Having lots of letters after your name doesn’t protect you from spouting rubbish

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.


Filed under History of Astronomy, History of medicine, History of science, Myths of Science

22 responses to “Having lots of letters after your name doesn’t protect you from spouting rubbish

  1. Breathtakingly awful stuff! (I refer to Mortimer’s nonsense, not your response, Thony, which is wonderful.) I would not have thought it possible to cram so many historical inaccuracies into so short a space. Might I just add two points? 1) The so-called witch craze really got going in the 16th and 17th centuries (prosecutions of witches were rare before the late 15th century and executions for witchcraft almost non-existent). Belief in witchcraft thus developed AT THE SAME TIME AS THE “SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTION.” It was not swept away by the triumph of scientific rationalism. And indeed, as you point out, most “scientists” of the period were convinced of the legitimacy of witchcraft. 2) I cannot even conceive of how one could make an argument that people before 1600 prayed for relief of sickness and people after this magical watershed consulted doctors. This demonstrates such complete ignorance of all available primary and secondary sources that it must rank as pure fiction. There is also a strong whiff of sexism about this as many medieval and early modern people consulted female healers, some of whom were every bit as learned and experienced as their male colleagues. As women could not attain the title of “doctor,” I’m guessing they don’t count as “real” medicine for Mortimer.

  2. Mortimer’s books are actually pretty good, especially his Time Travellers Guide to Medieval England and his book on a year in the life of Henry V. Perhaps he should stick to the periods he knows – the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. He seems to be poaching out of field here.

  3. It’s not exactly obvious why praying was a less rational response to serious illness than visiting a doctor in 1650. The last two lines of a poem by Matthew Prior explain the the problem very well:

    Cured yesterday of my disease,
    I died last night of my physician.

    It would be interesting to know at what point in the last couple of centuries the doctors became less dangerous than the germs.

  4. laura

    Another obvious counterexample to the claim about science replacing magic (witches) is the New England Puritans. At around the same time as they participated/encouraged/at least didn’t discourage the Salem Witch Trials, Cotton Mather and other leaders of the movement were promoting early forms of innoculation against smallpox, pretty much the epitome of “scientific” forwardness in the late 1600s.

  5. phoog

    Why does “the sixteenth-century” get a hyphen when, earlier in the same sentence, “the seventeenth century” does not? The hyphen is only indicated when the phrase functions as an adjective.

    • Fuck off or should that be fuck-off?

      • There is an earlier error: “the seventeenth-century” appears at the end of the first para where it is not intended as a compound adjective. Handling ordinals is clearly not this writer’s strong point, but then who is without faults when it comes to English grammar?

      • Anonymous

        As a first-time visitor, I was interested in your blog and intended to return as a regular. After reading your immature and vulgar response to valid criticism, I will never visit your site again.

  6. Can one really have a favorite newspaper when Leveson Inquiry evidence clearly indicated that the UK press is a factory of falsehood, distortion and propaganda?

    • Mike from Ottawa

      LOL! Great to have someone referencing the Leveson Inquiry while clearly having only the vaguest acquaintance with it. Pretending everyone does it and all were similarly tainted is a lazily cynical approach that benefits those who actually ‘do it’ by daming all equally.

      Take a spin through the Report and you’d find that the Guardian is basically the hero of the piece, albeit just by doing what journalists should simply do as a matter of course.

  7. I kind of thought that Keith Thomas’ book “Religion and the decline of magic” shows clearly enough that it was religious folk who championed the fight against superstition and did most of the work destroying it.

    Mortimer is clearly out of his field here, but has not really bothered to check more up to date research. I’ve seen this quite a few times, people just picking and choosing in subjects out of their expertise in a way which they would not condone if someone was operating in their area of expertise.

  8. Can we actually say that the transition to doctoral imparted healing has been fully completed yet? I believe that one would need to adhere a percentage of completion to that statement. As far as I am concerned there is a quite considerable fraction of the world’s population (primarily in poor countries) that still opt for various superstitious remedies instead of soliciting orthodox medicinal cures. Where do we categorize the thousands of adepts to superstitious practices that disguise themselves as legit science? like homeopathy, for example. I think that it would be very interesting to look at a historical record keeping track of this yet uncompleted transition from superstitious to scientifically backed medicine.

  9. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Vol: #20 | Whewell's Ghost

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  11. Jeb

    The first half looks like its culled from Levack’s The Witch Hunt In Early Modern Europe. Research question that developed 15 to 17 years ago, asking wither in some cases the accused may have actually been engaging in acts of harmful magic. James the 6th (or 1st) attempted assassination by magic etc. Was it a real conspiracy etc?

    Levack’s setting up the issues to note at the end that it is perfectly acceptable for historians to ask the question.

    Not crude in its original form in Levack its just out of context and when you look at how the subject is deployed by a discipline using it to give its own persecution complex a back story I can sort of see why he may have felt the need to deploy it.

    Second half I suspect may just read wrong as well and may make more sense chewing through Levack’s work.

  12. Jeb

    p.s I think it just highlights the danger of generalizing and only making a couple of points. The most interesting one Levack makes is the role of social snobbery rather than belief in the new sciences or philosophy. Decline in these forms of belief among the middle and upper-classes related to wider social processes and a fragmenting society. With the bonus that sneering at peasants would also seem to have been emotionally rewarding (I think you can add and still is).


    I think he may have been thinking of the way the medical profession had established that a number of issues thought to be supernatural in cause were in fact medical illnesses. i.e Edward Jordan attacked popular belief in this manner.

  13. A strange mixture of informed and uninformed from one with more than one letter after his name, Chris Impey. http://youtu.be/U_fLbgYA324

    From 23:38 minutes he even insists on the medieval flat earth myth, as part of a comment on knowledge and technology not always improving in history: “There was a thing called The dark Ages, a period of 7-800 years, where all the extraordinary insights of the greek philosophers were utterly lost. People thought the world was flat and truly thought the world was flat. There were demons lurking on the edge of the map”.

    He then mentions not believing in evolution or The Big Bang as similar examples from today, before finishing by saying “History is interesting to me in this regard and has many cautionary tales”.

    In short, this video should be part of a cautionary tale. Even if he is a tad more informed on Copernicus, Galileo and Newton, he also insists on things like the opposition to the heliocentric system being mostly due to the loss of our significanse as not being in the centre (56:20) and that Bruno was burned “mostly” for his astronomy (1:32:00) – before describing his execution rather vividly.

  14. Jeb

    Part of that ‘cautionary tale’ must be with the way history is taught.

    I studied the early medieval period as an undergrad it was great classes were so small I sometimes got one to one tuition for the afternoon on one course if my two other classmates were absent.

    H.O.S I had to teach myself after university when I realized its relevance to my own wider interests in ethnology.

    Two subjects not really dealt with well within the education system as part of a wider historical curriculum (the specialist expertise is certainly in the system).

    Complex issue with a range of factors and processes at play in the mix.

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