Three strikes and you’re out!

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.

An age-old argument

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, herehere 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.

9 Comments

Filed under Myths of Science

9 responses to “Three strikes and you’re out!

  1. It used to be a commonplace that there was only one way to be good but many ways to be bad. I have my doubts about that, but it’s interesting that the cartoon you reproduce seems to imply that anti-scientific opinions are all alike in a crucial way, that error has a certain unity. It’s not enough to assert that science is one. Dunderheaded anti-science has to be one too. It seems to me that this idea is plain false as a matter of history.and sociology.

    Consider the four panels of the cartoon. There have been people who argue for the flatness of the earth—the 20th Century Flat Earth Society may have been an elaborate joke, but the analogous moment in the 19th Century was in earnest. To insist that the world is flat and elaborate complicated explanations to wave off the evidence is a kind of crank.

    There were certainly learned people in the 17th and 18th Century who denied universal gravitation. They wouldn’t have pointed at birds so much as at flames, however. I have in mind in particular the fraction of the Catholics who clung to Aristotle. Aristotle had in effect asserted the reality of levity as well as gravity. It is not the case that everything is attracted to everything else, but that different elements tend to move towards their natural place. Ergo fire rises. Earth falls. The Jesuits and other relatively progressive Catholics made their peace with Newton early on, but some of the reactionary theologians clung to a more literal Aristotelianism, especially in Spain. Jonathan Israel’s huge tomes on the radical enlightenment contain the details of this episode.

    The case of the religious objections to Darwin is hugely more complex because most of the objections to his books were objections to natural selection rather than to evolution. Asserting that life and the earth was very, very old and that both living things and the planet had undergone profound changes didn’t bother people like Darwin’s old teacher, the Episcopalian priest Adam Sedgwick, who, after all, was the guy who defined the Cambrian. That a mindless, anonymous process was the cause of evolution bothered such folks a great deal. As John Wilkins points out, most mainstream religious thinkers soon figured out how to make their peace with natural selection via the notion of secondary causes. In any case, for a long time the evidence for natural selection was far weaker than the evidence for evolution. The evidence for the profound antiquity of the Earth was even more overwhelming. Still, there were so-called biblical geologists who denied both evolution and a long-time scale for the Earth history. The more literalist faction of these folks weren’t taken seriously by the scientific establishment at the beginning of the 19th Century, but they weren’t all cranks at the beginning because some of ’em, Buckland, for example, thought that they had found evidence of a Biblical-scale flood. He didn’t think that it had happened as recently as Genesis suggested but they thought that the Biblical account was a garbled memory of a real event. In fact, they had found genuine evidence of a wide-spread and recent catastrophe, the Ice Age. Buckland would hardly have pointed to a Bible in order to refute the new geology, however. He would have and in fact did, point to the fossils he found in caves. (Later on he decided he had been wrong about the chronology.) There were folks who would have and in fact did point to the Bible to deny evolution; however, and that was going on a hundred years before the emergence of modern Fundamentalism. S.J. Rudwick’s very good on this era.

    Climate denialism differs from the other cases in its ideological and economic motivation. Flat Earthists weren’t fronting for oil companies. Recalcitrant Aristotelians weren’t afraid of higher taxes. If you’re looking for historical precedents for climate denial, the obvious choice is the defense of the tobacco industry. Indeed, the same PR firms devised the strategy used by both movements. Whether or not mankind is warming the planet as a matter of fact is irrelevant to the spokesmen for denialism much as the actual innocence or guilt of the defendant is irrelevant to an attorney. It isn’t about truth. For the fossil-fuel industry, it’s about money. For the conservatives, it’s about defeating the goddamn big government liberals and socialists.

    The only singular error at work here, seems to me, is the notion that irrational opposition to scientific ideas is a singular error. It’s rather like accounting for every bad thing that happens by postulating the existence of the devil. Of course it is also problematic because it assumes that all opposition to new scientific ideas is irrational.

  2. Jeb

    A singular and repetitive error that leaves no room for historical evolution.

    The Flat History Society waves pointy stick in the air.

  3. Niklas

    I thought that the whole point of the cartoon was that the three first examples have never been an issue. Then comparing to climate change denialism to them is like comparing them to Flat Earth Society. The fact that the three first panels have untrue arguments makes the fourth to look even more silly.

  4. Aside from the historical inaccuracies, these panels seem to me to be philosophically illiterate. What the four speakers have in common is that they make an observation and demand that the theory in question is consistent with that observation. So is the cartoonist suggesting that we should ignore observations and build theoretical fictions? Apparently not. But then what is he/she saying? Maybe he/she wants to say that a single observation cannot support a theory — a swallow doesn’t make a summer, and a snowflake doesn’t make a cooling climate. That’s what the fourth panel suggests. But the arguments in the other panels do not obviously involve sampling errors of that kind.

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  6. Yes, yes, and yes again. Unfortunately, all three swings are part of the rhetorical arsenal of today’s science numbskulls. I don’t think they deny gravity, but I’ve heard denials of it having anything to do with mass. As one (home-schooled) student said to me, “God created it that way.” For too many today, science, being the enemy of faith, is automatically rejected.

    Your points are excellent. The cartoonist should have focused on contemporary anti-intellectual arguments rather than inventing a past and revealing his own ignorance.

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  8. Jens Knudsen (Sili)

    The claim that Europeans in the Middle Ages believed that the world was flat is a baseless myth created in the nineteenth century.

    The idea was used in the 18th century to paint simple folk as ignorant https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erasmus_Montanus .

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