Category: History of Science

Galileo and the Tea Party

By Chris Mooney | September 12, 2011 2:41 pm

I’ve done my latest DeSmogBlog piece on the Rick Perry Galileo flap. I say a lot, but I particularly liked this part of it:

The misuse and abuse of Galileo’s story, in other words, is a case study in how people reason about history—just as they do with science—in a biased, motivated way, seeking to cast themselves as the good guys, the victors, and their foes as the opposite.

And once you see things in this way, you realize there’s a very close analogy in our politics to the Perry-Galileo flap. Climate “skeptics” invoking Galileo is really quite a lot like right wingers calling themselves the “Tea Party.”

The great architects of the United States—Jefferson, Franklin, Madison—were men of reason and the Enlightenment, just as Galileo was a man of the Scientific Revolution. They were freethinkers and, in Jefferson’s and Franklin’s case, scientists and inventors. And they didn’t want religion shoved down anybody’s throat.

And yet we now find a movement in America that wants more religion in politics, and that rejects science on climate change and evolution alike, trying to claim the mantle of the country’s founding.

Rick Perry’s invocation of Galileo, then, is much more than merely ridiculous. It gives us quite the window on the right wing mind, and demonstrates just how much it has managed to turn reality upside-down.

Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength…and Galileo and Rick Perry ride off together into the Texas sunset.

Full piece here.

Ancient Echoes from the Mediterranean Resonate with Modern Climate Fight

By The Intersection | May 9, 2011 12:21 pm

This is a guest post by Jamie L. Vernon, Ph.D., an HIV research scientist and aspiring policy wonk, who recently moved to D.C. to get a taste of the action

Well, today Chris is somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea. For those who aren’t aware, he is on the Center for Inquiry Travel Club Cruise with the likes of Joyce Salisbury, Lawrence Krauss and Phil Plait.  I can only imagine the discussions they are having as they travel across seas that were once the battlegrounds for control of ideas and thought in the world. Most often those conflicts occurred between religious and scientific views, which in many cases is not very different from what is occurring today.

The cruise will be visiting ports of call in Italy and the Greek Islands, places where no man or woman can visit without reflecting on the scientific history that began there.

Will Phil Plait take a late night stroll on the upper deck to catch a glimpse of our galaxy as it passes overhead? If so, will he think about the fact that our galaxy, the study of which has forced massive changes in religious thought, ultimately bears its name because of the story of a jealous Greek goddess?

Hera, the wife of Zeus, is said to have spilled the milk from her breast when she forced Herecles, the child born of one of Zeus’ adulterous escapades, to stop suckling. The spilled milk appeared in the sky and became known as the Milky Way.

Will Lawrence Krauss catch a glimpse of a star from his balcony and remember that if not for Copernicus’ observation that the universe does not revolve around the Earth but rather the Earth revolves around the Sun, if not for this observation, the Scientific Revolution may never have occurred?

Will Chris Mooney pace along the main deck and ponder the challenges Galileo faced after he developed the scientific methods to prove Copernicus’ theory of heliocentrism? Read More

Why Pursue Science and Technology Studies?

By Chris Mooney | April 4, 2011 12:19 pm

This week, Harvard’s Science, Technology, and Society program, headed by Sheila Jasanoff, is hosting a provocative conference:

This meeting is the product of a year of conversations across several continents and dozens of institutions. It weaves together the hopes, aspirations, and—yes—frustrations of STS scholars from around the world who have committed their careers to studying the central role of science and technology in our social, political, and moral lives.

The meeting is in part a stock-taking. After two decades of increased public funding for STS, what can we say about our achievements as a “thought collective”? What have we learned from speaking the truths of our field to the power of established disciplines? Which areas of work do we recognize as displaying the greatest theoretical depth and creativity? What do we impart to STS scholars-in-the-making, and what can we do to ensure that their ideas are heard more widely and that they find appropriate academic homes? The three-day program addresses these questions: first, STS and the disciplines; second, STS and its theories; third, STS’s institutional challenges and opportunities. Read More

The Kiss in History

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | January 28, 2011 12:52 pm

I have a guest post up at Wonders and Marvels:

Classicists and anthropologists have traced kissing history over millennium. The earliest and best literary evidence we have dates to around 1500 B.C. from India’s Vedic Sanskrit texts. While there were no words for “kissing,” there are intriguing lines such as the “young lord of the house repeatedly licks the young woman.” Later, the Vatsyayana Kamasutra (better known as the “Kama Sutra”) composed sometime around the third century A.D. includes an entire chapter devoted to kissing a lover.

Clearly, people in India were kissing thousands of years ago, but it’s doubtful they were the only ones doing so… Read on

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Education, History of Science
MORE ABOUT: kama sutra

How the Printing Press Ensures Eternal Enlightenment (Or So They Thought in the 18th Century)

By Chris Mooney | September 21, 2010 2:40 pm

For the Heinz science communication workshop out here at UC Davis, there’s a reading I assigned from the Marquis de Condorcet‘s magnificent 1794 Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind. I assign Chapter 8, in which Condorcet, the greatest of enlightenment optimists, explains how the arrival of the printing press basically ensures that reasoned arguments would become widely disseminated, leading to the downfall of irrationality and superstition.

Some choice quotations:

A new sort of tribunal had come into existence in which less lively but deeper impressions were communicated; which no longer allowed the same tyrannical empire to be exercised over men’s passions but ensured a more certain and more durable power over their minds; a situation in which the advantages are all on the side of truth, since what the art of communication loses in its power to seduce, it gains in the power to enlighten….In a word, we now have a tribunal, independent of all human coercion, which favours reason and justice, a tribunal whose scrutiny it is difficult to elude, and whose verdict it is impossible to evade.

Ah, the printing press. You just can’t deceive any more:

Any new mistake is criticized as soon as it is made, and often attacked even before it has been propagated; and so it has no time to take root in men’s minds.

Hey wait–that sounds like the blogosphere! And yet, it seems that a lot of mistakes still take root there.

In fairness, Condorcet is certainly on to something about the power of the press to ensure that ideas do get disseminated in some way–that pretty much everything can get out, and can’t be suppressed:

The instruction that every man is free to receive from books in silence and solitude can never be corrupted. It is enough for there to exist one corner of free earth from which the press can scatter its leaves. How with the multitude of different books, with the innumerable copies of each book, of reprints that can be made available at a moment’s notice, how could it be possible to bolt every door, to seal every crevice through which truth aspires to enter?

Yes….but that’s very different from enlightenment reaching every single person and making him/her rational and not susceptible to misinformation, error, prejudice, etc. Methinks Condorcet has the freedom of the press and mass public enlightenment tangled together, when they’re really quite separate.

But it should be grounds for a good discussion today. Love to hear thoughts on the blog, as well.

New Point of Inquiry With Naomi Oreskes, Co-Author of Merchants of Doubt

By Chris Mooney | June 4, 2010 12:37 pm

Merchants-of-DoubtThe latest episode of Point of Inquiry has just gone up. My guest this week is Naomi Oreskes, science historian and author (with Eric Conway) of the new book Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming.

You can stream the eposide here, and download/subscribe here. Here’s part of the write up:

Through extensive archival research, Oreskes and Conway have managed to connect the dots between a large number of seemingly separate anti-science campaigns that have unfolded over the years. It all began with Big Tobacco, and the famous internal memo declaring, “Doubt is our Product.”

Then came the attacks on the science of acid rain and ozone depletion, and the flimsy defenses of Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” program. And the same strategies have continued up to the present, with the battle over climate change.

Throughout this saga, several key scientific actors appear repeatedly—leaping across issues, fighting against the facts again and again. Now, Oreskes and Conway have given us a new and unprecedented glimpse behind the anti-science curtain.

Once again, you can stream the eposide here, download/subscribe here–and order Merchants of Doubt here.

Francisco Ayala Wins Templeton Prize

By Chris Mooney | March 25, 2010 4:56 pm here. It’s great to see such a staunch champion of the teaching of evolution, and of embryonic stem cell research, winning this award. There is no better demonstration, I think, that science and religion don’t have to be at war all the time–for after all, Ayala is also a former priest and has been exceedingly prominent in making the argument against the problematic “conflict thesis.”

Meanwhile, those who embrace that thesis, and dislike the Templeton Foundation, will still have a hard time saying anything bad about Ayala, I would imagine.

In addition to fighting doggedly in defense of evolution, his scientific credentials include winning the National Medal of Science and serving as president and chairman of the board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

In congratulating Ayala, the National Center for Science Education adds:

Among his contributions to the defense of the integrity of science education was his testimony for the plaintiffs in McLean v. Arkansas and his coordination of support for evolution education at the National Academy of Sciences, including his lead authorship of the publication Science, Evolution, and Creationism (National Academies Press, 2008). NCSE’s executive director Eugenie C. Scott commented, “Ayala’s contributions to NCSE and its goal of defending the teaching of evolution in the public schools are comparable to his contributions to biology in general: immense.”

One Of The Greatest Stories Ever Told

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | February 23, 2010 11:06 am

Picture 1Last fall, I described a book I was highly anticipating called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. And unless you’ve been hiding under a rock somewhere, you’ve no doubt already read excerpts and phenomenal reviews, seen it covered on television, heard Rebecca on air, and watched it climb the New York Times bestseller list during these first weeks since publication. All of the praise is more than deserved, and I would add that the story of Henrietta Lacks, her family, the immortal HeLa cell line, and the many dimensions to the story that Rebecca does such an extraordinary job of reporting, may just be one of the greatest true stories ever told.

Henrietta’s life wasn’t easy. She lost her parents by the age of four and worked hard alongside her cousins on a tobacco farm while facing the challenge of growing up as an African American woman in the south. After marrying young and having five children, Henrietta died at age 31 from cervical cancer. But around the time of her diagnosis, cancer cells from her cervix—famously known around the world as HeLa cells—were taken from her tumor to be used in research without her knowledge or consent.

HeLa cells were the first living human cells to be successfully grown in culture. They were distributed to scientists around the world and led to the vaccine for polio and many other diseases. HeLa taught scientists about chromosomes and genetic diseases like Down syndrome. They were launched into space to observe how space travel would affect human cells. They were inundated with toxins to understand cell response to different substances. They led to advances such as in vitro fertilization and helped win many Nobel Prizes. Over time, HeLa cells were cultured and copied and shipped and sold so many times, it’s estimated combined they would weigh over 50 million metric tons (equal to at least 100 Empire State Buildings).

Henrietta’s family was not told any of this for years. Her children and husband did not hear how their mother’s cells revolutionized medicine over and over as they were tested by researchers for seemingly ambiguous reasons. For-profit companies made billions off Henrietta’s cells, while those she cared about most often couldn’t even afford healthcare.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is about the life, death, and legacy of one of history’s most important individuals who all but lost her identity. Rebecca elegantly shares her true story which deals with science, ethics, and equality. The book spans nearly a century, and reflects the changing landscape of medicine, and the good, bad, and ugly side of research.

Most of all, it’s a human story that touches all of us. It’s beautiful, poignant, interdisciplinary, and should be required reading for every high school student.

I will have more to say about this wonderful book soon, but for now I leave readers with a single suggestion: Read it.

You, Sir, Are No Galileo

By Chris Mooney | December 3, 2009 9:07 am

Over at the rightwing Wall Street Journal editorial page, Daniel Henninger is invoking Galileo and painting the Swifthack episode as an “epochal event”:

The East Anglians’ mistreatment of scientists who challenged global warming’s claims—plotting to shut them up and shut down their ability to publish—evokes the attempt to silence Galileo. The exchanges between Penn State’s Michael Mann and East Anglia CRU director Phil Jones sound like Father Firenzuola, the Commissary-General of the Inquisition.

Alas, there are quite a few things Henninger is forgetting about Galileo. Among other matters, the Tuscan sage doesn’t merely symbolize “dissent in science,” as Henninger puts it. The people who dissented in the history of science, but were overwhelmingly wrong, tend to be forgotten. Galileo dissented and he happened to be overwhelmingly right (about the whole Earth-sun thing, anyway–let’s, er, forget that theory of the tides).

All of which kinda makes for a huge difference between Galileo and the climate skeptics.

Darwin film 'too controversial for religious America'?

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | September 16, 2009 10:40 pm

Creation: The True Story of Charles Darwin

The film was chosen to open the Toronto Film Festival and has its British premiere on Sunday. It has been sold in almost every territory around the world, from Australia to Scandinavia.

However, US distributors have resolutely passed on a film which will prove hugely divisive in a country where, according to a Gallup poll conducted in February, only 39 per cent of Americans believe in the theory of evolution.

I sincerely hope The Telegraph is mistaken. The trailer looks intriguing and over at Panda’s Thumb Eugenie Scott calls it “a thoughtful, well-made film that will change many views of Darwin held by the public – for the good.” Not all reviews have been as favorable, but Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connolly tend to give solid performances. I’m interested to see this movie and hope it finds its way to a theater in the Research Triangle.

Would you buy tickets to Creation?

MORE ABOUT: Charles Darwin

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