Archive June 2011

Personal attacks on climate scientists Ken Perrott Jun 30

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The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) released a statement this week expressing concern for the current personal attacks being made on climate scientists by politicians and others. The text of the statement follows:

Statement of the Board of Directors of the American Association for the Advancement of Science
Regarding Personal Attacks on Climate Scientists
Approved by the AAAS Board of Directors
28 June 2011

We are deeply concerned by the extent and nature of personal attacks on climate scientists. Reports of harassment, death threats, and legal challenges have created a hostile environment that inhibits the free exchange of scientific findings and ideas and makes it difficult for factual information and scientific analyses to reach policymakers and the public. This both impedes the progress of science and interferes with the application of science to the solution of global problems. AAAS vigorously opposes attacks on researchers that question their personal and professional integrity or threaten their safety based on displeasure with their scientific conclusions. The progress of science and protection of its integrity depend on both full transparency about the details of scientific methodology and the freedom to follow the pursuit of knowledge. The sharing of research data is vastly different from unreasonable, excessive Freedom of Information Act requests for personal information and voluminous data that are then used to harass and intimidate scientists. The latter serve only as a distraction and make no constructive contribution to the public discourse.

Scientists and policymakers may disagree over the scientific conclusions on climate change and other policy-relevant topics. But the scientific community has proven and well-established methods for resolving disagreements about research results. Science advances through a self-correcting system in which research results are shared and critically evaluated by peers and experiments are repeated when necessary. Disagreements about the interpretation of data, the methodology, and findings are part of daily scientific discourse. Scientists should not be subjected to fraud investigations or harassment simply for providing scientific results that are controversial. Most scientific disagreements are unrelated to any kind of fraud and are considered a legitimate and normal part of the scientific process. The scientific community takes seriously its responsibility for policing research misconduct, and extensive procedures exist to protect the rigor of the scientific method and to ensure the credibility of the research enterprise

While we fully understand that policymakers must integrate the best available scientific data with other factors when developing policies, we think it would be unfortunate if policymakers became the arbiters of scientific information and circumvented the peer-review process. Moreover, we are concerned that establishing a practice of aggressive inquiry into the professional histories of scientists whose findings may bear on policy in ways that some find unpalatable could well have a chilling effect on the willingness of scientists to conduct research that intersects with policy-relevant scientific questions.

A silver lining to Expelled? Ken Perrott Jun 29


Readers are probably aware of the nasty little creationist/intelligent design film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. Despite all the fanfare suggesting it was coming to a church hall or basement near you sometime soon it seemed to drop out of existence.

Perhaps that is why the company that produced the film has gone bankrupt. And the film itself, together with its assets, is to be auctioned off any day now.

I thought that would be the end of the sorry little affair. But no – there may be a silver lining – depending on who the final buyers are.

PZ Myers reports that Talk Origins, the people from Panda’s Thumb, are making a bid to buy it. That seems weird.

But think about it. Expelled misrepresented some important people like Myers, Richard Dawkins, Eugenie Scott, Michael Shermer and so on. These people were interviewed extensively on evolutionary science, science in general and intelligent design. However, only short clips, heavily edited to produce a misleading impression, were included in the film.

Expelled — The Uncut Interviews

So if Talk Origins wins the bidding they will have access to the full interviews. As Talk Origins suggests:

“The auction promises that besides all available rights and interests in the finished film itself (there is an existing distribution contract), the winner will get all the production materials and rights to them. Want to know what was in the rest of the interviews with Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers? I know I would like to have that material archived and made available to the public, among other things that Premise Media found inconvenient to include in their film.”

Anyone who has watched the uncut interviews available from the Richard Dawkins Foundation will appreciate the possibilities. These are interviews used initially to produce BBC films documentaries like The Root of All Evil?, The Enemies of Reason , The Genius of Charles Darwin and others.

So I look forward to a new series of documentaries – Expelled – The Uncut Interviews. Just imagine, not only will we get an interesting and extensive interview of each person (Myers says his interview last 3 hours!). But as an extra, if the clip used in the film is also included we will get to see examples of how creationists quote mine scientists.

Thanks to PZ Myers: I think the creationists would rather just forget about Expelled.

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Historical fiction Ken Perrott Jun 27


Sometimes a historical fiction by a good and responsible author can be very informative. Of course one should always check reliable sources for details. But a good author can do a lot of that research for you. And they can add environmental and dramatic material which helps to put the details of the history into context.

I recently commented (see Waking from a coma!) about Stuart Clark’s new book. It’s the first in a trilogy of historical fiction describing the history of astronomy. The book, Sky’s Dark Labyrinth, is set around Galileo and Kepler, their scientific contributions, personal lives and their treatment by the church and society.

Having finished reading the book I can recommend it. It’s well written, informative on the  scientific history and provides good images of the culture of the times.

Some more Galileo myths

Recently some people of a historical bent have criticised my articles on Galileo. So I guess I may now be criticised for reading historical fiction after this revelation. But any such criticism will be irrelevant as I always do try to check details with reliable sources.

I am surprised at some of the criticisms I have already had. Perhaps I shouldn’t be as there are clearly some people who have motivations for misrepresenting Galileo and for criticising the status he has today. I commented on this before in The Galileo myths.

One Galileo myth I have heard came initially from a local theologian. He twisted and squirmed (as they do) to justify the church’s treatment of Galileo. In the end he actually made the claim that Galileo based his own heliocentric position on faith and that the Church based their geocentric one on the science! That Galileo was in conflict with all the scientists of the time.

This came up again recently when a commenter on another blog repeated this claim and told me that the church had consulted a committee of “scientists” in 1616 who confirmed that heliocentricism was scientifically wrong (as well as being theological heretical). I think the theologian may also have been using this to justify his claim.

(Galileo was initially investigated by the Inquisition in 1616 as a result of complaints he held the opinion of a heliocentric universe. However, the trial and conviction for which he is remembered was held in 1633).

“Scientists” or theologians?

Lets put aside the fact that a committee of “scientists’ would have been unlikely at that time (perhaps a committee of mathematicians and astronomers but not “scientists”). I pointed out that the panel was actually made up from eleven theologians – and got told I was incorrect and simply making the claim because of my “personal dislike of the Catholic Church”! Strange reaction considering I had already quoted from the preamble to Galileo’s ’Inquisition’s Sentence (22 June 1633)’ – a primary source”

’the Assessor Theologians assessed the two propositions of the sun’s stability and the earth’s motion, as follows:
That the sun is the center of the world and motionless is a proposition which is philosophically absurd and false, and formally heretical, for being explicitly contrary to Holy Scripture;
That the earth is neither the center of the world nor motionless but moves even with diurnal motion is philosophically equally absurd and false, and theologically at least erroneous in the Faith.’

The highlighting of the word theologian is mine.

A good source of primary documents

Still one can argue about the significance of the assessor theologians report and it always best to consult the actual documents before doing so. Therefore I have provided in full below the report from the assessor theologians. You can make your own inferences on their qualifications and reasons for making the assessments they did. You can also draw your own conclusions about the extent to which they consulted the astronomers of the time.

My point on the latter is that any “committee” trying to draw an objective conclusion on this question would have consulted, amongst others, the most outstanding Italian astronomer of the time, who incidentally was also in Rome when they sat, Galileo.

As for the apparent unanimity and confidence of the report – I find that strange as the Church in other documents of the time was expressing concern “about the spreading and acceptance by many of the false Pythagorean doctrine, altogether contrary to the Holy Scripture, that the earth moves and the sun is motionless.”

The source is Maurice A. Finocchiaro’s The Galileo Affair: A Documentary History.

Consultants’ Report on Copernicanism

(24 February 1616)

Assessment made at the Holy Office, Rome, Wednesday, 24 February 1616, in the presence of the Father Theologians signed below.

Propositions to be assessed:

(1) The sun is the center of the world and completely devoid of local motion.

Assessment: All said that this proposition is foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture, according to the literal meaning of the words and according to the common interpretation and understanding of the Holy Fathers and the doctors of theology.

(2) The earth is not the center of the world, nor motionless, but it moves as a whole and also with diurnal motion.

Assessment: All said that this proposition receives the same judgment in philosophy and that in regard to theological truth it is at least erroneous in faith.

  • Petrus Lombardus, Archbishop of Armagh.
  • Fra Hyacintus Petronius, Master of the Sacred Apostolic Palace.
  • Fra Raphael Riphoz, Master of Theology and Vicar-General of the Dominican Order.
  • Fra Michelangelo Segizzi, Master of Sacred Theology and Commissary of the Holy Office.
  • Fra Hieronimus de Casalimaiori, Consultant to the Holy Office.
  • Fra Thomas de Lemos.
  • Fra Gregorius Nunnius Coronel.
  • Benedictus Justinianus, Society of Jesus.
  • Father Raphael Rastellius, Clerk Regular, Doctor of Theology.
  • Father Michael of Naples, of the Cassinese Congregation.
  • Fra Iacobus Tintus, assistant of the Most Reverend Father Commissary of the Holy Office.

And what about this from the Inquisition Minutes of the next day:

“The Most Illustrious Lord Cardinal Millini notified the Reverend Fathers Lord Assessor and Lord Commissary of the Holy Office that, after the reporting of the judgment by the Father Theologians against the propositions of the mathematician Galileo (to the effect that the sun stands still at the center of the world and the earth moves even with the diurnal motion), His Holiness ordered the Most Illustrious Lord Cardinal Bellarmine to call Galileo before himself and warn him to abandon these opinions; and if he should refuse to obey, the Father Commissary, in the presence of a notary and witnesses, is to issue him an injunction to abstain completely from teaching or defending this doctrine and opinion or from discussing it; and further, if he should not acquiesce, he is to be imprisoned.”

Rather an extreme discussion to be based on such a flimsy report, isn’t it?

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Galileo’s revolutionary contribution Ken Perrott Jun 23

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A good primary source

In An interesting question Thony C at The Renaissance Mathematicus responded to a comment at my post, Early history of science, with his own blog article. While it  mainly discusses the nature of censorship I would like to respond to some comments he made about the Galileo affair.

I will leave aside his/her tactic of blaming the victim — which seems quite fashionable among religious apologists writing on this issue today. For example Thony C claims:

’Nobody had been really bothered by the potential conflict until Galileo and Foscarini had made it into a real conflict by suggesting a theological solution thus creating a real problem for the Church;’ ’In his unconsidered and over hasty actions Galileo had forced the Church to ban the heliocentric theory.’

There is something unpleasant about excusing all the actions of a huge institution like the Catholic Church and its Inquisition and putting all the blame on an individual. Moreover an individual who is threatened with torture and sentenced to imprisonment! Soviet apologists no doubt blamed Andrei Sakharov for his confinement to the city of Gorky and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn for his expulsion from the country. That’s the trouble with apologists — their loyalties.

However, I would like to deal here with the so-called ’theological solution’ which Thony C presents as the real problem. Unfortunately this ’crime’ is usually not discussed in detail, yet apologists often wish to use it to divert attention away from the scientific issues. Was the theological problem simply non-acceptance of a geocentric model which was supposedly made factual by its presentation in the Christian bible? Was it just a matter of semantics, the hubris of including scientific questions within the domain of theology?

Thony C gives a clearer idea in his comment:

’The crime the these two men committed in the Church’s eyes was not that they propagated heliocentrism, which they did, but that they told the Church how to interpret the Bible and that was definitely a no, no.’

So was it a matter of interpretation, or more correctly who should do the interpreting and how?

Galileo’s sentence

Firstly, let’s be clear how the Inquisition saw Galileo’s ’crimes’ by looking at this extract from his sentence (my emphasis – in this post I am quoting from The Essential Galileo — a very useful source of primary documents):

’We say, pronounce, sentence, and declare that you, the abovementioned Galileo, because of the things deduced in the trial and confessed by you as above, have rendered yourself according to this Holy Office vehemently suspected of heresy, namely of having held and believed a doctrine which is false and contrary to the divine and Holy Scripture: that the sun is the center of the world and does not move from east to west, and the earth moves and is not the center of the world, and that one may hold and defend as probable an opinion after it has been declared and defined contrary to Holy Scripture. Consequently you have incurred all the censures and penalties imposed and promulgated by the sacred canons and all particular and general laws against such delinquents. We are willing to absolve you from them provided that first, with a sincere heart and unfeigned faith, in front of us you abjure, curse, and detest the above-mentioned errors and heresies, and every other error and heresy contrary to the Catholic and Apostolic Church, in the manner and form we will prescribe to you. Furthermore, so that this serious and pernicious error and transgression of yours does not remain completely unpunished, and so that you will be more cautious in the future and an example for others to abstain from similar crimes, we order that the book Dialogue by Galileo Galilei be prohibited by public edict. We condemn you to formal imprisonment in this Holy Office at our pleasure. As a salutary penance we impose on you to recite the seven penitential Psalms once a week for the next three years. And we reserve the authority to moderate, change, or condone wholly or in part the above-mentioned penalties and penances. This we say, pronounce, sentence, declare, order, and reserve by this or any other better manner or form that we reasonably can or shall think of.’

So clearly the specific point of issue was that of heliocentricism. But included in this is that the church had proclaimed geocentricism a ’fact’ because it (in their opinion) is revealed by ’Holy Scripture.’ So the issue becomes one of epistemology rather than a scientific theory. Do you derive your understanding of nature from ’Holy Scripture’ or from the evidence of nature? No doubt seen by the Inquisition as a ’theological’ issue but really an important philosophical one.

Epistemology the real issue?

It’s important to see the key role of different epistemologies here because apologists will often make an issue of the difference between hypothesis and truth, or should I say ’Truth.’ That Galileo and Kepler, for example, had not been able to get supporting evidence from parallax measurements (they didn’t have the technology/accuracy). But again that is a diversion — apologists concentrate on the degree of empirical confirmation for heliocentricism (and ignore the lack of empirical confirmation for geocentrism), while purposely ignoring what the Inquisition and Church understood as the ’Truth.’

And Truth, of course, was that laid down by ’Holy Scripture’ — really interpretation of that Scripture by the Church authorities. Or a select few of those ’authorities,’ in this case, as the interpretation was so dubious and varied. The ’Holy Scriptures’ did not even name the planets, let alone give a model for their arrangement.

And the Inquisition’s claim that the geocentric model was a fact had not required the sort of real evidence they were demanding for the Copernican model.

So, on the one hand the church or theological ’authorities’ claimed the sole right to interpret ’Holy Scripture’, and thus determine ’Truth.’ They determined by this shonky revelation that the geocentric model was ’true’- the fact. Anyone else who attempted their own ’interpretation’, or suggested a different epistemology like relying on evidence, was committing a crime.

Perhaps the theologians could be pragmatic. Some documents imply their ’interpretation’ would change once the empirical evidence was overwhelming. (A strange admission that revelation is a lousy epistemological method). A Catch-22 bureaucratic situation given that Galileo, and other natural philosophers, had been urged in 1616 to:

’abandon completely the above-mentioned opinion that the sun is the center of the world and the earth moves, nor henceforth hold, teach, or defend it in any way whatever, orally or in writing; otherwise the Holy Office would start proceedings against him.’

As for these ’proceedings’ — well, 16 years before Bruno had been burned at the stake for heresy!

Thony C suggests that Galileo and others told the Church how to interpret the Bible.’ Its worth actually understanding what Galileo said about interpretation.

He did actually offer, as an aside, a different interpretation to the then accepted one of the Joshua story where the sun stood still to enable a battle to be won.  He suggested that the story could not be ’explained’ by the Ptolemaic geocentric model, but could be by the Copernican heliocentric one. Or more correctly that the Copernican model enabled a more literal interpretation of the scripture.

However, his general comments on scriptural interpretation are of more value.

Scriptural interpretation

Galileo was a devout Catholic so did in fact accept scripture as ’Holy’ and ’correct.’ But:

’Scripture cannot err, nevertheless some of its interpreters and expositors can sometimes err in various ways. One of these would be very serious and very frequent, namely, to want to limit oneself always to the literal meaning of the words’

Moreover interpretation was required because by necessity the ’holy ghost’ had to adapt its dictated language to the culture and prejudices of the time:

’in order to adapt it­self to the understanding of all people, it was appropriate for Scripture to say many things which are different from absolute truth in appearance and in regard to the meaning of the words.’

In contrast, no ’interpretation” is required for natural situations:

’nature is inexorable and immutable, and she does not care at all whether or not her recondite reasons and modes of operations are revealed to human understanding, and so she never transgresses the terms of the laws imposed on her’

As a devout Catholic he saw it this way:

’Holy Scripture and nature both equally derive from the divine Word, the former as the dictation of the Holy Spirit, the latter as the most obedient executrix of God’s commands.’

But while ’interpretation’ of ’Holy scripture’ was required, even demanded, our perception of, and ideas about, the real world must be derived from evidence.

’therefore, whatever sensory experience places before our eyes or necessary demonstrations prove to us concerning natural effects should not in any way be called into question on account of scriptural passages whose words appear to have a different meaning, since not every statement of Scripture is bound to obligations as severely as each effect of nature.”

A necessary requirement for the scientific revolution

I doubt that Galileo was the only Catholic who saw this. And imagine it was part of the theological debates of the time. However, I think it also should really be seen as part of the general philosophical debates. What Galileo was suggesting was a very necessary step in scienctific evolution.

For science to progress, for it even to return to its earlier power, the struggle between two different epistemologies had to be resolved. In effect the breaking away of science from the old theology and philosophy of revelation was a necessary requirement for the scientific revolution.

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Science, religion and respect for meaning Ken Perrott Jun 22

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Religious apologists seem to be obsessed with the relationship between religion and science. Not so much for scientists who generally just want to get on with their job of understanding reality and helping humanity make use of the resulting knowledge.

But in retirement I have had more opportunity to come across the argument’s used by apologists to explain away the differences between scientific and religious knowledge, or to deny scientific knowledge. The overwhelming impression I have is one of bafflegab, mental gymnastics, strawmannery and jelly wrestling. Certainly not honesty.

One thing that gets up my nose is the lack of respect for language, for the meaning of words. Particularly important words like “truth” and “knowledge.” An example is this comment in a review of  apologist John Lennox‘s new book at Christian News (see Can Science, Creationism Coexist? One Christian Author Says Yes):

“In his recently published book, Seven Days that Divide the World, Lennox sets out to prove that Christians can believe in the theories of science and maintain the truth of Scripture.”

These people use the word “truth,” or very often “Truth,” to describe a collection of bronze age myths, parables and mysticism!  As for science – well that’s only “theory” – and you know what meaning they usually give to that word. No, not the scientific understanding of theory as “a set of facts, propositions, or principles analysed in their relation to one another and used, especially in science, to explain phenomena.” No, more the vague popular use of “theory” as “an idea of or belief about something arrived at through speculation or conjecture.”

This always strikes me as the height of arrogance – an arrogance that often leads to problems. One has only to think of Galileo’s treatment because his persecuters thought he was daring to question the “Truth” of scripture.

Not that scientists usually use the word “truth”, and especially not “Truth” to describe scientific knowledge. We are well aware of the provisional, but progressive, nature of scientific knowledge. Always amenable to improvement and change as it is checked against reality.

Scientific knowledge is relative  – not absolute, not “Truth”, but it’s the best we have. If science cannot give us specific knowledge about reality one can be sure no other method can.

That’s the other thing that get’s up my nose. The arrogance of some apologists who will seriously suggest they have higher standards. Because while scientific knowledge is amenable to change and improvement religious knowledge is not. It is the “Truth.”

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Protecting yourself against bullshit Ken Perrott Jun 20

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Here’s a very useful book for those who often get into debates with people who attempt to diss science. Its called Believing Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked into an Intellectual Black Hole. The author is philosopher Stephen Law.

It’s quite a short book – it’s purpose is to help the reader identify arguments and techniques used by the irrational to defend their beliefs. In short, the bullshit that can often suck people into the “intellectual black holes” of irrational belief.

The author aims to unpack and explain some strategies used by people who are “powerfully committed to some ludicrous system of belief.” Strategies used to construct “an impregnable fortress . . . . around even a ridiculous set of beliefs, rendering them immune to rational criticism and creating a veneer of faux reasonableness.”

Law concentrates on eight strategies and povides his own name for these in the following chapters:

  1. Playing the Mystery Card
  2. “But It Fits!’ and The Blunderbuss
  3. Going Nuclear
  4. Moving the Semantic Goalposts
  5. “I Just Know!’
  6. Pseudoprofundity
  7. Piling Up the Anecdotes
  8. Pressing Your Button

I am half way through reading the book and recommend it. His discussion of the “scientism” ploy and analysis of the bullshit used to attack Richard Dawkins book The God Delusion were spot on. I also liked his Chapter 3 on Going Nuclear – he has an early version on his blog – see Going Nuclear. A version of Chapter 6: Pseudoprofundity is also on the blog.

Anyone with a passing interest in internet discussion will immediately recognise these strategies. They are generally a sign of weakness, but are often  used to bamboozle discussion partners.  This book will help people to understand what is going on and how to handle such bullshit.

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Clarifying some myths in the history of science Ken Perrott Jun 15


I want to deal here with some myths about religion and science. Specifically the religious apologetics claim that Christianity was a requirement for the scientific revolution. And the more widespread popular belief that blames early Christianity for the “dark ages.”

I have been reading about that early period lately. A couple of historical novels on the philosopher and mathematician Hypatia‘s murder by a Christian mob in 415 CE were interesting. These were Hypatia’s Feud by Nicholas Fourikis and Selene of Alexandria by Faith L. Justice. I recommend both, but especially Selene of Alexandria. Both authors have taken care with  known historical facts.

The religious mysticism of that early period is undeniable. But the causes may not be as  the popular concepts imply. Reality is, after all, never simple.

So I was pleased to read Richard Carrier’s comments on these myths. The science of the ancient Greeks and Romans is a research speciality of his.

Richard Carrier’s helpful analysis

Carrier attributes the retreat from science and the launch of the dark ages to the collapse of the Roman Empire “under the weight of constant civil war and disastrous economical policy”. The negative role of Christianity is that it was a one of the mystical worldviews. It did not cause the “dark ages” but did benefit from them. Consequently, when in came to power it did not restore scientific values. This took a millennium.

These scientific values were only reintroduced into the Christianised culture after several centuries of disinterest.  One must look outside religion to find reasons for their restoration.

Carrier’s critics

Richard Carrier covers these topics in the videos I embedded in my last post Early history of science. However, I thought it worth quoting an extract from his writings on these topics because I feel two of the critics of that post, and of Carrier, have misrepresented them. On Twitter, Rebekah Higgett (beckyfh) accused Carrier of being “ideologically-driven” (who isn’t?), that  “he works from particular agenda rather than evidence” and that he “misuses history.” Unfortunately she wouldn’t give any specific examples.

Thony Christie claimed on Twitter: “Richard Carrier has an agenda he claims that Christianity is responsible for the decline of culture in antiquity! It’s crap!” and commented on the post “what Carrier is selling is not history of science but warped propaganda for his own twisted prejudices.” He adds, “Carrier implies more that once in his statements that the adoption of Christianity by Constantine in the fourth century was responsible for the decline in scientific thought in antiquity.” He did not give any evidence for this claim despite my requesting it.

These claims conflict with my reading of Carrier. it’s probably just an example of the irrational hostility that sometimes develops between professionals. However, I have asked for evidence backing up these claims because I could well be wrong in my understanding. And also because if the claims are wrong they should be challenged. These sort of claims can lead to new myths – like the claim that an expert is peddling a myth when they aren’t.

So here is an extract from the Conclusion of Richard Carriers chapter in the book The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Failsedited by John Loftus and Dan Barker. The title of the chapter is ’Christianity Was Not Responsible for Modern Science.’ I commented on this chapter in my review of the book (see Some pesky delusions).

What does Carrier actually say?

See what you think. After conceding these myths “are built on kernels of truth” he writes:

“Pagans did set the stage for the end of ancient science–just not for any of the reasons Christians now claim. By failing to develop a stable and effective constitutional government, the Roman Empire was doomed to collapse under the weight of constant civil war and disastrous economical policy; and in the third century BCE that’s exactly what it did – society responded to this collapse by retreating from the scientific values of its past and fleeing to increasingly mystical and fantastical ways of viewing the world and its wonders. Christianity was already one such worldview, and thus became increasingly popular at just that time. But as one could predict, when Christianity came to power it did not restore those scientific values, but instead sealed the fate of science by putting an end to all significant scientific progress for almost a thousand years. It did not do this by oppressing, or persecuting science, but simply by not promoting its progress and by promoting instead a deep and enduring suspicion against the very values necessary to produce it.
Likewise, modern science did develop in a Christian milieu, in the hands of scientists who were indeed Christians, and Christianity can be made compatible with science and scientific values. Christianity only had to adapt to embrace those old pagan values that once drove scientific progress. And it was Christians who adapted it, craftily inventing Christian arguments in favor of the change because only arguments in accord with Christian theology and the Bible would have succeeded in persuading their peers. But this was a development in spite of Christianity’s original values and ideals, returning the world back to where pagans, not Christians, had left it a thousand years before at the dawn of the third century. Only then did the Christian world take up that old pagan science and its core values once again. And only then did further progress ensue.”

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Early history of science Ken Perrott Jun 13

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Richard Carrier

Historians of science tend to neglect the ancient period. There is an attitude that science really didn’t happen before four centuries ago. And promoted by others. Christian apologists promote that attitude claiming, for example, that the Christian religion was a necessary requirement for the scientific revolution.

This chauvinistic claim is easily discounted by the real history of science during the times of the ancient Greeks and the Roman empire. And also by the fact that Christianity existed for a millennium before the scientific revolution without any clear attempt on its part to revive the science of the ancients.

Historian and philosopher Richard Carrier has specialised in the history of science during the ancient period. he has also studied the attitude of early Christianity towards science. He is a very clear writer and speaker.

Recently videos of two of his lectures have become available. I have watched them and recommend them to anyone with an interest in the history of science and the region/science conflict. These are:

From Robots to the Moon which describes ancient science and technology, and

Ancient Christian Hostility to Science which describes how the church fathers of the first three centuries reacted to all that science and technology.

I have embedded the first parts of these videos below together with links to the complete playlists.

Complete playlist for Richard Carrier on Ancient Science

Richard Carrier on Early Christian Hostility to Science

Complete playlist for Richard Carrier on Early Christian Hostility to Science.

via Richard Carrier Blogs: New Podcast & Vids.

Carrier is working on a book about the science of the ancients and I am sure it will go a long way to fill this gap in history. Some idea of his findings were presented in his chapter of the book The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Failsedited by John Loftus and Dan Barker. The Chapter is appropriately titled “Christianity Was Not Responsible for Modern Science.” I commented on this chapter in my review of the book (see Some pesky delusions).

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Converting beliefs to ’truths’ Ken Perrott Jun 10

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Michael Shermer‘s latest book looks interesting – The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths.

Chris Mooney interviews him about the book in the latest Point of Inquiry podcast (see Point of Inquiry or  download the MP3).

Shermer’s thesis is that with humans belief comes first – then we look of evidence to support that belief. I have often made the same claim – we are a rationalising species, not a rational one. There are good evolutionary reasons for this.

At first sight this seems a rather pessimistic thesis for a scientist and sceptic. However, in the book Shermer deals with the tools that science offers for overcoming this problem. For approaching a more objective knowledge of reality. He asserts that science is unique in this.

I have managed to get a copy and look forward to reading it.

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Ideology and violence Ken Perrott Jun 08

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Religious violence a concern of academics too

I want to comment here on some strawmannery from a local theologian/philosopher of religion (Matt at MandM) in his post Religion and Violence. But first two important points:

1: He concentrates on the common perception of a relationship between religion and violence made by atheist writers (he claims these “themes abound in the writings of Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens.”). Matt’s obsession with atheists obscures the fact that this theme is also common in academia, and indeed theology. Theologian Alister McGrath, for example, has welcomed the fact that this problem has been brought to popular attention.  And this recognised relationship between religion and violence concerns many people who for governmental or professional reasons have to deal with terrorism and its influence.

2: Any analysis which limits violence and terrorism to the influence of religion is far too simple. Unfortunately this naivety is sometimes advanced by using Stephen Weinberg’s quote:

’With or without [religion] you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.’

I criticised the way atheists sometimes use this quote in my article Sources of evil? Partly because it does lead to them being misrepresented, open to strawmannery.  I pointed out:

“None of these authors [Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris   and Michael Jordan] claim religion inevitably leads to evil. As Richard Dawkins said in a recent Newsweek article ’It would be absurd to suggest such a thing: just as absurd as to generalize about all atheists.’ Nor are they denying the evil carried out in the name of non-religous causes.”

That’s why I suggested that Weinberg’s quote should have really read:

’With or without ideology you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes ideology.’

Bait and switch?

So, returning to Matt’s post. One of the straw men he demolishes is the assertion:

“that if people who hold a belief commit atrocities then that belief is either false or should be avoided by liberal-minded people.”

I really don’t think that is common. After all we condemn fascism for its fundamental opposition to human rights – not just because of examples of atrocities. Nevertheless Matt launches his attack on this straw man with a strange dig at science:

“The belief that the atom could be split is one that has been used to kill thousands of people yet that belief is true and it is an important scientific discovery.”

Leaving aside Matt’s confusion between belief and scientific knowledge (which is important) this argument is a naive bait and switch. Of course a “belief” in, or the “knowledge” of nuclear reactions is not responsible for the deaths in Hiroshima or Nagasaki any more than our chemical knowledge was responsible for the greater number of deaths through carpet bombing of civilian populations in Japan and Europe during World War II (and Indochina in the 1960′s and 70′s) The responsibilities were clearly political and ideological. Human knowledge just made it possible to put into effect these political and ideological aims through such atrocities.

Similarly, simple belief or non-belief in a god (or similar supernatural manifestations) is not responsible in itself for atrocities. However, such beliefs can be used in religious, nationalistic, political and ideological mobilisation to encourage people to commit atrocities. They can be used to mobilise the dark side of human nature, the “them vs us” intuition we are so susceptible to.

History is of course crammed with examples of situations where ideological, political, national or religious beliefs have fueled atrocities. But I don’t know of one example involving a scientific “beliefs.” After all, we have ways of resolving differences between scientists over the nature of subatomic particles. These involve research and investment in devices such as the large hadron collider. Interaction with reality.

Rewriting history

Religious apologists are famed for their rewriting of history. I referred to the specific example of the history of science in my posts  Confronting accomodationism, The Galileo myths and others. So I am not surprised at Matt’s historical revisionism on this subject.

He pontificates on:

“research having discredited the portrayal of the early Middle Ages as ’the Dark Ages’ brought about by Christianity. Similarly, research into Inquisition archives reveal that while such tribunals did exist, many popular beliefs are based on embellishment, exaggeration and propaganda rather than a sober assessment of facts. The picture of the Inquisition that emerges from these studies is significantly more benign than has popularly been thought. . . . The evidence suggests that much of what people believe today about religious history is based on discredited 19th century rationalist propaganda stereotypes and consequent cultural prejudice.”


“many atrocities cited by religious critics were not committed for religious reasons but for secular ones.”

Personally I think that blaming “discredited 19th century rationalist propaganda stereotypes” is another current example of religious apologist myth making.  Often John William Draper’s book History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science is quoted as evidence. But having read that book I can see how selective apologetics quote mining has is.

Historical honesty respects the victims

However, downplaying religious motivated atrocities is almost always accompanied by exaggeration of the atrocities committed by others, or attributing these to atheist beliefs. At least here Matt doesn’t resort to the silliness of calling Hitler an atheist. But he does claim:

“Stalin and Pol Pot persecuted religious groups precisely because they were atheists and saw religion as socially pernicious – the very thing people who press the historical atrocities argument are trying to contend. Richard Wurmbrand, a victim of communist persecution in Romania, stated that ’communist torturers often said there is no God, no hereafter, no life after death, we can do what we wish.’ The fact that atheism was not the motivation for these actions seems to be news to those who actually witnessed them. . . . So, many atrocities were committed on the basis of atheism.”

Matt and others who attribute the atrocities of Pol Pot, Mao Tse Tung and Stalin (even Hitler) to atheism do an immense disservice to those who died or suffered in those atrocities. We owe it the victims to be honest about the causes of these evil activities, to understand why humanity does do such things and work to prevent their re-occurrence.  Matt should not be allowed to get away with the distortion that “Stalin and Pol Pot persecuted religious groups precisely because they were atheists and saw religion as socially pernicious. “

A bit of historical research will show that perhaps the largest group of victims of the Stalin Terror were the Communists. The fact that some of these may have been believers had nothing to do with their deaths and imprisonments. A simple figure – more than half the membership of the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee were eliminated in the middle of the 1930s! Did any religious groups suffer such a culling? Surely this makes clear that the motives for these atrocities were more political and psychological (the paranoia of Stalin and his cohorts) than anything to do with religious beliefs.

True, the Church’s relationship with the Soviet State and Communist Party was strained. Hardly surprising – this is not the only situation where the church has sided with the old order in situations of social change. But in a situation where every other political group which could have opposed Soviet power were made illegal the regime still allowed the legal existence and activity of the church.

I will go so far as to suggest that many religious believers were members of the Soviet Communist Party. This seems obvious as that Party was the only mechanism of serious social and political involvement at the time.  Perhaps the feared KGB and its predecessors also contained Christian believers. After all Putin, the current Russian Prime Minister who these days wears a Christian cross, was a KGB member.

Matt may be shocked at the idea that there could have been Christian KGB torturers. But many Russian Communists where also shocked when they realised there were Communist torturers. Welcome to the real world. Life isn’t simple.

A fundamental problem wuith religion

Matt is more balanced in his conclusion:

“So the appeal to historical atrocities, on examination, seems often based on a fairly selective analysis of the evidence. The Bin Ladens and Hitlers of this world are clearly dangerous but so too are the Stalins, Pol Pots and secular groups like the Tamil Tigers who pioneered the practice of suicide bombing before Al-Qaeda came on the scene. People fight and kill for a number of reasons; sometimes these are religious, more often they are secular — sometimes both. When people care deeply about something, sometimes they will kill to protect it. Religion is not an exception.”

But this still ignores a fundamental flaw in religion which does make it susceptible to the judgementalism and mobilisation of the “them vs us” mentality which can lead to atrocity. This is the concept of “divinity,” “sacred” and “holy.” These concepts are foreign to atheism and science. it is no accident that the traditional motivations for war and atrocity – “God, King and Country” – have these similar characters.

These “sacred” concepts enable justification of almost anything on the grounds of faith and emotion. Evidence and reason can easily be ignored on distorted towards the divine ends.

This is clearly illustrated by a quote from the farewell letter of a Dutch jihadist:

’In the name of Allah, the compassionate, the merciful,
I write this letter to inform you that I departed for the land of the jihad.
To dispel the unbelievers, and to help establish the Islamic state.
I do not do this because I like fighting, but because the Almighty has commanded this’ ‘Fighting is obligatory for you, much as you dislike it. But you may hate a thing although it is good for you, and love a thing although it is bad for you. God knows, but you may not’

“God knows, but you may not” can be used to justify the worst sort of atrocity.

(This quote is from Paul Cliteur’s book The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism. I reviewed this in Secularism is important.)

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