Getting history right … or not

November 25th, 2015

Science and history are both complex disciplines that require significant knowledge and skills to do well.

A research scientist has to have a good theoretical background in their branch of science, keep up with others working in his or her field, probably have a good working understanding of mathematics and statistics and be able to design and perform experimental or observational programs to test hypotheses.

A historian likewise has to have a good theoretical background in their area of history and keep up with others working in their field, and also have a working knowledge of relevant languages and culture and access to documents and artefacts.

Yet I’m finding that many people who wouldn’t dream of contradicting the consensus findings of peer-reviewed scientists seem quite happy to do be much more cavalier about history.

History is different to science

It is pretty obvious that most historical study differs from most scientific study in a few key ways. Much science can be repeated and thus independently verified whereas history cannot be re-run (despite those who think history repeats) – though we can note that evolutionary science is more like history in this regard. Thus scientific information is generally more reliable than historical information.

Some say this means they are free to re-interpret, but I see it differently. The greater uncertainty about history makes it all the more important to heed the judgment of those most qualified. For example, if I fall over unconscious in the street and require urgent first aid, it may not be immediately obvious what is wrong. In that case, I would much prefer to be cared for by an experienced emergency doctor or paramedic who has seen hundreds of similar cases and has a good “feel” for the most likely place to start, than by someone with little experience.

Doing history badly

Here are a few examples of people doing history badly because they somehow don’t seem to really care to get their facts right.

Neil de Grasse Tyson vs Isaac Newton

Neil de Grasse Tyson is a well known science populariser, and in this video clip he makes some statements about Napoleon, the mathematician and physicist Pierre-Simon Laplace and Isaac Newton.

Cosmologist Luke Barnes, while admitting that he is ill-qualified in historical study, has looked at Tyson’s statements and found that Tyson seems to have got a lot of it wrong, seemingly relying on popular perceptions rather than researching the correct history.

Here are some of the apparent mistakes:

Simple reporting

Tyson recounts in the clip some of a discussion between Napoleon and Laplace saying “I have the exact quote here”, when in fact the story appears to be only hearsay. He also gets some of the details wrong – e.g. he says Napoleon had read Laplace’s five volume work through cover to cover, when in fact the only account we have of the discussion has Napoleon saying “they tell me ….”

Did Newton give up too early?

The orbits of the planets are not perfect ellipses, but are affected by the gravitational fields from each other, creating “perturbations”. Newton wanted to develop a method to calculate these perturbations but never succeeded. Tyson says Newton’s belief in God somehow stopped him: “He could have gone there but he didn’t. His religiosity stopped him.” Instead, Tyson says, it needed someone who didn’t “have God on the brain”,and that person was Laplace, who solved the problem.

But, Barnes says, this is wrong on several counts:

  • Newton didn’t allow his belief in God, or anything else, to stop him. He attacked the problem and developed a solution, but it wasn’t one he was happy with. The needed mathematical tools hadn’t yet been developed.
  • A number of physicists and mathematicians continued to address the problem after Newton – famous names like Leibniz, Euler, Lagrange and d’Alembert – and the new mathematical tools enabled Laplace to propose a better solution than Newton’s attempt.
  • However, in fact, Laplace didn’t “solve” the problem, because later mathematicians have shown that there is no solution – only approximations using infinite series. Barnes says that “computer simulations have shown that the orbits of the Solar System are chaotic over timescales of a few billion years”.
  • There is nowhere that Newton suggests that his belief that God created the universe was a sufficient explanation. Where he didn’t know the answers, he said: “I frame no hypotheses”.

As Barnes sums up: “Newton, of course, was a mathematical genius. But we can hardly blame him for not being smarter than Clairaut, Euler, d’Alembert, Lagrange and Laplace combined.”

Invoking divinity

Tyson says, referring especially to Newton, Ptolemy and Huygens: “… a careful reading of older texts, particularly those concerned with the universe itself, shows that the authors invoke divinity only when they reach the boundaries of their understanding.”

Barnes examines the writings of each of these men, and shows fairly conclusively that their belief in a God was not a “god of the gaps”. Rather, for each of them God was at the very centre of their universe; they believed in God because of what they knew about the universe, not because of what they didn’t know.

Barnes concludes: “Tyson’s thesis fails.”

So why does Tyson make these arguments without apparently examining the evidence carefully? Barnes says: “The heroes of the past are the people who, for whatever reason, believe something like what I believe now. Why does Tyson venerate Laplace, the agnostic? Because Tyson is an agnostic. That’s all the story proves.”

Not the first time

This isn’t Tyson’s first venture into history. I reported last year where he appears to have distorted history to make a anti-religious point.

History for atheists

Tim O’Neill is a fellow Aussie, an atheist and a history buff. He and I have argued on several occasions about aspects of the life of Jesus, such as whether there is evidence that he was considered as divine soon after his death.

But we are agreed on the importance of beginning such discussions with the best historical information we can, which means checking out what the best scholars say. And so we both agree that Jesus existed and there are things we can say are probably historically correct about his life. But he thinks Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet, no more, whereas I agree he was a prophet, but also believe he was divine.

Tim is an admirable atheist because he is passionate about doing accurate history. For years he has posted sporadically on his blog Armarium Magnum reviews of books and historical articles. For example, he reviewed James Hannam’s book God’s Philosophers (read it to find out Tim’s assessment of The Stupidest Thing on the Internet Ever!) and his negative assessment of the historical accuracy of the film Agora.

Tim has now started a new blog, History for atheists. In it, Tim hopes to help his fellow atheists approach history with the aim of learning the truth, not simply supporting their own opinions. His first target is scientists who make statements about Jesus and history when they know little about the subject.

I don’t always agree with Tim, nor would I always express things in the same way, but I think you’ll find both his blogs entertaining and enlightening.

Real historians examine popular historical myths

Several years ago, on another blog, I reviewed the book Galileo goes to Jail (and other myths about science and religion), edited by historian Ronald Numbers. In it a bunch of historians examine popular understandings of the stories of Galileo, the evolution debate between Thomas Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce, the execution of Giordano Bruno, Hypatia, belief in the flat earth – and more.

The authors point out that popular belief that the Catholic Church vehemently opposed all science and set back the cause of science by a millennium is far from the truth – there were occasions when the church interfered with scientists, but it also supported science and scientists, many of whom were clergymen. Unfortunately these facts haven’t stopped those who want to from believing in The conflict thesis.

Now Ronald Numbers, together with Kostas Kampourakis, is back with a new book, Newton’s Apple and Other Myths about Science, which considers more myths about science and history, including that the idea that no science was done in the Dark Ages.

It should be worth a look.

Start with the facts

It is surely an axiom that we should start with the facts. When we have a reasonable understanding, then is the time to explain, assess and try to justify our beliefs.

Like Tim O’Neill, I’d expect atheists and agnostics, who generally claim to be evidence-based, to do exactly that. Unfortunately, on the internet at least, you’ll find many myths passed from one blogger to another, without anyone checking the evidence, or even seeming to care about evidence.

As a christian, I am disappointed that too many fellow christians seem to do the same. This is more understandable, for many of them would accept faith as a form of evidence, but I think others have less excuse.

History matters, especially to christians whose basic belief is that Jesus lived as a truly historical man, and we have his teachings and life set out for us in documents whose historicity can be assessed.

Picture: Flickr Creative Commons.

4 Comments

  1. Apologies for going off topic straight ahead, but I wonder for what cause the protest in the original picture was held. It seems Macedonian.

  2. The photo on Flickr has a number of tags that suggest it was a student protest at the university in Skopje.

  3. Well, let’s hope none of the people pictured are history students and discover this edit! 😛

    Will you be reading Newton’s Apple and Other Myths about Science?

  4. Of course they also need to read English, which I suppose isn’t unlikely!

    I hope to – I suspect it may end up in our local library.

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