To simplify is to falsify; falsification is used to simplify

The past is not neat and orderly, divided up into handy segments that the historian can parcel up and deliver to his expectant readers. The past is a horribly complex, tangled up mess. If the past were string, it would not be a neatly rolled up ball but a labyrinthine, knotted heap with multiple ends sticking out all over the place, some seeming to promise a swift unravelling, others apparently leading nowhere. It is the task of the historian to attempt to unravel than unruly heap of twine and try to reconstruct a picture of an episode, a period, or a process that took place at a particular point or during a passage of time in the past. Some of those lose ends represent fragments of the past that have got lost, as we never have anything like a complete record of the past. Unfortunately, teachers, popularisers, journalists and even some historians simply take a pair of scissors and cut out a segment from the heap, simply ignoring any connections that they thus destroy, trim off any lose ends than don’t fit the picture that they want to present, and then serve this up as history. What they end up with is a nice simple, dare I say clean cut, historical picture which they have falsified through their actions. They are not doing history but rather creating myths. I will try to illustrate this procedure by sketching couple of examples.

It will surprise nobody, who follows this blog that my first example is the conflict between Galileo Galilei and the Catholic Church. In the popular version this is inevitably presented as a conflict between science and religion. Galileo championed heliocentricity a valid scientific theory, which however, was in conflict to Holy Scripture and so the Church punished him, at the same time banning the heliocentric theory. You can find versions of this all over the place but almost all of the details are actually false.


Galileo Galilei, portrait by Domenico Tintoretto Source: Wikimedia Commons

Galileo did, indeed, champion heliocentricity, but, at the time he did so, it was merely an unconfirmed hypothesis and not a validated scientific theory. At that time, around 1615 when the conflict started, the empirical evidence tended to support a competing Tychonic geo-heliocentric model, which either gets simply ignored in the simplified version of the story or dismissed out of hand, because! He came into conflict with the Church not because of his support of heliocentricity, but because in his Letter to Castelli he, a mere mathematicus, had the audacity to tell the theologians how to interpret Holy Scripture. To exacerbate the situation the Carmelite theologian Paolo Antonio Foscarini (c. 1565–1616) did the same thing at the same time. This almost never gets mentioned in the popular version and if mentioned only to say have clever his criticism was. What definitely never gets mentioned is that this was in the middle of the Reformation/Counter Reformation, a major religious dispute over, who has the right to interpret Holy Scripture. Galileo couldn’t have picked a worse time to stick his oar in. What we have here at the core is a religious dispute that only indirectly has to do with science.

 Just in this brief sketch we can see that the popular simplified version sails majestically past the historical truth. The final point that gets completely ignored in the popular versions, in fact the propagators almost always claim the opposite, is that the Church did not ban heliocentricity. It said it was fine to discuss heliocentricity as a hypothesis but not as a validated scientific theory, which was its actual scientific status at the time. Despite the fact that it is almost completely false the simplified version gets trotted out by somebody almost daily.

For our second example we take a look at the world of Early Modern medicine and the work of Andries van Wezel (1514–1564) better known as Andreas Vesalius, with a glance to the side in passing at the anatomical studies of Leonardo da Vinci. Vesalius gets trotted out a lot in popular versions of the history of science because, by coincidence, his anatomy book, De humani corporis fabrica libri septem, was published in 1543, the same year as Copernicus’ De revolutionibus, providing a good excuse to call 1543 the beginning of the scientific revolution.


Vesalius Fabrica fronticepiece Source: Wikimedia Commons

Very often Vesalius get presented as the first physician to dissect corpses since antiquity. The claim of being first is also attributed to Leonardo. It is in both cases completely false, as is also the claim that the Church forbid dissection of human corpses and Leonardo or Vesalius were forced to do this secretly, also often stated in both cases. I will briefly deal with Leonardo, before returning to Vesalius. The practice of artists studying corpses, in order to better understand the structure of the body was well established by the time Leonardo began his apprenticeship under Andrea del Verrocchio (c. 1435 – 1488), in fact Verrocchio insisted on his apprentices making detailed studies of the human body with its muscles, sinews etc. Leonardo simply took these studies further that his artist colleagues. He carried out his dissections, without any subterfuge, together with the physician and professor of anatomy Marcantonio della Torre (1481–1511).


Leonard anatomical study of the arm (c. 1510) Source: Wikimedia Commons

Vesalius is, as already stated, often credited with being the first to practice human dissection since antiquity but as you can see Torre, who died three years before Vesalius was born, was practicing dissection with Leonardo, so Vesalius definitely not the first. In fact, Vesalius was a high point, but by no means the end point in a development that had been going on for at least one and a half centuries. The earliest recorded dissection took place in Padua in 1341 but the Anatomia of Mondino de’ Liuzzi (c. 1270–1326) dates from 1316, indicating an earlier well-established practice. In the late fifteenth century universities began to erect temporary dissection theatres in winter for the anatomy professors to carry out public dissections for their students. These would later be replaced with permanent anatomical theatres, with the first being built in Padua in 1595.


The Padua anatomy theatre designed by Hieronymous Fabricius , 1595. In Giacomo Filippo Tomasini, Gymnasum Patavinum (udine: Nicolaus Schirattus, 1654) Houghton Library via Wikimedia Commons

Vesalius worked in such structures well before he published his De fabrica. With his book Vesalius did set new standards, but these were rapidly developed further by his contemporaries and successors. The standard popular story surrounding Vesalius is, in the sense of my title, very much a simplified falsification.

My third example is one on the most well-known figures in the popular history of science, Francis Bacon (1561–1626). Bacon is credited, with his Of Proficience and Advancement of Learning Divine and Human published in 1605 and his New Atlantis published posthumously in 1626, “with presenting a universal reform of knowledge into scientific methodology and the improvement of mankind’s state using the scientific method”, to quote Wikipedia.


Title page of New Atlantis in the second edition of Francis Bacon’s Sylva sylvarvm: or A naturall historie. In ten centvries. London. Printed by J.H. for William Lee at the Turkes Head in Fleet-street, next to the Miter, 1628 Source: Wikimedia Commons

The only problem with this presentation of Bacon, as the creator of a vision for the future of science is that all the ideas and concepts that he presents had been developed and practiced by natural philosophers over the previous two centuries. Bacon was not presenting a vision for the future but rather a codification and idealisation of what had been evolving in science in the past. Bacon was a recorder of other peoples’ advances and developments and not the visionary prophet, as which he is presented.


In the three examples that I have sketched it should be clear that what popularisers attempt to do with their simplifications and falsifications is to create hero stories, myths, rather than confront the complex, tangled up mess that is the real history of science. Or as Will Thomas, Renaissance Mathematicus friend put it in a recent tweet , “Totally different from standing before the vast, unknowable chaos of the historical record.”






Filed under History of science, Myths of Science

18 responses to “To simplify is to falsify; falsification is used to simplify

  1. While I see your point, it seems like you are swinging too far in the other direction to exculpate the Church.

    It said it was fine to discuss heliocentricity as a hypothesis but not as a validated scientific theory, which was its actual scientific status at the time.

    First, as you wrote the Church complained about a mathematicus telling it how to interpret scripture. By the same token, the Church should not be telling a mathematicus how to evaluate scientific hypotheses.

    Second, the quote above is not that far from the famous quip by Ronald Reagan when asking about teaching evolution in public schools in the States: Well, it is a theory. 😐

    Third, an organization which burns people at the stake, no matter what reason they gave, has given up its right to be taken seriously.

    • Michael Traynor

      You are projecting your intention to inculpate the Church, reversed, onto Thony’s comments on Galileo when he’s trying instead to understand what happened and why. When Thony has noted the foolishness of publicly ridiculing an absolute monarch, as the Pope was and Galileo did, I get no sense that Thony reckons absolute monarchy is A Good Thing and Galileo deserved his fate. Nor when Thony points out that Giordano Bruno was not burnt at the stake for scientific views does that mean Thony reckons the Church was right to burn him. That the more complicated real history does not comport with a cartoon villain view of the Church does not mean that those doing real history are out to get the Church off the hook.

      As to your second point, Thony’s bit you quoted happens to be right, Copernicus’ was an unsubstantiated hypothesis and not a validated scientific theory the way, say modern evolutionary theory is, while the quip by Reagan is only right if one is ignorant of the difference between hypothesis and theory in science. So Thony’s remark is far from Reagan’s quip.

      Just because you have an agenda well served by the hagiographical version of the Galileo story does not mean any who critique that version must have the opposite agenda. However, your desire to have the Galileo story fit your agenda does illustrate why some of the simplifications as falsifications exist.

      • What is my agenda?

        Of course there are problems judging historical evens by standards of another time. That is not what I am advocating. But even by the standards of the time, at least in some places and in some minds, it was wrong. There was a reason why people published in the Netherlands.

      • Philip, people published in the Netherlands long before the Reformation. Bruges was a centre for production of illuminated manuscripts before the advent of the printing press and William Caxton printed his first books in English there, before moving his press to Westminster. This period is well-covered in the BBC4 series “The Secret History of Writing” which has now been uploaded to YouTube:

    • Oh dear Phillip, a wonderful piece of ahistorical presentism. Firstly, there is nothing in my statement that exculpates the Church. Bellarmino in his Letter to Foscarini explicitly states that heliocentricity is a hypothesis and should be treated as such. However, should empirical proof for heliocentricity be found then the Church will have to reinterpret Holy Scripture, showing that the Church’s decision was based on the correct scientific status of heliocentricity at the time, as I stated.

      The Church didn’t complain about a mathematicus interpreting Holy Scripture, according to the social, cultural and political order that existed in Northern Italy in the early seventeenth century, a mathematicus had no right to interpret Holy Scripture. Equally according to the same social, cultural and political order the Church had every right to tell a mathematicus how to evaluate scientific hypotheses.

      From your twenty-first century stand point, you might not approve of this situation but your approval or lack of it has nothing to do with the historical facts. Your comparison of the behaviour of Ronny Raygun in twentieth century America with that of the Catholic Church in seventeenth century Northern Italy is so ahistorical that it’s not even funny.

      Your final statement is in this context an, almost childish, irrelevance. It has absolutely nothing to do with a historical description of what took place between the Church and Galileo Galilei in 1615.

      Just for the record all authorities both civil and religious throughout Europe, in the early seventeenth century, executed people by barbaric means for a bewildering range of real and supposed crimes and not just the Catholic Church. Also, concerning your implication with regard to Galileo, can you name a single person, who was burnt at the stake by the Catholic Church for their scientific opinions.

      • The usual narrative is that the Catholic Church put Galileo under house arrest because he overstepped the bounds and treaded on their turf. That is basically correct. Yes, many people get the details wrong, but the point of the narrative is that it demonstrates how the Church stifled intellectual development in some fields. Sure, for their time, what they did was OK. Apartheid was legal in its place and time. We can’t go back in time, that’s not the point. The point is to learn from history. Almost everyone was OK for their time and place, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t criticize them at all and try to build a better world based on what we have learned.

        Should one get the details right? Sure. But if those details are wrong, and corrected, it doesn’t necessarily affect the main point if one is trying to make the world better than it is in the past.

      • “…but the point of the narrative is that it demonstrates how the Church stifled intellectual development in some fields.”

        Can you point a single instance of that actually happening?

      • Seriously? How many schoolchildren don’t get taught evolution? All down to religion. More in the past than now, and at least then including the Catholic Church. The Pope’s comments on AIDS. It’s a long list. Yes, these days, when people don’t get burned, then some people might not be stifled, but some are.

      • Jim Harrison

        I recently got around to reading Mommsen’s history of Rome. In the first volume, the historian discusses the role of the Pontiffs in defining the calendar. I was struck with how all those centuries later, astronomy still figured in the duties of the Pontifex Maximus. There was an institutional if not theological reason the Roman church concerned itself with astronomy. The famous line is that the church was all about how to go to heaven but not how the heavens go; but, as witness the Gregorian reform of the calendar, the Papacy was interested in how the heavens go as well.

      • @Phillip Neither of the examples you give is actually an example of the Church stifling intellectual development, which continues unimpeded despite what any religion might or might not say

      • I guess that we’ll have to agree to disagree here. I’m sure that many who, like me, have experienced such anti-intellectual activities of organized religion first-hand will agree with me. Not to mention the centuries of systemic, one might say ritualistic, sexual abuse. The less religion the better.

    • There was a reason why people published in the Netherlands.

      The Calvinists in the Netherlands were not saints, they imprisoned, tortured and executed people for a whole range of things that you would regard as barbaric.

    • C M Graney

      Regarding Phillip Helbig’s comments on Thony exculpating the Church:

      Philip has made this sort of comment more than once. If my recollection is correct, he did so just a few weeks ago when the subject was Thony’s review of -Shogun’s Silver Telescope- (perhaps on the HASTRO list), and that was not the first such comment.

      Broad references to sex abuse or the behavior of leaders or people in modern countries, etc. seem useless. Many countries can compete vigorously with the 17th-century papal states or the modern USA regarding deplorable leaders, treatment of people, weird beliefs, etc. Likewise for sexual abuse: here in the US, at least, several entities have stepped forward to complete vigorously with the Catholic Church in that deplorable behavior—in particular certain long-respected youth organizations seem to have been adept at abuse. Philip’s dropping such references on the subject is Galileo and the Church is hardly unique, but such references just lead to useless efforts to rate the Church (or the papacy, or this or that other country thrown up as point of comparison) on the “good guy/bad guy” scale of whatever person is making the reference. If we use this to determine what is to be taken seriously, we have little to take seriously, and discussion is useless.

      What is not useless is to question whether or not what Thony is saying is correct insofar as the particular historical incident in question is concerned. Philip, you must think Thony knows something or you would not be reading and commenting on his blog all the time. So, what would it take to persuade you that Thony is correct regarding Galileo and the Church?

      If it is possible to persuade you, then the material exists to do so. My research has been “the other side” of Galileo. I read what people who supported the geocentric view had to say—what they themselves wrote, not what some modern historian has said based on what some historian of two centuries ago said about what a mid-17th-century churchman astronomer wrote. What I have read indicates Thony to be broadly correct. I think it is very hard to look at the primary sources and hold the position you do. Of course, plenty of people publish material that would make you think you are right: -Shogun’s- being one, of course; Livio’s recent Galileo book being another. But books like those are not built on the historical record.

      If you are open to persuasion, I would start with directly reading what anti-Copernican authors wrote: Simon Marius’s 1614 -World of Jupiter-, Scheiner & Locher’s 1614 -Mathematical Disquistions-, and Francesco Ingoli’s 1616 essay to Galileo have all been fully translated out of 17th-century Latin into English within the past decade.

  2. Gavin Moodie

    Why do organisations that burn people at the stake forfeit the right to be taken seriously? Capital punishment was widespread in the early modern period, including by what now seem gruesome means. Capital punishment is currently practiced by several countries taken seriously, such as the USA, Japan, Singapore, and Taiwan.

    • Whether a country where several tens of millions believe in QAnon and where Trump was President is taken seriously and if so by whom is an open question. All the same, there is capital punishment for murder, not for believing something someone doesn‘t want one to believe.

      • Gavin Moodie

        So you are not objecting to capital punishment but to the crimes which attract capital punishment. Is sedition ‘believing something someone doesn‘t want one to believe’?

  3. Terry Stancliffe

    About your important title: “To simplify is to falsify; falsification is used to simplify” —

    Yes. Simplification and brevity too frequently amount to traps, holding back truth while giving free rein to falsehood.

    As Aldous Huxley once put it, discussing brevity:– “The soul of wit may become the very body of untruth.” (1958, in “‘Brave New World’ Revisited”).

    I don’t know if anybody has ever devised a systematic and effective way to reconcile the conflicting desiderata of brevity and truth. Any such person would deserve, I feel, a high place in the history of hermeneutics.

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