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The Myth of the Medieval Repression of Science
December 29, 2013 6:30 AM   Subscribe

In the academic sphere, at least, the "Conflict Thesis" of a historical war between science and theology has been long since overturned. It is very odd that so many of my fellow atheists cling so desperately to a long-dead position that was only ever upheld by amateur Nineteenth Century polemicists and not the careful research of recent, objective, peer-reviewed historians. This is strange behavior for people who like to label themselves "rationalists".-- The Dark Age Myth: An Atheist Reviews “God’s Philosophers”
posted by Pater Aletheias (95 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite

 
Note that the FPP text is a quote from the article, and not the OP editorializing.
posted by sidereal at 6:40 AM on December 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


It seems like this book is a rebuttal to the new hotness of "New Atheism," which is rapidly becoming the same anti-scientific fundamentalism that it purports to oppose. I'm kind of surprised they didn't mention the current strain of Islamaphobia among their ranks, which seems to ignore the fact that many of the most advanced scientific cultures in the West tended to be Muslim. Then again, that may have been outside the scope of the book.
posted by zombieflanders at 7:03 AM on December 29, 2013 [12 favorites]


I think often history is like science fiction; more about the present than the past.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 7:11 AM on December 29, 2013 [16 favorites]


Bruno and Galileo will be so relieved.
posted by Decani at 7:19 AM on December 29, 2013 [12 favorites]


It is true that science and authoritarian institutions get along poorly -- the Renaissance Church, later Imperial China, the Tokugawa Shogunate, the American political/religious Right -- science is often destabilizing, and Authoritarianism rests on Tradition as much as anything.

Which doesn't mean that the underlying philosophy -- Catholicism, Confucianism, whatever -- is, in itself, anti science, nor that scientists, in that they are people, are all purely rational seekers after truth unhindered by their own preconceptions and cultural baggage.

I think a substantial component of the problem with the intellectual life of the early Medieval period in Europe was the difficulty of travel and communication which hindeted the spread and sharing of new ideas. Part of this was the relative decline in the economy and long-distance trade, but Northern and Western Europe lack the transit advantages the Mediterranean provided (to say nothing of the political instability of Medieval Europe compared to the Roman Empire in its heyday).
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:39 AM on December 29, 2013 [17 favorites]


But seriously, this reeks of agenda, every bit as much as some of the undeniably distorted "OMG the Dark Ages killed science" nonsense. I've studied this stuff a bit too, and I've also had a go at people for posting that "wrongest thing on the internet" graphic, but the extent to which this guy seems to be trying to play down and hand-wave away the very real and well-documented excesses and repressions of medieval Christendom is palpable, not only in his highly selective view but also in his choice of language (Bruno was a "New Age kook?" Well, that's him dismissed then. Ass.)

In other news, there's still no god.
posted by Decani at 7:43 AM on December 29, 2013 [16 favorites]


The level of discourse and reasoned argument in the comments alone is worthy of a click...
posted by jim in austin at 7:44 AM on December 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


I can't wait to read this book.

On the topic of Galileo, I read somewhat recently (perhaps in a New Yorker article about a new biography of Galileo?) that one of the reasons for the persistent myth of Galileo was that England was a hotbed of anti-Catholicism, and any attempt to make the papist Continent seem backward was seized upon.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 7:44 AM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


To be fair, neither Bruno nor Galileo seem to have had much sense of when to stop trying to prove they were the "smartest guy/mouth in the room" for a bit. I confess I might have been tempted to burn them if I was a Renaissance Pope.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:46 AM on December 29, 2013 [6 favorites]


Yeah, to hell with those damned smart guys, eh GenjiandProust?
posted by Decani at 7:47 AM on December 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


Bruno and Galileo are both from the early Renaissance.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 7:51 AM on December 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


I agree with Decani -- the writer seems to have a chip on his shoulder. He spent more time attacking straw-men than advancing his points. He defends the Middle Ages as if the era is one of his own offspring. I couldn't finish the article.
posted by Agave at 7:53 AM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]



I don't find it that strange that general people, athiest or not subscribe to this 'myth'. It has been a long held mainstream way of looking at that historical time period which became embedded in basic popular history education for many, many years. It's the way I learned history in lower level schooling. It wasn't until post secondary, coupled with my own interest in history where that idea changed. The 'dark ages' has become part of popular culture in general. It takes time for current, higher level academic understanding to filter it's way into popular culture, particularly in social sciences, where old common ways of looking at history tend to be supported by general cultural products. (movies, tv etc).

It's only recently that I've started to see things like documentaries directed at the general populace with themes along the lines of "Dark Ages, not so dark, wow...check it out".

To me it really is just an indication that adding 'atheist' to a person's belief system means that they automatically know more about history, or any subject for that matter, then any other person.
posted by Jalliah at 7:53 AM on December 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


But seriously, this reeks of agenda
...
In other news, there's still no god.

Agenda indeed.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 7:54 AM on December 29, 2013 [11 favorites]


According to this FPP, not only were the dark ages not dark, they never even existed.
posted by 445supermag at 8:00 AM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


I agree with Decani -- the writer seems to have a chip on his shoulder. He spent more time attacking straw-men than advancing his points. He defends the Middle Ages as if the era is one of his own offspring. I couldn't finish the article.

Always worth finishing the article I find. He does have a couple of criticisms of the book, including the author's "snippy" conflating of humanist/atheist.

Personally I wouldn't use the book review as a reason to argue with the contents of the book itself. It might be better - if one wanted to be more informed on the topic of course, which isn't mandatory - to read it before arguing with the premise it contains. It seems like a fairly hefty book and a briefish review. Just MO.
posted by billiebee at 8:00 AM on December 29, 2013


I think often history is like science fiction; more about the present than the past.
History clearly shares a great deal with plain old fiction, which is why I find the appeal to "objective, peer-reviewed" historians more than a little hilarious.

Not that I necessarily want to dismiss historians as a whole, but the whole enterprise makes a lot more sense when you are aware that everyone is full of biases and axe-grinding.

Maybe instead of complaining about people with sciences backgrounds doing history wrong, it would be more productive to listen to their experience. After all, a few of them have been involved in the creation of modernity and some are already beginning to see their stories (mis)told by history.

GenjiandProust probably has the right idea - it isn't so much religion that opposes science as faith-based authoritarian systems. And the infrastructure supporting science can itself easily turn into a faith-based authoritarian system. As Philip K Dick said, The Empire never ended. (that is, at some level, all faith-based authoritarian systems are indistinguishably oppressive)
On the topic of Galileo, I read somewhat recently (perhaps in a New Yorker article about a new biography of Galileo?) that one of the reasons for the persistent myth of Galileo was that England was a hotbed of anti-Catholicism, and any attempt to make the papist Continent seem backward was seized upon.
Francis Yates mentions this in her treatment of Bruno and friends in The Art of Memory (and probably also her book dedicated entirely to Bruno). Renegade Catholics were quite popular in London, though sometimes they were good enough at irritating the British establishment that they sometimes needed to go hide behind their embassies.

Bruno in particular was up to some interesting memory tricks, and it is fascinating how polarizing memory techniques were in Europe throughout the last thousand years. Of course, history is the codification of memory, so it isn't all that surprising that those who produce official history would seek to suppress those who have even limited capabilities of creating alternative history.
posted by b1tr0t at 8:04 AM on December 29, 2013


I think if you disagree with his dismissal of the centrality of Bruno, maybe say why. Saying he has a chip on his shoulder is just a tone argument. I know nothing about the Bruno story and wouldn't mind hearing why it disproves the writer's point.
posted by emjaybee at 8:05 AM on December 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


[Added italics to the post.]
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:13 AM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think a substantial component of the problem with the intellectual life of the early Medieval period in Europe was the difficulty of travel and communication which hindeted the spread and sharing of new ideas.

I think there's a corollary here. Because travel was difficult and ideas were only communicated within small circles of people who were all deeply embedded within the Church, medieval scholars were able to flourish either because they all implicitly knew what to self-censor, or because nobody really cared about such purely academic exercises except for the really hard line conservatives who would bother to raise a stink.

Of the Church-supported medieval scientists cited, I highly doubt any of them were publishing their work in the vernacular or even at all given that there's no printing press. The Renaissance was as much about the unhindered spread of ideas as it was about those ideas.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 8:14 AM on December 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


Yeah, to hell with those damned smart guys, eh GenjiandProust?

I watched an interview a few days ago where Malcolm Gladwell referred to the critics pointing out contradictions and absence of empiricism in his books as "logic Nazis". Smart guy and all but he could probably do with being burned at the stake too.

Bruno and Galileo are both from the early Renaissance.

I noticed that the article uses both the phrases "Twelfth Century Renaissance" and (via a quote) "[I]n the fourteenth century medieval thinkers began to notice..." I think there's a fairly broad confidence interval in the application of these sorts of descriptive terms for eras, so that they can often overlap.
posted by XMLicious at 8:24 AM on December 29, 2013


How is this even relevant to atheism?

Weird to see history invoked in this way. Cool work in the history of science is cool, atheism isn't much relevant.

Besides, the "Dark Ages" has always been a bit of a misnomer, but aren't they generally considered to go from about 500-1000 and attributed more to the instability in Western Europe due to fall of the Roman Empire than to Christianity? I mean, there was lots of science in Byzantium, right? That would exclude most of the folks being celebrated here.
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:24 AM on December 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


I don't find it that strange that general people, athiest or not subscribe to this 'myth'. It has been a long held mainstream way of looking at that historical time period which became embedded in basic popular history education for many, many years.

This is the vague recollection I have of the gloss we were given in high school - I can't say "history we were taught" because it was neither - as we galloped from Ancient Greece to the Enlightenment, and what was taught about Galileo and Newton et al. was covered in my science classes, not my history classes, so the focus was much more on the science than the context in which that science was happening. If that author's only right about one thing, it's that the state of teaching history is abysmally terrible.
posted by rtha at 8:24 AM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


How is this even relevant to atheism?

In the footer the author is described as ...an atheist blogger who specializes in reviews of books on ancient and medieval history as well as atheism and historiography. He holds a Master of Arts in Medieval Literature from the University of Tasmania and is a subscribing member of the Australian Atheist Foundation and the Australian Skeptics. He is also the author of...

So, it would appear to be his schtick.
posted by XMLicious at 8:27 AM on December 29, 2013


I think there's a corollary here. Because travel was difficult and ideas were only communicated within small circles of people who were all deeply embedded within the Church, medieval scholars were able to flourish either because they all implicitly knew what to self-censor, or because nobody really cared about such purely academic exercises except for the really hard line conservatives who would bother to raise a stink.

Of the medieval scientists cited, I highly doubt any of them were publishing their work in the vernacular or even at all given that there's no printing press. The Renaissance was as much about the unhindered spread of ideas as it was about those ideas.


I'm personally interested in lives and work of women during that time period. Women like Hildegard de Bingen who lives and work have been (re)discovered so to speak. Though not scientists per say they were scholars, theologians and philosphers and were well known at the time within a certain sphere. Some of what they did and said seems downright modern and revolutionary to our context. That they didn't get into more trouble or that their ideas didn't spread further, beyond patriachal explanations makes more sense in the context that you lay out. Hildegard wrote a lot and thankfully her body of work was kept after her death but most of her ideas were just spread within the reach of who she talked and preached to on her tours. It's the same pattern with other women. I've pondered what her life would have been like a few centuries later with the advent of the printing press.

General spheres of influence of any scholary thinker types, man or women were small and quite insular by modern standards.
posted by Jalliah at 8:30 AM on December 29, 2013 [7 favorites]


How is this even relevant to atheism?

The guy self-describes as an "atheist blogger" and is therefore trying to combat the rampant anti-intellectualism and ahistorical thinking that he's encountered in his own community. Not to say that he should be immune to the charge of reductive straw-manning, but you have to consider the context — this is meant as a corrective to the moronic Internet culture-warrior "SCIENCE!" stance, not an essay for history-of-science buffs (hence the sort of funny anachronistic description of all manner of thinkers as "scientists," for instance, which I took as a play for sympathy).
posted by RogerB at 8:32 AM on December 29, 2013 [9 favorites]


That book just went on my wish list, and I probably need to start reading his blog. I'm either going to love it or start throwing things quickly.

(And as an atheist, though not a New Atheist by any means, myself, with a post-grad academic background in medieval history, yeah, I wouldn't get into those arguments with Internet Atheists. It would just waste my time and annoy the pigs.)
posted by immlass at 8:34 AM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


On the demand of the spiritual authorities, Bruno was removed from Venice to Rome, and confined in the prison of the Inquisition, accused not only of being a heretic, but also a heresiarch, who had written things unseemly concerning religion; the special charge against him being that he had taught the plurality of worlds, a doctrine repugnant to the whole tenor of Scripture and inimical to revealed religion, especially as regards the plan of salvation. After an imprisonment of two years he was brought before his judges, declared guilty of the acts alleged, excommunicated, and, on his nobly refusing to recant, was delivered over to the secular authorities to be punished "as mercifully as possible, and without the shedding of his blood," the horrible formula for burning a prisoner at the stake. Knowing well that though his tormentors might destroy his body, his thoughts would still live among men, he said to his judges, "Perhaps it is with greater fear that you pass the sentence upon me than I receive it." The sentence was carried into effect, and he was burnt at Rome, February 16th, A.D. 1600.--History of the conflict between religion and science / John Draper
posted by No Robots at 8:35 AM on December 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


There was actually a medieval theological basis for inquiry and discovery. It was believed that all of creation was a form of hidden scripture. If one could discern that obscured truth then man's knowledge of God and His universe would be increased. True, this was mostly practiced through an analysis of divine symbolism hidden in nature (all medieval art and church architecture is dripping with symbols at every level) but it is not necessarily at odds with a more scientific or mathematical approach...
posted by jim in austin at 8:39 AM on December 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


How is this even relevant to atheism?

The strident kind of Internet atheist usually believes: 1) the Dark Ages happened and were awful, everyone was covered in dung and no one knew anything, because 2) the Church burned all the scientists and hid the books. And so, if it weren't for the ultimate evil, Christianity, we would be so much more advanced right now that there would probably be colonies on Mars.

If you don't have much contact with these people, you should definitely keep it that way. To be fair a lot of them are like 14, and are often dealing with figuring out their beliefs in the face of hostile families or in regions where anything other than evangelical Protestant Christianity is totally unwelcome. But it's annoying, and one of the worst things is their total almost neocon-level confidence in their view of history as a war between reason and religion.
posted by vogon_poet at 8:43 AM on December 29, 2013 [20 favorites]


I'm personally interested in lives and work of women during that time period.

Have you read Kimberly Klimek's dissertation on how Anglo-Norman historians dealt with female rulers?
posted by MartinWisse at 8:48 AM on December 29, 2013 [9 favorites]



Thanks Martin! I haven't. Looks great.
posted by Jalliah at 8:54 AM on December 29, 2013


Surely, there are legitimate reasons to call the period after the fall of the Roman Empire "dark" as a sort of short hand, right? I mean, you'd have to be an idiot to take it to mean, say, that the sun didn't shine during the entire period, or that it became metaphorically dark on such and such a day, and stopped being dark exactly on another. That's my hyperbolic way of summarizing what O'Neill is getting at when he says that
...the myth that the Catholic Church caused the Dark Ages and the Medieval Period was a scientific wasteland is regularly wheeled, creaking, into the sunlight for another trundle around the arena.
It is also the reason atheism is relevant (to the writer): the arena he's referring to is his community of atheism converts and evangelists. He wants to help them avoid what he sees as ignorant and inaccurate historical arguments against religion and "superstition". I'm not supporting or attacking this perspective by saying any of this (I don't think I'm an atheist, at least of the "new" variety). Just hoping we might avoid a sort of "was too dark! nu-huh, was not!" sort of pseudo-discussion. It's an interesting read, and the reviewed book sounds like something I'd dig.

That being said, one thing that bothers me in a wide range of contexts when we discuss science--including this one--is the degree to which we don't realize that our contemporary discussions about "science" are hopelessly entangled with global corporate capitalism (and the empire built in its name). Our contemporary political-economic context gives us a very limited view of what science is, one that is extremely skewed to economic utility in the current system, and largely devoid of the philosophical, psychological, and spiritual dimensions that were very much present, and even central, to all of those in the past, like Bruno, engaged in what we now think of as proto-scientific work. Our view of science has been so severely distorted by capitalism that it's difficult for the "new atheist", scientistic [sic] types to even understand what they're valuing if they can't disentangle the two. This is one reason I privately hold on the the idea of being a natural philosopher rather than a scientist--because my motivation primarily is to uncover truths about the world and myself in it, not (primarily) to create products, enhance economic productivity, or the like.
posted by mondo dentro at 9:01 AM on December 29, 2013 [12 favorites]


TBH, the move that bugs me the most about this essay is the cheap contrast he bruits in that pull-quote between "Nineteenth Century polemicists" and "recent, objective, peer-reviewed historians." Like, dude, maybe try extending the 19C the exact same kind of interpretive charity that you're demanding others give the medieval period? To pin the bad aspects of a 20-21C culture war on a caricature of moralizing Victorians, and then happily, Whiggishly suggest that we've become more "objective" now, is not at all a way to have a smarter historical discussion.
posted by RogerB at 9:03 AM on December 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


The reviewer complains about the internet too much, as if his job is harder with it than without it, which is an argument I've seen only in bluffing, expert-consensus claiming, and theological apologies that use the word myth to mean the opposite of true. There is also the sense that he is special pleading his case and moving goal posts around:

Far from being a stagnant dark age, as the first half of the Medieval Period (500-1000 AD) certainly was, the period from 1000 to 1500 AD actually saw the most impressive flowering of scientific inquiry and discovery since the time of the ancient Greeks, far eclipsing the Roman and Hellenic Eras in every respect.
posted by Brian B. at 9:10 AM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Although we very easily blame Victorians and what we think their values were, there was a great doctoring of history that happened during the 19th Century. Of course, changing history was nothing new, but for two facts made it somewhat different: 1) they created a string of documents as they changed it, so oddly enough we have more evidence of the 19th Century changing history than previous centuries, and 2) with their advents of technology, empire, and media, the 19th Century was more or less successful in setting that tone.

I'm reminded of the Flammarion Engraving that somehow proved that Dark Age thinking about the flatness of the world, despite it being created in 1888. Later versions would strip off the anachronistic border designs. If anything, this author is trying to prevent the use of bad evidence for use in dubious and ahistorical claims.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 9:14 AM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


"On the topic of Galileo, I read somewhat recently (perhaps in a New Yorker article about a new biography of Galileo?) that one of the reasons for the persistent myth of Galileo was that England was a hotbed of anti-Catholicism, and any attempt to make the papist Continent seem backward was seized upon."

The popular conception of the Spanish Inquisition that prevails today was invented in exactly the same way, it was indeed awful but in a way entirely unrecognizable to how most anglophones would explain it.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:30 AM on December 29, 2013


Besides, the "Dark Ages" has always been a bit of a misnomer, but aren't they generally considered to go from about 500-1000 and attributed more to the instability in Western Europe due to fall of the Roman Empire than to Christianity?

Yeah, but that sentence makes Late antiquity/Early Middle Age historians' heads hurt. The consensus view about that period is more and more that the empire didn't fall so much as was dismantled.

It really is an incredibly interesting and underrated period in (western) European history, nowhere near as dark as pro-Roman.Byzantine propaganda (Gibbons, I'm looking at you) made it out to be.
posted by MartinWisse at 9:44 AM on December 29, 2013


I got stuck on the same thing that Brian B. notes: if "the first half of the Medieval Period (500-1000 AD) certainly was"..."a stagnant dark age", then that "wrongest thing on the internet" graph is... two-thirds right? Is this review's argument that the Medieval Dark Ages didn't exist at all, existed but weren't really Christian, or were stagnant and dark but didn't repress science?
posted by nicwolff at 9:44 AM on December 29, 2013


(Looks like MartinWisse has clarified that while I was posting.)
posted by nicwolff at 9:46 AM on December 29, 2013


Much of the stuff that people think of as "dumb medieval": not bathing, witch-burning crazes, the persecution of Bruno & Galileo; is actually Early Modern and only really started after the Renaissance.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 9:55 AM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


The consensus view about that period is more and more that the empire didn't fall so much as was dismantled.

It's fascinating how well this same sort debate tracks with current views of climate change and its civilization-changing potential, including the possibility of a post-peak-oil or post-eco-catastrophe "dark age". In saying this, I'm mapping, say, "heliocentrism" on "climate change".

First, in our own time it's much easier to see the complexity of forces arrayed against a climate change world view: are the Koch brothers "anti-science"? Second, the semantic trap of describing civilizational dynamics with words like "fall" and "collapse" is also very much active today: it is highly unlikely that any "collapse" of our global civilization would take place in under a century, by dint of sheer inertia if nothing else, and it's not clear which knowledge would be lost and which conserved.
posted by mondo dentro at 10:02 AM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


overeducated_alligator: "On the topic of Galileo, I read somewhat recently (perhaps in a New Yorker article about a new biography of Galileo?) that one of the reasons for the persistent myth of Galileo was that England was a hotbed of anti-Catholicism, and any attempt to make the papist Continent seem backward was seized upon."

Yes, there are also fascinating strains of this is American history books that you can still see today; the Protestant fathers of public education in the U.S. considered among their mandate the conversion of immigrant Catholic children away from the superstitious, unpatriotic faith of their forebearers into a Protestantism appropriate to the American state. It was once upon a time overt, since abandoned as a bad idea, but little bits of things survive in endlessly-revised-and-not-rewritten history texts. Which are often very good texts as a general thing, but you do find these little lasting bits of Protestant rah-rah framing. I'm trying to think of a couple examples but of course now I'm on the spot I can't think of any good ones ... wars started by Catholics are often called religious wars, while wars started by Protestants are often given complicated and secular explanations like there was land and food and money at stake. Similarly, peasant revolts in Catholic countries are framed an expression of legitimate Protestant sentiment against repressive Catholic authorities, while in Protestant countries they are either being stirred up by outside forces playing on the superstitious Catholic peasantry, or they're a result of famine and hard times. And as a corollary, the peasantry in Protestant countries is sturdy, self-reliant, and self-improving, while the peasantry in Catholic countries is dumb, superstitious, and unwashed. The rise of English and Dutch merchant and middle classes are discussed at length (which makes sense given how important they were in the colonizing of what became the U.S.), but Italian merchant and middle classes are generally completely ignored. (Every now and then, there will be these complicated and elaborate trade disputes discussed with lots of English/Dutch stuff going on about competing needs of the various stakeholders, and the Italians and/or Spanish just show up because they're rapacious traders who want gold, not that they were ALSO highly sophisticated mercantile cultures with competing stakeholders.) And of course many of these things are simultaneously true and it's a choice of what to emphasize and how to interpret complicated events. But it can be really interesting to see how our inherited history books do come down to us with a subtle Protestant bias as that how our Anglo-American history has "always" been read.

Just pick some random section of European wars slightly after the Reformation in any AP European history text, and see how it describes Catholic and Protestant rulers, their motivations, their problems, and the peasants and middle/merchant classes in their countries. You will probably note some of the above.

Also, sections on Spain prior to 1492 that discuss Muslim contributions to European culture will almost always be quite recent additions. Often still in a sidebar rather than the main text.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:20 AM on December 29, 2013 [18 favorites]


It was once upon a time overt, since abandoned as a bad idea...

... and now back in fashion, especially now that we have a commie pope.
posted by mondo dentro at 10:28 AM on December 29, 2013


The period of time from about 500 AD to about 1300 AD included such advances as printing (including movable type), gunpowder and related weapons (including rockets, firearms, landmines, naval mines, bombards, and cannons), the magnetic compass, matches, the double-action piston pump, cast iron, the suspension bridge, the parachute, natural gas as fuel, the propeller, and the sluice gate.

Or, why does everyone seem to pretend that Europe was the only place that mattered?
posted by kyrademon at 10:28 AM on December 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


Because the context of this post is about European history?
posted by MartinWisse at 10:31 AM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


I suppose. But it seems strange to leave that out of a discussion of the idea that Christianity somehow halted "scientific advancement", which I presumed was meant to refer to something worldwide.
posted by kyrademon at 10:34 AM on December 29, 2013


It says something about the biases at play in this post just by looking at the wesbite's "About" page:
"StrangeNotions.com is the central place of dialogue between Catholics and atheists."
So , perhaps pro-atheist-viewpoint when the atheist in question dismantles historic perceptions that make the church look bad . . . odd duck, indeed.
posted by pt68 at 10:38 AM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Just as O'Neill does with his recovery essay to add nuance and complicate the historical narrative, there are so many atheists whose work adds nuance and complexity to narratives about public atheism, which is good given the conflict narrative over-simplification at work in some prominent narratives about atheism too.
posted by audi alteram partem at 10:39 AM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


But it seems strange to leave that out of a discussion of the idea that Christianity somehow halted "scientific advancement", which I presumed was meant to refer to something worldwide.

Come, come. You know it only counts as progress when (named) white men invent things. But yeah, the world view that the original writer was railing against is either not nuanced enough to understand science could've happened outside Europe, or they use similar bogey men to Catholicism to explain why China (Confucism) or the Islamic world (Islam, duh) stagnated.
posted by MartinWisse at 10:40 AM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


"The Most Wrong Thing On the Internet Ever" is obviously lame and obnoxiously pseudo-quantitative, but it really barely even approaches the average wrongess of an averagely wrong internet meme. Get a grip. But, sure, just lets have a properly nuanced picture of the medieval church without also insinuating that an honest and searching intellectual approach continues to possibly coincide with devoutness.
posted by batfish at 10:41 AM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


How dare he insult the chart. The chart is the beginning of all wisdom. The chart shows us the way.
posted by Authorized User at 10:51 AM on December 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


Let's be honest, there is a lot of strange behavior by those who like to label themselves "rationalists."
posted by edheil at 11:53 AM on December 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yeah, to hell with those damned smart guys, eh GenjiandProust?

Well, being smart is a virtue, but it's not always the best thing to put front and center, especially when you are dealing with absolutist and authoritarian institutions. Do I think Galileo deserved to be in danger of his life for scientific inquiry? Not at all. Do I think that, while in dispute with the Church over his theories, publishing a book where the character who expressed the Church's official position is named "Simplicio," or "Simpleton," was maybe not the best PR move? Yup. It really seems like Gaileo, much like a grumpy poster on the web, issued an attack that made it difficult or even impossible for his supporters in the Church (which included the Pope up to a point) to advocate for him, leaving him open to counter-attacks by reactionaries. So the idea that Galileo was a total innocent merely courageously championing science is a little bit simplistic.
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:01 PM on December 29, 2013 [7 favorites]


Talk about damning with faint defense. So the Church persecuted Galileo not because it hated science, but because it was so petty and authoritarian that it couldn't stand being even indirectly called a name?
posted by Pyry at 12:46 PM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yes. But the focus here is on the nebulous idea of religious practice and science being at odds, and the use of faulty historical reasoning to come to that conclusion. Remember?
posted by smidgen at 12:52 PM on December 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


but because it was so petty and authoritarian that it couldn't stand being even indirectly called a name?

It's not like this is unusual behavior for the Church, or for other large, authoritarian institutions, religious and not, throughout history. While I wouldn't say that's the sole reason they went went after him, it wouldn't be an anomaly for that kind of pettiness to be a contributing factor. History is people, and people are petty.
posted by rtha at 1:02 PM on December 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


I think often history is like science fiction; more about the present than the past.
posted by save alive


History - at least, academic history - that is more about the present than the past is badly researched history.

As for history being fictional...well, anyone who wants to claim that around me can meet me and my reams of research notes outside in a dark alley. If they're lucky, I'll just make them transcribe and code 200 of the 500 probate inventories I'm looking at.
posted by jb at 1:08 PM on December 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


Yeah, if anything, it shows that most people let ego get in the way of good decisions. Gaileo didn't have to be deliberately insulting to the organization that was also supporting him, and the Church didn't have to let having an insult lobbed at them mean that they had to use all legal means to knock Gaileo down a peg or two. Individuals and organizations are no different now, and though perhaps the modes of censure are different (no more arrest for heretical ideas), there still exist other standards and how people negotiate (or not) the boundaries of those standards. Gaileo and the Church both did so rather poorly.

In the end, the article's claim that the Dark Ages weren't anti-science, the Christian Church at the time wasn't anti-science, and the whole relationship between scientific inquiry and religious institutions were far more complicated and interesting than is commonly represented both in media and discussion boards is a sound one.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 1:09 PM on December 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


So the Church persecuted Galileo not because it hated science, but because it was so petty and authoritarian that it couldn't stand being even indirectly called a name?

A more historically complete answer would take up a lot of room (there are books on it), but, in short (as I understand it): the Church was a large and complex institutions with a lot of different perspectives. It was wrestling with the legacy of the reintroduction of ancient pagan learning and philosophy and the development of Renaissance Humanism, some which was entirely compatible with Church teaching and other parts less so. It was also wrestling with a rising tide of religious dissent, notably the Lutherans in the German states and the Church of England. Parts of the Church were very reactionary whereas others championed at least some aspects of the new learning (all of it accelerated by improvements in communication, including movable type and "mass" printing). It was a very volatile situation (the 30 Years' War is going on at the time, not to mention the issues with England), and the Pope (and assorted other church leaders) had rather a lot going on. When Galileo decided to write The Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems using the rhetorical strategy he chose, he must have had a sense that he was risking the support of the Pope and others who were unlikely to spend political capital badly needed elsewhere to protect someone they could only have seen as an ungrateful loudmouth.

Having been forced to spend my political capital to defend the rights of imprudently outspoken people a few times, I am not entirely out of sympathy with the church figures who chose to abandon Galileo. He made it unnecessarily hard to defend him. Is that pettiness?
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:36 PM on December 29, 2013 [7 favorites]


"Yes. But the focus here is on the nebulous idea of religious practice and science being at odds, and the use of faulty historical reasoning to come to that conclusion. Remember?"

Galileo and Pope Urban VIII were navigating a very different world that was much more delicately balanced over violence. Galileo attempting to subject his friend the Pope to public ridicule through his book was many things, probably accidental and certainly stupid, but it was very much not a trivial or petty act. That the pope asked for Galileo to write the book in order to present arguments for and against heliocentricity and Galileo not only refused to affect the academic indifference in the book that the Pope requested but used it as a platform to insult him only adds icing on the dumbass cake.

Remember that this is an era when secular rulers, both Catholic and Protestant, were regularly beheading people for seemingly trivial crimes of lèse-majesté, much less genuine political disagreements and Galileo's luxurious time-out among friends where he was given the chance to continue writing sounds pretty fantastically liberal. This was less a persecution and more a refusal to give him more rope to hang himself with, even if his otherwise brilliant and witty head was shoved to far up his ass to realize it doesn't mean ours' need to be.
posted by Blasdelb at 1:50 PM on December 29, 2013 [6 favorites]


So the Church persecuted Galileo not because it hated science, but because it was so petty and authoritarian that it couldn't stand being even indirectly called a name?

You know, I'd even be okay with people thinking this if they could just keep it straight that the Church that did that then and the Church that exists now are two different things when it comes to how they handle scientific inquiry and progress.

Were they dicks about science then? Yeah. So were a lot of other people in authority. But not any more. I don't treat other adults as if they were two-year-olds who hadn't been pottytrained yet, and I don't see the logic in ignoring how the contemporary church handles science and only focusing on how they handles things 600 years ago.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:05 PM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Galileo didn't have to be deliberately insulting to the organization that was also supporting him...

Don't let that make you think he wasn't prepared to be a gigantic sycophant to big-shots he decided to curry favor with. He dedicated the moons of Jupiter to the Medici bros with a letter almost hilarious in its brown-nosery. It's one of the very human things I love about Galileo.
posted by mondo dentro at 2:12 PM on December 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


"I noticed that the article uses both the phrases "Twelfth Century Renaissance" and (via a quote) "[I]n the fourteenth century medieval thinkers began to notice..." I think there's a fairly broad confidence interval in the application of these sorts of descriptive terms for eras, so that they can often overlap."

The 12th Century Renaissance and the Carolingian Renaissance (8th/9th) were separate from the Italian Renaissance, which is the one usually called "the Renaissance," especially with the early/middle/high descriptors most often aligned with art/architectural history. Carolingian and 12th Century were in the Middle Ages (though Carolingian was maybe the break between Dark Ages and Middle Ages).

And I'd always kinda conceptualized the "Dark Ages" as coming from the sack of Rome and then the couple waves of plague — Justinian, then the Black Death. Hard to have meaningful science when, like, a third to half of the people in any given spot are dying horribly.
posted by klangklangston at 2:14 PM on December 29, 2013 [5 favorites]


Were they dicks about science then? Yeah. So were a lot of other people in authority. But not any more. I don't treat other adults as if they were two-year-olds who hadn't been pottytrained yet, and I don't see the logic in ignoring how the contemporary church handles science and only focusing on how they handles things 600 years ago.

Given the Catholic Church's opinion on condoms, embryonic stem cell research and contraception, they're still kind of dicks about science.
posted by nooneyouknow at 2:42 PM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


I mean, those are moral teachings though, saying that stem cell research or contraception is morally wrong doesn't contradict any scientific facts.

I do think, though, that considering the church's behavior centuries ago is important because it derives so much of its authority from doctrinal and institutional continuity.
posted by vogon_poet at 2:56 PM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Given the Catholic Church's opinion on condoms, embryonic stem cell research and contraception, they're still kind of dicks about science.

Even this is an evolving thing. Pope Benedict was asked about whether he still opposed condoms as a means of disease prevention and he admitted that weeeeeeell, in that case....

Look, I'm not saying that they're perfect - only that focusing solely on the medieval church and ignoring the fact that, for example, they've actually been cool with the theory of evolution since 1950 means you're forming an opinion based on incomplete data. Which is itself - dare I say - unscientific.

Consider the behavior of centuries ago, sure, but don't ONLY consider the behavior of centuries ago and don't IGNORE the behavior of today. That's all I ask.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:05 PM on December 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


I mean, those are moral teachings though, saying that stem cell research or contraception is morally wrong doesn't contradict any scientific facts.

Agreed, and I think that's the trick he's pulling off here. Saying that we experienced an age of fear and ignorance under religious authority who discouraged open inquiry does not contradict any historical facts of modern development.
posted by Brian B. at 4:37 PM on December 29, 2013


I'm kind of surprised they didn't mention the current strain of Islamaphobia among their ranks, which seems to ignore the fact that many of the most advanced scientific cultures in the West tended to be Muslim.

Other than Muslim Spain (the golden age of which had a lot of Jews and Christians), I'm kind of hard pressed to thing of any advanced scientific cultures in the west that were Muslim. And that came to a pretty sudden stop in the 13th century (theories include sudden drop in economic activity and a new more closed minded theology. I make not claims to any in particular) when Europe was just taking off. Again.

Given the Catholic Church's opinion on condoms, embryonic stem cell research and contraception, they're still kind of dicks about science.


Oh, give it a rest. However you feel about their take on birth control and abortion, it's the church's job to examine the ethical and spiritual aspects of life and technology and frankly, fair enough. And while it's fun to drag out Galileo again, it's a dead horse. The church got over it over twenty years ago, let it rest.

Meanwhile, we've got a whole slew of questions raised every day by science and technology, and I'd rather that thoughtful people and institutions, including the Holy See, consider the manifold implications of all the amazing/disturbing things science comes up with. (Or, on preview - what the always interesting Empress said.)

(BTW, while the Vatican is troubled by embryonic for obvious reasons, they have been open to discussing the promises of adult stem cell research .)
posted by IndigoJones at 4:49 PM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


I mean, those are moral teachings though, saying that stem cell research or contraception is morally wrong doesn't contradict any scientific facts.

But they don't just say that. They say shit like "The Aids virus is roughly 450 times smaller than the spermatozoon. The spermatozoon can easily pass through the 'net' that is formed by the condom." and that promoting condom use will lead to irresponsible, risky sexual behavior like promiscuity and prostitution (which is completely ridiculous). And after Benedict said it was okay to use a condom to save someone's life, he was still all "abstinence is the best way to prevent AIDS." I haven't come across any of the Church's comments on contraception and embryonic stem cells but I bet it's similar in its lack of scientific rigor.

Consider the behavior of centuries ago, sure, but don't ONLY consider the behavior of centuries ago and don't IGNORE the behavior of today. That's all I ask.

I don't have a problem with that.
posted by nooneyouknow at 5:11 PM on December 29, 2013




"(theories include sudden drop in economic activity and a new more closed minded theology. I make not claims to any in particular)"

Well, there is also the obvious. The bloodthirsty, quarrelsome, autocratic, and largely illiterate invaders from the north may have had something to do with it. If when you say west you mean the former pan-Hellenic world there is also the other similar obvious factor.
posted by Blasdelb at 5:14 PM on December 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


But they don't just say that. They say shit like "The Aids virus is roughly 450 times smaller than the spermatozoon. The spermatozoon can easily pass through the 'net' that is formed by the condom." and that promoting condom use will lead to irresponsible, risky sexual behavior like promiscuity and prostitution (which is completely ridiculous).

I usually don't pull this card, but - cite?

And after Benedict said it was okay to use a condom to save someone's life, he was still all "abstinence is the best way to prevent AIDS." I haven't come across any of the Church's comments on contraception and embryonic stem cells but I bet it's similar in its lack of scientific rigor.

Well - technically that's accurate. Not having sex is indeed the best way to avoid any sexually-transmitted disease. It's not an approach most people will find workable, no, but that doesn't make that not a scientific fact, that the best way to avoid an STD is abstinence.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:58 PM on December 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'm another who found the tone of the article off-putting. I admit I do not have a thorough education in history, especially of the Middle Ages. I'm willing to be led along to put some nuances on my conception that this was really a poor time for fundamental innovation in Europe, and would be a little surprised but willing, given enough evidence, to come round to the idea that it was not an anomalously bad time.

For one thing the author puts too much emphasis on rationality as the defining issue. That in the Science vs. Religion conception, it merely needs to be shown that the religious authorities of the time in fact encouraged the development of rationality. But there's a lot more to the modern scientific temperament than that. And if the conflicts--Galileo or Bruno vs. the Church--were actually Renaissance and not Middle Ages--then maybe it's not because the Medieval Church was so welcoming of free debate, but because only in the Renaissance did science advance to the stage where it could successfully challenge major conceptions of the world.

Science needs more than rationality. One of the major objections to Galileo from a churchman of the time argued that as the human body has seven openings, so by analogy the system of worlds needed to have seven bodies, and thus, 4 moons of Jupiter were flat out. (Or something similar! Debates vis a vis the angels dancing on a pin are a cliche of strained rationality of the time.) Galileo could afford to be a jerk. In a way the situation sort of demanded it, to show how strong his case was. Galileo had irrefutable evidence: what he could see in the telescope anybody could see. His writings didn't have to convince anyone of anything more than that they should look through a telescope themselves, and then they'd be convinced by their own eyes.
posted by Schmucko at 7:14 PM on December 29, 2013


Well - technically that's accurate. Not having sex is indeed the best way to avoid any sexually-transmitted disease.

No, that's just as wrong as saying there needed be fat people if only they stop eating so much.

With e.g. condoms we know that there's a risk to their use if you do so incorrectly, even a small risk that the material is defective; the same should be done to abstinence. And of course if you look at abstinence that way, it's clear that it's about the worst method to protect yourself from STDs or pregnancy, because it fails so easily.

The Catholic Church (not to mention various other flavours of Christians) chooses ideology (having sex outside of certain rigidly defined circumstances is bad and should be avoided or punished) over saving lives when it objects to condoms or other protection and it's immoral that it recommends abstinence instead when the church knows its failure right is much higher.

Those defending the Church as not as all as bad as 19th century anti-papal propaganda made it out to be have a point, but we shouldn't be too forgiven to the Church in how it has used and abused its powers, even in just the last century either. We've just had a pope who played a not unimportant part in sexual abuse cover up attempts by the Church after all.

(Going back to the medieval church, I just read in Jennifer Ward's Women in Medieval Europe, 1200-1500 that the Church condoned the establishment of municipal brothels, arguing that this would prevent homosexuality and violent behaviour in unmarried males, so yeah.)
posted by MartinWisse at 4:39 AM on December 30, 2013


> Not having sex is indeed the best way to avoid any sexually-transmitted disease.

No, that's just as wrong as saying there needed be fat people if only they stop eating so much.


Dude, even doctors say that "not having sex is the only sure way to prevent STDs." That is nothing like "the only way to prevent obesity is for people to stop eating so much" at all.

I'm starting to suspect that your perspective may be a bit influenced by some sort of a grudge.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:14 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


And moreover, no one - not even the church - is claiming that abstinence is the only way to prevent STDs. Only that it is the most effective way. There are other ways to protect yourself that are also effective, and some may be really damn close to being effective too, but - if there is a certain behavior that will lead to your being exposed to a disease, then not engaging in that behavior means you are 100% guaranteed to not be exposed to that disease. That's kind of a "duh".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:17 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


With all due respect, Empress, it seems to me that the contention is that abstinence = reliance on one's will power, which is a demonstrably ineffective method of birth control.
posted by No Robots at 7:59 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I'll cut the Vatican some slack on Galileo; by most accounts he really did make it hard for his supporters in the Church to support him, and his punishment was mild to say the least, considering the incredible violence of the age.

The position of the current Church on condoms though? That is scientifically illiterate and a moral obscenity. I just can't find any common ground with defenders of that policy. Bishops spreading lies about the effectiveness of condoms in sub-Saharan Africa in the 21st Century are doing harm on a scale beyond comprehension.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 8:11 AM on December 30, 2013


Other than Muslim Spain (the golden age of which had a lot of Jews and Christians), I'm kind of hard pressed to thing of any advanced scientific cultures in the west that were Muslim.

Large swaths of math, science, and medicine were either refined or invented by Muslim scholars. They were among the few diligent transcribers of Greek, Roman, and Persian texts, and certainly the only ones where the government made it a priority. They had fairly free interactions with southern and eastern Asia, notably India. An example is the word and broad concept of algebra (and algorithm), which came from Islamic scholars. And more to the point of the thread, the major advances in optics and astronomy that came from the Muslim world paved the way for what Galileo and others worked on. And yes, there was quite a bit that came from Jews and Christians--Levantine and Andalusian, BTW--likely because they tended to have a more porous cultural and philosophical outlook than Catholic Europe. Plus, the Catholics in border or mixed areas tended to foster exchanges of ideas and even interfaith marriages, although much like varying levels of tolerance for Judaism in Europe, it depended more on specific secular rulers and Popes outlook than Catholicism in general.

And that came to a pretty sudden stop in the 13th century (theories include sudden drop in economic activity and a new more closed minded theology. I make not claims to any in particular)

Who are you citing for these theories? I ask because (as Blasdelb pointed out) the general consensus among historians is that there's a very obvious reason: the Mongols. The sack of Baghdad in 1258 wasn't just a particularly nasty siege, it was scorched-earth warfare the likes of which hadn't been seen in the West since the Hunnic and Germanic invasions of the Roman Empire. They destroyed not only the cities, but entire sections of infrastructure and centers of learning; as Wikipedia notes, "the waters of the Tigris ran black with ink from the enormous quantities of books flung into the river and red from the blood of the scientists and philosophers killed." Highly advanced irrigation systems that had taken centuries to refine were wiped out in a relative blink of the eye, and large swaths of the population put to the sword or made to flee. It is generally understood that the damage was so severe that it wasn't until the last century that the area had recovered, and that due mainly to both pre- and post-colonial resource extraction. In other words, to put it in modern parlance, they were bombed into the Stone Age. Any sudden drop in economic activity and loss of philosophical advancements can be pretty squarely placed at the feet of Hulagu et al.

In fact, you can very easily compare post-Mongol Islam with European Dark Ages/early Middle Ages Christianity. Both were invaded several times by large tribal organizations (and the Huns were also steppe nomads) that basically wiped out centuries worth of physical and philosophical achievements. Both Rome and Baghdad were transformed from multicultural metropolises and centers of their respective worlds, and into more-or-less backwater villages that remained so for hundreds of years. The only major difference off the top of my head is that the Mongols left, whereas the Goths and other Germanic tribes basically settled over most of Europe, slowly splitting into the Franks, Lombards, etc.

when Europe was just taking off. Again.

Due in no small part to interactions with the Islamic world, as well as interactions with east Asia. For instance, the period between the First and Second Crusades was tetchy, but Levantine Christians adopted and adapted a fair amount of the Islamic culture and sciences. It wasn't a coincidence that the fortunes of the two flipped so quickly.
posted by zombieflanders at 8:20 AM on December 30, 2013 [6 favorites]


And more to the point of the thread, the major advances in optics and astronomy that came from the Muslim world paved the way for what Galileo and others worked on.

One only has to look at a list of proper names of stars to see the outsized influence the Islamic world had on Western astronomy.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 9:08 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


With all due respect, Empress, it seems to me that the contention is that abstinence = reliance on one's will power, which is a demonstrably ineffective method of birth control.

No, the contention is that "the claim that abstinence is the most effective way of avoiding STD's is scientifically inaccurate".

I agree that abstinence is not a workable solution for the vast majority of people, for precisely the reason you describe - but claiming that it is scientifically inaccurate to state that "avoiding sex is the best way to avoid an STD"? Sorry, wrong.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:13 AM on December 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


EmpressCallipygos: the very narrow point you're making is logically correct. Not having sex is scientifically supportable as the "surest way" to not get and STD.

But medical science is not just focused on individuals. It also functions at the level of populations--via, for example, the study epidemiology. At this level, are you disputing the scientific claim that condoms prevent (that is, statistically minimize) the spread of STDs? If you do understand this (and I strongly suspect that you do), then it's really just a semantic game to insist that "avoiding sex is the best way to avoid an STD", since it effectively obscures the essential, probabilistic nature of the facts at under discussion.
posted by mondo dentro at 10:33 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


EmpressCallipygos: the very narrow point you're making is logically correct. Not having sex is scientifically supportable as the "surest way" to not get and STD.

And that is the same very narrow point that the Pope was making. You and I actually agree on the fact that it is not a workable solution for the majority of the population, but that is an objection to its practical application, not to its scientific accuracy.

Disagree with the pope all you like, just don't say that he wasn't making a "scientifically accurate" claim, or that he was "lacking in scientific rigor". Accuse him of presenting an unworkable solution - like I do myself, in fact - but don't accuse him of lacking scientific rigor.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:54 AM on December 30, 2013


Defending the truth of this "very narrow claim" divorces it from vital context. The Pope makes claims about abstinence in defence of doctrine forbidding the use of condoms, which at best belies a willful ignorance of epidemiology.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 11:27 AM on December 30, 2013


Then you'd better also go after WebMd for making the same claim, because they said the same damn thing.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:30 AM on December 30, 2013


I wasn't aware that WebMd takes such a hard line against condom use. Do you have a link?
posted by [expletive deleted] at 12:05 PM on December 30, 2013


I wasn't aware that WebMd takes such a hard line against condom use. Do you have a link?

Please don't put words in my mouth. I only said that WebMD says that abstinence is the surest defense against STDs. And there is a link to the page where I saw them say it in my comment here.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:49 PM on December 30, 2013


Gah!

Just because something is good social policy doesn't mean everything else is against Science™ or Medicine™. Social policy and ethics are complicated, and we don't need to act as though everyone who opposes our social policies are anti-science.

Anyway, on the whole, humans should eat less meat, and vegetarianism tends to promote much better health. However, if you haven't noticed, most Americans eat a load of meat DESPITE being told it's not great for them. If a doctor said, "You really shouldn't eat meat," that's very true, scientific response to the fact. If he then had to say, "But if you're going to eat meat, go for this, this, and this, and don't eat more than X times per week," that's acknowledging that the best possible outcome is harder for many people, and giving other options. It doesn't invalidate the healthiness of "vegetarian diets" and it doesn't make people who expound vegetarianism as some sort of anti-health kooks because "No one in their right mind could do that."

Acknowledging that abstinence is the only surefire way to avoid STDs is good science. It might not be good social policy, but it is factually true. Acknowledging that despite the risk, many engage in sexual activity, but there are steps to lessen the risk is also factually true. What you do with the science is entirely up to the society, but nothing prevents them both from being valid approaches. Skydiving is risky, but if you're going to skydive and accept the risk, bring a parachute.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 12:52 PM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Tagging Lord Chancellor in and getting out of the thread because otherwise i'm gonna get all riled up....
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:56 PM on December 30, 2013


Tagging Lord Chancellor in and getting out of the thread because otherwise i'm gonna get all riled up....

Oh, dear . . . there goes my Monday.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 12:58 PM on December 30, 2013


It also true that the sure-fire way to avoid dying in a traffic accident is to hang yourself. True fact.
posted by No Robots at 1:05 PM on December 30, 2013


Acknowledging that abstinence is the only surefire way to avoid STDs is good science.

No, quite frankly, it's not even science at all. It's a tautology, trivially true. Acquiring an infection through sexual contact implies sexual contact; no sexual contact implies no infection acquired through sexual contact. The logical structure of this sentence is literally the second example of a tautology in Wikipedia. Science doesn't even enter into this. There is no empiricism, there is no explanation of natural phenomena, the statement is constructed to be unfalsifiable. There is some scientific content in the underlying assumptions accepting the germ theory of disease. I guess Catholics can lord that over those poor, benighted Christian Scientists.

Context is what matters here, and the context in question is one that ignores epidemiological evidence that abstinence only policies are not effective at controlling the spread of STIs. Also, the Church's policy is confusing and deceptive in practice. Infections typically spread through sexual contact can have other vectors. Children are born with them; blood transfusions or sharing needles can spread them. The focus on monogamy as the sole protection for couples gives false security and no other option to millions of people who's spouses' infidelities put them at risk. The Vatican could say that holding the line on condoms is worth the cost in lives. That would be consistent with the science. Obfuscating with truisms about abstinence is not.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 2:40 PM on December 30, 2013 [5 favorites]


For those still playing along with this off-topic issue, the focus is on this: the claim that abstinence is the most effective way of avoiding STD's is scientifically inaccurate.

My point, which was apparently missed, was that the claim that "absinence is most effective" is scientifically accurate in a deterministic (non statistical) sense for individuals, but it is decidedly inaccurate in an epidemiological sense, for the population as a whole. A similar issue arises with vaccinations: the only sure way to not have negative side effects from vaccinations is to not have any. But that has very negative implications for the populace as a whole. Both positions (vaccinations vs. no vaccinations) are based on scientifically accurate statements, but only the latter (everyone should be vaccinated) is "good science".

I don't believe one can so easily separate what is merely workable from what is sound science, particularly in the medical realm, since the aim of medical science is to develop interventions in the population as a whole.

Bending this back a bit toward the FPP, though: I don't think any of this has anything to do with the Church repressing contemporary science. The Church only just got over the Galileo affair, and seems to have a more-or-less respectful attitude toward other knowledge domains these days (despite the apparent idiocy of the American bishops). I'm at most a culturally-Catholic non-believer, but I find the Church's stand on contraception and the sanctity of life in general to be much deeper and more consistent than it's given credit for. At this point in history it reads more like a minority critique of technological consumerism than a majority's repression of a new worldview.
posted by mondo dentro at 2:45 PM on December 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


To continue this "back to the FPP" trend -- in my many wasted years of grad school (including a degree in History of Science), I loved Pietro Redondi's works on Galileo and recommend it for a pretty fact-based interpretation. However, in the seminar rooms, there was a strong debate about whether Redondi had "let the Church off the hook" with his detail of how politics and Galileo's obstinance and arrogance were the chief contributions to the heresy trial. This seems pretty similar to what is going on here in MeFi. Maybe with fewer male ponytails.
posted by Vcholerae at 8:24 PM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


One of the major objections to Galileo from a churchman of the time argued that as the human body has seven openings, so by analogy the system of worlds needed to have seven bodies, and thus, 4 moons of Jupiter were flat out. (Or something similar! Debates vis a vis the angels dancing on a pin are a cliche of strained rationality of the time.)

There are countless equally crazy things spouted by people, including churchmen, in our time, everyday. That doesn’t make it "the way people were in 2013". But someone will certainly be saying that in 2313, when it will be taught that everyone in the early 2000’s followed the teachings Sarah Palin because people were so stupid back then.
posted by bongo_x at 9:32 PM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


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