Category: History of Science

Scripps SciComm Post I: Reading and Reacting to the Marquis de Condorcet

By Chris Mooney | August 10, 2009 11:27 am

The first reading assignment for the Scripps class is a prelude to my opening lecture, itself titled “From Copernicus to Colbert: A Brief History of Science Communication.” To get the students ready to think historically about what science communication is, and how it has changed over time (due in significant part to changing communication technologies), I had them all read Chapter 8 of a fascinating little book entitled the Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, penned in 1794 as the French Revolution turned bloody by one of the last of the philosophes, the Marquis de Condorcet.

The Sketch is Condorcet’s grand and impassioned argument for why science and reason must triumph in the long term against superstition and tyranny, and its author hangs much of the case on the power of one particular communication technology–the printing press. In particular, Condorcet’s Chapter 8–really, his “Eighth Stage,” as the book is organized in “Stages” along the path to full enlightenment–is entitled “From the invention of printing to the time when philosophy and the sciences shook off the yoke of authority.” It contains some powerful stuff; here are a few passages.

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Science, Religion, and the Knowledge of History

By Chris Mooney | June 29, 2009 11:42 am

I’m growing increasingly convinced that the lack of historical awareness is an important factor in fanning the flames of science-religion conflict. Indeed, over at Russell Blackford’s blog, John Wilkins notes as much:

As you must know, religion has played a complex and often intimate role in actual science. The equivalence classes “science” and “religion” are either abstracted in some unrealistic purity, or treated as somehow the same, and so on. But the history is that science and religion are neither separate nor identical and their degree of engagement changes over time. If all we are doing here is defending some idealised science, then we defend nothing.

Whereupon a commenter named “Matt” writes this, something that really surprised me:

Religion might have played an important peripheral role in funding or supporting (or oppressing) scientific endeavors, but but I doubt very seriously it ever played a role in the actual science.

Let me just give one sense in which religion inspired science. The point is based on my reading of John Hedley Brooke’s Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge Studies in the History of Science), which is one very important academic study of the subject. For reference see p. 192-225 in Brooke.

Back in the days of natural theology–“intelligent design” before Darwin, back when it was actual “science”–many Christians thought that the natural world provided copious evidence of the brilliance of God’s handiwork. Accordingly, parsons and priests were often inspired to become naturalists and study nature in order to provide evidence of the divine. Science was a means of finding and understanding one’s Creator.

Scientific inquiry was therefore substantially driven by faith, and much scientific progress resulted from this impulse–albeit progress in a pre-Darwinian paradigm. After Darwin much of it remained good data, though of course it had to be reordered and seen through a new lens.

There are also, to be sure, ways in which religion thwarted science in the past. But the point is, you need to understand the rich historical picture, and if you do, you find that the Galileo case–although an incredibly important event–is hardly a skeleton key to the science-religion relationship over time.

Galileo, Pragmatist?

By Chris Mooney | June 19, 2009 11:33 am

Much interesting stuff came up last night at the launch of the Franklin Institute Galileo symposium–but for now I’ll just highlight one central matter that dominated much of the discussion.

In attempting to make the famous scientist relevant to us today, Ruth Schwartz Cowan, the Janice and Julian Bers Professor of the History & Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania, argued strongly that Galileo was a “pragmatist.” As a man without independent wealth, who lived in a society where the Church had absolute “juridical power” over his and everyone else’s life, Galileo had no choice but to cozy up to patronage and to papal authority. In the book that got him condemned, the 1632 Dialogo, Cowan explained that Galileo was under order not to advocate the position that the actually Earth moves–so he instead wrote an “on the one hand/on the other hand” treatment of the issue, to meet the letter of the law and leave it to the reader to decide.

But this raises a very stark question–if Galileo was such a pragmatist, then how did he get himself into so much trouble?

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What Would Galileo Think?

By Chris Mooney | June 18, 2009 10:44 am

Tonight and tomorrow, I will be at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute attending this event: “The Legacy of Galileo,” which kicks off with the following panel discussion:

What Would Galileo Think?
7:30PM
Franklin Theater

Hear four distinguished scholars talk about Galileo’s struggle to reconcile science and religion during the Renaissance. Today our modern context of science and religion affect thinking about topics such as stem cell research, evolution and climate change. How might the controversies of Galileo’s time be relevant to today’s conflicts between science and cultural institutions?

Panelists: Mario Biagioli, Professor of the History of Science, Harvard University; Ruth Schwartz Cowan, Janice and Julian Bers Professor of the History & Sociology of Science, University of Pennsylvania; Maurice Finocchiaro, Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, University of Nevada, Las Vegas; Joel Primack, Professor of Physics, University of California Santa Cruz

I’m looking forward to the panel and hope to report back as much as possible. There is plenty more science/religion blogging to do, and with the Galileo theme, perhaps I can bring in a historical perspective (so often woefully lacking in these discussions).

To that end, let’s start with a fun, if unanswerable, question: If Galileo were with us today and consumed with the science-religion question, would he argue like Jerry Coyne, or like Kenneth Miller?

One Last C.P. Snow Conference

By Chris Mooney | May 28, 2009 7:27 am

I’m off to Michigan State University this morning, for one last bite from the C.P. Snow apple. The conference, being hosted by the International Center for the Advancement of Scientific Literacy, the Lyman Briggs College, and others, features some great folks including Dover trial veterans Robert Pennock and Barbara Forrest. You can see the full event roster here. My talk title is “Unscientific America: A 50 Year Transatlantic Updating of C.P. Snow.”

I’m sure Sheril will keep the blogging happening when I’m in the air. More soon….

Does Extreme Relativism Still Exist in the Study of Science (If It Ever Did)?

By Chris Mooney | May 23, 2009 12:22 pm

I pretty much assumed that the 1990s wars between the “postmodernists” and the scientists were long over. They always seemed to turn as much on disciplinary misunderstandings as on actual differences of position: The allegedly “postmodern” view that so outraged scientists–a starkly relativistic approach which accorded the discoveries of science no greater standing than mythological or faith-based way of seeing the world–was never really held by many people. That’s in large part because it’s so obviously ludicrous.

But now–having just read this review of a new history of science book from Oxford University Press, Patricia Fara’s Science: A Four Thousand Year History– I’m beginning wonder:

Science is an impressive antidote to the idea of scientific endeavour as a straight line of progress. Yet Fara takes it too far by ignoring how the knowledge produced relates to the external world: she treats all theories as equal, regardless of the evidence. For instance, when arguing that doctors rejected the “animal magnetism” therapies of Franz Mesmer in the 19th century because they feared he was stealing their patients, she discounts the lack of a rational explanation for his theories and does not mention that they failed the first ever controlled clinical trial.

A more worrying case is Fara’s interpretation of global warming. She argues that the theory arose because selling doomsday scenarios helps researchers to win funding. And putting the blame on humanity also enables scientists to “fulfil the same psychological needs as religious prophets who preached that the end of the world represents God’s punishment of the sinful”. She does not appear to acknowledge that scientists might be convinced by global warming because it is actually happening.

The book is a valuable reminder that science is inevitably a product of the people who carry it out, and that the way we explain the world cannot be separated from social prejudices and political priorities. This alone, though, does not explain science’s success. Science has become so dominant because it works. Medicines do save lives, aeroplanes do fly, nuclear bombs do explode. Ignoring this is misguided, and in some cases downright dangerous.

I see one of two possibilities here. Either Fara really is such a strong relativist, or the book’s reviewer is overreacting to certain passages. I can’t be sure–I’ve received the book myself from Oxford, but have not yet cracked it open–but I hope the answer is the latter.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: History of Science

Our Two Cultures Conference Opening Skit–Interrupted by an Unexpected Ghost

By Chris Mooney | May 11, 2009 10:00 am

Just to add to Sheril’s post–the “two cultures” conference was a huge success. And in saying as much, I’m not patting us on the back; rather I’m reflecting the overwhelming tenor of the enthused comments that we heard from those who attended the event.

Beyond our planning roles, our individual contributions on Saturday centered on moderating the two afternoon panels. However, we also had the opportunity to introduce the event itself–and decided that an Oscars-style skit providing a little comedy would be the way to go.

We didn’t know what we were getting into.

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Live-blogging From New York…

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | May 11, 2009 7:25 am

The NYAS Two Cultures conference exceeded my expectations… From E. O. Wilson to Dean Kamen, and everyone in between–including our audience–it was a wonderful event! There is so much I can’t wait to share with readers, but this morning I’m in a rush to the airport headed to Long Beach, California, where I’ll be contributing to a new ocean communication initiative.  So while I’ll spend much of the day overhead and offline, I encourage you to check out the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies website where Director Mike Treder did a terrific job live-blogging every session:

Live from New York – It’s Two Cultures!

Live from New York – Two Cultures, Part Two

Tremendous thanks to all who participated!  And with that, I’m off to JFK, but expect lots more on Saturday at NYAS — including photos and video–coming soon…

The Two Cultures Divide That Matters is Between "Rich" and "Poor"

By Chris Mooney | May 8, 2009 8:15 am

Stefan Collini says it. Nature says it. Andrew Maynard says it.

In sum, having now read through many, many 50 year anniversary reactions to Snow’s original “two cultures” essay, I’m detecting an intriguing theme. A lot of people seem to think (and it’s hard to dispute) that the most relevant message from the lecture today is actually contained in its least known section–namely, Snow’s focus at the end of his speech on the importance of science in addressing the plight of the poor, disadvantaged, and undernourished of the world.

Snow did, after all, later write that he wished he’d retitled his essay “The Rich and the Poor.” And of all the “two cultures” gaps that we might conceivably postulate, there’s no doubt this one is still very much with us.

Snow was, above all, a great scientific humanitarian, and our world has just as much need of those now as it ever did.

Happy Birthday, Two Cultures

By Chris Mooney | May 7, 2009 11:52 am

Today is the much heralded 50 year anniversary of Snow’s speech–although the anniversary conference itself isn’t until Saturday. There has been a vast outpouring of commentary: from Seed, New Scientist, Nature, Wired, the Telegraph, and I’m sure many others. All of which makes me feel at least slightly better about not keeping my promise and blogging all the way through the “Two Cultures” lecture itself.

I will have many opinions about all these opinions about Snow–as soon as I’ve read them all, at least. For now, peruse, and share your thoughts…..

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Education, History of Science
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