I’m back from Atlanta. Did anything happen while I was gone?
Well, some people replied to my previous post. Of course, I knew when I posted it that many would disagree with my views. What I had not anticipated was that the main criticisms leveled at me would be so far removed from anything I was actually arguing.
In a comment to the post, Josh Rosenau wrote this:
Yeah, screw the complexity and nuance of real people doing real things for real and complex reasons. While we’re at it, screw real historians for trying to actually understand that complexity and for objecting when people rely on simplistic and ideologically driven alternatives. Someone has to stand up to experts!
My point had nothing to do with standing up to experts, nor was anything I said directed at historians in general. I certainly was not decrying the complexity and nuance of real people doing real things and all the rest.
Michael Weiss seems to think that I’m just inherently opposed to any talk of complexity and nuance:
That book repeatedly makes the very good point that scientists are engaged in the task of trying to understand nature, based on evidence. Well, historians are engaged in the task of trying to understand human history, based on evidence.
Apparently, your need for history to be a morality play trumps everything else — that historians shouldn’t even try to get the facts right, and any attempt to understand the viewpoints of the participants automatically entails approval of everything they did.
In a delicious twist, “That book” refers to my book Among the Creationists. He’s really worked up about this, judging from the sheer wealth of comments he left to my post.
Now, I would have hoped that Josh and Michael would have given me a little credit. Since I was specifically criticizing Josh and his NCSE colleague Peter Hess, I am not surprised that he replied with some hostility. But if he had calmed down a bit before replying, it might have occurred to him that I probably was not issuing a blanket condemnation of what historians do. That would be a pretty strange position to take, especially for an academic. Likewise for Michael. Is it really plausible that I was arguing that historians shouldn’t even try to get the facts right? That he was charging me with something that was completely at odds with what I argued in my book might have suggested to him that he was misinterpreting my intent.
Michael served up a bunch of analogies that were meant to put me in my place, but none of them were to the point. Here’s one that is. A defense attorney might present a wealth of specious assertions and irrelevant facts specifically to muddy the waters on the question of his client’s guilt. The attorney’s intent is not to provide nuance that helps us understand what really happened, but instead to confuse what is ultimately a simple question. My claim is that much of the writing on science and religion is of that mold. There are a lot of demagogues out there who claim that their views are terribly complex and nuanced. But then the various factoids and tidbits they toss off simply do not deliver what is promised, and the simple interpretation of the story emerges unscathed.
With respect to Galileo specifically my claim is this: Historians have done excellent work in elucidating the motivations of all of the actors. They have explicated the political situation of the Church at that time and documented the decades of interactions between Galileo and the Church prior to his trial. I would encourage everyone to read a representative sampling of the scholarly work in this area. But after you have assimilated all of that information, you should still think that the Galileo affair is a straightforward example of a conflict between science and religion.
I don’t say that because I have a burning need for history to be a simple morality play that trumps everything else (for heaven’s sake). Rather, I say that because, as it happens, this one really is a simple morality play.
I’ll probably do a separate post about Galileo, so I won’t belabor that point here. For some examples of the kind of thing I am talking about, here’s my review, from four years ago, of the anthology Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion. The book is a treasure trove of facts about the history of interrelations between science and religion. But those facts frequently add up to a good deal less than those authors think.
Here’s another analogy: An authoritarian regime might find it politically expedient to allow a certain measure of political freedom and dissent. That means that an historian studying any specific instance of repression could write quite a treatise explaining the minutiae of why the regime might have come down hard on one dissident, while letting slide the actions of another. No doubt he would find a wealth of details influencing the regime’s actions. He would probably identify some personal failings on the part of the dissident that contributed to his fate. In principle, it could be quite a good book.
But would anyone be impressed by the argument that, on the basis of such work, the relationship between authoritarianism and political freedom is terribly complex and nuanced? Or that anyone who claimed that authoritarianism was just fundamentally opposed to political freedom was historically naive and misinformed? Of course not. The conflict is always there, even if at some times it rages more brightly than at others. It’s not that the historical details are unimportant. It’s that after you’ve understood the minutiae the basic picture has not changed at all. And so it is with science and religion.
The other issue in my post was the presentation of Bruno in Cosmos. P. Z. Myers has said most of what I was thinking on that little question. I’ll just note that I don’t understand how someone can watch a segment that ends with the statement, “Bruno was no scientist,” and conclude that the segment was all about what a great scientist Bruno was. Nor do I see how a segment that includes the statement, “[Bruno’s] vision of the cosmos was a lucky guess, because he had no evidence to support it,” could be construed as claiming that Bruno was a martyr to evidence-based reasoning.
And anyone who paints a picture in which Bruno was the bad guy in the story, and then proceeds to blame him for what later happened to Galileo, is not a serious historian just trying to understand the complexity and nuance of the situation. That person is just a demagogue and a propagandist.
But let me conclude with a question for Josh. In a comment to his post he writes, “The relationship of science and religion is certainly complex, and I’m the last person who would claim that there has never been conflict between the two.” Very well. If I am using the wrong examples, then perhaps Josh will tell me which examples I should be using. What does he consider to be a genuine example of conflict between science and religion?