Tuesday, February 23, 2016

More myths about "science and religion"

by Salman Hameed

A few years ago, Ronald Numbers published a terrific edited volume titled Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion. The book contains 25 short essays, written by historians, that tackle 25 myths about science and religion. Some of the myths included in the book are: That Medieval Christians Taught That the Earth Was Flat, That Giordano Bruno Was the First Martyr of Modern Science, That Evolution Destroyed Charles Darwin’s Faith in Christianity—until He Reconverted on His Deathbed, That Einstein Believed in a Personal God, and That Modern Science Has Secularized Western Culture - the last one is a fascinating one, written by John Hedley Brooke.

Just like with movies, success lead to sequels. So here we are with a followup: Newton’s Apple and Other Myths about Science - this edited by Ronald Numbers and Kostas Kampourakis. There are 27 essays this time, and again the collection looks great. Here is the description of the book:
A falling apple inspired Isaac Newton’s insight into the law of gravity—or so the story goes. Is it true? Perhaps not. But the more intriguing question is why such stories endure as explanations of how science happens. Newton’s Apple and Other Myths about Science brushes away popular misconceptions to provide a clearer picture of great scientific breakthroughs from ancient times to the present.
Among the myths refuted in this volume is the idea that no science was done in the Dark Ages, that alchemy and astrology were purely superstitious pursuits, that fear of public reaction alone led Darwin to delay publishing his theory of evolution, and that Gregor Mendel was far ahead of his time as a pioneer of genetics. Several twentieth-century myths about particle physics, Einstein’s theory of relativity, and more are discredited here as well. In addition, a number of broad generalizations about science go under the microscope of history: the notion that religion impeded science, that scientists typically adhere to a codified “scientific method,” and that a bright line can be drawn between legitimate science and pseudoscience. 
Edited by Ronald Numbers and Kostas Kampourakis, Newton’s Apple and Other Myths about Science debunks the widespread belief that science advances when individual geniuses experience “Eureka!” moments and suddenly comprehend what those around them could never imagine. Science has always been a cooperative enterprise of dedicated, fallible human beings, for whom context, collaboration, and sheer good luck are the essential elements of discovery.
I may be guilty of one falling into one of the myths as well: Myth 23. That the Soviet Launch of Sputnik Caused the Revamping of American Science Education [John L. Rudolph]. I have just ordered the book and will have to wait to see the issue with this.

Interestingly, this book was also mentioned in a NYT book essay about a week ago - but in the context of science and religion:
Also important to the New Atheist movement is the idea that religion and science are opposites, competing forms of inquiry that have been locked in a zero-sum struggle for supremacy. Many of the essays in the anthology NEWTON’S APPLE AND OTHER MYTHS ABOUT SCIENCE (Harvard University, $27.95), edited by the historian of science Ronald L. Numbers and the researcher Kostas Kampourakis, challenge this dichotomy. To start with, the historical episodes commonly understood to be exemplars of this conflict — from Giordano Bruno’s execution as a scientific martyr to the uniformly hostile religious reception of Darwin’s “Origin of Species” — are frequently misunderstood or misrepresented. Copernicus’s heliocentric theory, for example, did not in fact threaten to demote the exalted place of humans in the universe: The Earth was previously thought to be at the center, i.e., in the gutter, of the world, where filth and disorder gathered. Nor did Copernicus or most other early modern advocates of the new astronomy think it was incompatible with Christianity. 
Religious considerations have also influenced science in constructive ways, as the intellectual historian Peter Harrison notes in an essay about the “conflict myth.” The work of 17th-century figures like Johannes Kepler, Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton was informed by their religious thinking. The very notion of a “law of nature” was at first a theological idea. And even the experimental method itself may be indebted to theological notions of human nature that emphasize our intellectual and perceptual fallibility. Indeed, the “conflict” idea is fairly new: Historians trace it back only to the 19th century, though Harrison observes that many of its characteristic themes (ignorance versus knowledge, superstition versus rationality) appear in 17th-century Protestant polemics against Catholicism for being “anti-science.” Only the villain has changed.
Read the full article here

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