Monday, June 9, 2008

Rewriting history

Offhand, the other day, I told my then-fiance, now wife, that (with only a very few exceptions) everybody in the educated classes of Europe knew the world was a globe from before the time of Jesus. She was shocked. She'd been told a thousand times (as I had) that everybody thought the world was flat before Columbus.

In fact, Eratosthenes of Cyrene (276-200 B.C.) calculated the circumference of the Earth to startling accuracy. 1700 years before Columbus.

Columbus' bold move was not to assert that the Earth was round, but rather his adoption of the Ptolemaic (rather than Eratosthenesian) circumference of the Earth. The ptolemaic calculation was, of course, much smaller, and ultimately wrong. But he thought the Earth was much smaller than previously believed, and therefore thought he could survive the voyage to Japan.

Right? No. Desperately wrong. He just got lucky there was another continent in the way.

But why the widespread lie about medieval folks believing the Earth was flat? I had TEACHERS teaching me that lie.

Or consider this limerick, in which the author breaks down the galileo affair to a conflict between "natural laws versus mystical cause."

The facts, of course, are radically different.

First of all, neither side was arguing about naturalism vs. supernaturalism. Both sides believed in a Creator. The debate was about whether the Sun revolved around the Earth (The Ptolemaic System) or the Earth revolved around the sun (The Copernican model).

So scratch one.

Secondly, this "mystical cause" theory (you know, the ptolemaic system) was devised by a pagan, not a Christian.

So scratch two.

Thirdly, this "mystical cause" was developed through the scientific method -- Ptolemy observed the physical universe, and developed a system to explain his observations. Turned out his system was wrong -- but it was certainly not based on mysticism. Quite the contrary, it was based on science.

Scratch three.

So what you had, actually, was the Church adopting secular science as dogma. And then the secular science turned out to be wrong, the Church didn't want to let it go.

Analogous to the adoption by many churches (like even the Big One, Catholicism) of the ludicrous doctrine of common descent? Perhaps.

But most importantly, perhaps, Galileo's model was inferior to the ptolemaic system, because he insisted the orbits of the planets were round. On this score, Galileo fell far short of his contemporary, Kepler. Galileo rejected Kepler's (correct) idea that the planetary orbits were eliptical -- because he thought circles were more "perfect" than elipses.

But the funny thing is, because Galileo refused to accept the eliptical orbits of the planets (as calculated by Kepler), his mathematics were actually inferior in their description of reality than the ptolemaic system Over the millenia, ptolemaic astronomers had added in all sorts of ad hoc adjustments to match their geocentric system to observed reality -- absurdly complex and ultimately wrong, but a much more accurate description of the observed fact's than galileo's circular orbits.

So why this whole thing about how Galileo was this "martyr for science?" Seems to me to be another anticlerical fiction -- a little rewriting of history that confirms the popular impression that the church opposes "science."

So who does things like this? Well in the case of Columbus, it was a guy named Washington Irving. In the case of Galileo, I suppose it's the morons writing and passing along limericks that rewrite history to serve their own purposes.

What I really don't understand is how people can actually make up stories to support their argument. As though the truth of the matter is less important than persuading people. Secular Fundamentalism strikes again, I guess.

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