Recently on Twitter I stumbled across the cartoon entitled An Age-Old Argument, reproduced below. It’s not the first time I’ve come across it, as it’s one of those things that does the rounds of the social media sites at regular intervals. This time it was tweeted by Calestous Juma (@calestous) who describes himself as a Harvard Kennedy School Professor working on science & innovation for development. In his tweet he asked for, ”Any more examples of such arguments? scientific evidence”. It had been retweeted by @AnneGlover_EU , that is Anne Glover Former Chief Scientific Adviser to Jose Manuel Barroso 2012-2014. These are obviously both people who, when it comes to science, could be expected to know what they are talking about. However it becomes clear that when one analyses the cartoon, which they are boosting that this is not the case.
As you can see the cartoon has four panels of which the first three supposedly depict episodes from the history of science where ignorant people ignored scientific evidence in the same way as denialists do now in the climate debate. Juma and Glover, like many others, obviously think that the cartoonist has scored three home runs in his historical depictions. However as anyone knowledgeable of the history of science can see what we have here are three hoary old myths of science leading to three strikes and an out. Put differently, people like Juma and Glover should not be spreading ignorant and misleading rubbish as this.
Our first panel has the people in the Middle Ages believing that the earth was flat and refusing to believe that it’s a sphere. This is probably the most widespread and stupid myth in the whole history of science. Since antiquity nobody in Europe qualified to express an opinion on the subject believed that the earth was anything but a sphere. The claim that Europeans in the Middle Ages believed that the world was flat is a baseless myth created in the nineteenth century. So no homerun, strike one!
To be quite honest the second panel baffles me as it depicts something that never ever took place anywhere at anytime. Gravity is a term used since antiquity to describe the fact that if you let something drop it falls to the ground. Nobody ever challenged this purely descriptive term. In the late seventeenth century Isaac Newton demonstrated that the same force that causes things on earth to fall to the ground also prevents orbiting planets from shooting off at a tangent to their orbits, as the law of inertia would require, thus creating the idea of universal gravity. On the whole those capable of understanding Newton’s mathematical theories accepted them but the Cartesians and the Leibnizians objected to Newton’s inability to explain just what exactly the force of gravity was or should be. Their mechanical philosophical understanding of nature making them suspicious of Newton’s action at a distance. This scientific debate took place in the eighteenth century not the seventeenth and never included any denial of the phenomenon of gravity. So no homerun, strike two!
We now turn to the one panel that some people might consider depicts historical reality. We have a man in the nineteenth century rejecting the theory of evolution on the basis of religion. Images of the infamous Oxford debate, between Darwin’s Bulldog, Thomas Huxley, and Samuel, ‘Soapy Sam’ Wilberforce, spring instantly to mind. Unfortunately we have to do with another modern myth. There was no significant religious objection to the theory of evolution during the nineteenth century. I realise here that I’m stepping outside of my historical comfort zone (nineteenth century, life sciences!) and some might challenge my competence to make such a claim. However I offer as substantiation a couple of blog posts by historian and philosopher of biology, and Renaissance Mathematicus friend, John Wilkins at Evolving Thoughts, here, here and here that explain the subject. So no homerun, strike three and out!
I do wish scientist and science communicators who wish to promote scientific thinking against the denialists and their ilk would desist from spreading and propagating rubbishy myths of science, as history of science.