocentricity or proving heliocentricity. Now anybody who has regularly visited this blog will know that I have already written quite a lot on this topic and I don’t intend to repeat myself here but I recommend my on going series on the transition to heliocentricity (the next instalment is in the pipeline) in particular the post on the Sidereus Nuncius and the one on the Phases of Venus. Put very, very simply for those who have not been listening: GALILEO DID NOT DISPROVE THE OLD IDEA THAT THE SUN REVOLVED AROUND THE EARTH. I apologise for shouting but sometimes I just can’t help myself.
Quite frankly I find the next sentence totally mindboggling:
People facing life-threatening illnesses, who in 1600 had simply prayed to God for health, now chose to see a doctor.
Even more baffling, it appears that Ian Mortimer has written prize-winning essay defending this thesis, “The Triumph of the Doctors” was awarded the 2004 Alexander Prize by the Royal Historical Society. In this essay he demonstrated that ill and injured people close to death shifted their hopes of physical salvation from an exclusively religious source of healing power (God, or Christ) to a predominantly human one (physicians and surgeons) over the period 1615–70, and argued that this shift of outlook was among the most profound changes western society has ever experienced. (Wikipedia) I haven’t read this masterpiece but colour me extremely sceptical.
We close out with a generalisation that simply doesn’t hold water:
[…] by 1700 people had a confidence that the foremost scientists did understand the world, even if they themselves did not, and that it was unnecessary to resort to superstitions to explain seemingly mysterious things.
They did? I really don’t think so. By 1700 hundred the number of people who had “confidence that the foremost scientists did understand the world” was with certainty so minimal that one would have a great deal of difficulty expressing it as a percentage.
Mortimer’s handful of sentences on the 17th century and the scientific revolution has to be amongst the worst paragraphs on the evolution of science in this period that I have ever read.