Thursday, July 23, 2009

Daniel Thurs: Debunking Myths in Galileo Goes to Jail

Daniel Thurs, Draper's Faculty Fellow in Science Studies, recently contributed to a collection of essays entitled Galileo Goes to Jail. In the collection, 25 scholars debunk commonly held myths about the relationship of science and religion. Below, Daniel writes in more detail about the collection, mythologies, and the idea that scholars should spend time 'debunking' myths at all.

I frequently think about a book I once read in a seminar on the American Revolution. It was written by a historian named Edmund Morgan and called Inventing the People. In the introduction, Morgan claimed that all political systems require certain fictions to work, and he went on to show how the founding fathers constructed the notion that an “American people” existed and could guarantee the legitimacy of democratic government. But it’s not just political systems that need fictions. Mythologies—sometimes even patently false ones—are common in almost all areas of human endeavor. In that sense, lots of truths are inconvenient.

There are few topics that have attracted so many myths as the relationship between science and religion (most typically Christianity, though not solely). This is especially true here-in the US—and now—in the early twenty-first century—when claims about science and religion frequently become entangled in political arguments between right and left. But such myths are also a part of popular culture. I was recently watching an episode of Torchwood—for those of you who don’t know, it’s a Dr. Who spin-off—in which one character reflected on the (fictional) growing awareness of extraterrestrials among the general population and the consequent increase in suicides. This was, he noted, especially among religious people who thought that the existence of aliens meant science had “won.” In fact, Christian theologians made peace with the possibility of life on other worlds several centuries ago.

A new collection of essays called Galileo Goes to Jail aims to debunk 25 myths about science and religion, including that the Medieval Christians believed that the earth was flat (no educated Christian believed this, and those that did didn’t do so because of their religious convictions), that Medieval Islam was unfriendly to science (there were some mixed feelings, but also significant official support for the study of nature), that the Church prohibited human dissection during the middle ages (they didn’t in any robust way, though norms discouraged it from pre-Christian times), that Copernicanism demoted humans from the center of the universe (it did not in any meaningful sense), that Galileo was tortured for advocating heliocentrism (he wasn’t), that Rene Descartes originated the mind-body distinction (he didn’t), and that science has secularized modern western culture (it hasn’t).

The overarching myth that many of these essays deal with is that science and religion are (and have always been) necessarily in conflict. Several of the faculty members of the graduate program I went to were major figures in the history of science and religion—-one, Ron Numbers, was both my advisor and editor of Galileo Goes to Jail (you’d have to ask him which was more of an honor)—and I learned from them that the two main culprits in creating this master-myth during the late 1800s were Andrew Dickson White (who co-founded Cornell) and John William Draper (for whom the Draper Program is named). Both wrote and spoke extensively about the “warfare” between science and religion. It’s an ironic aside that my two major post-Ph.D. jobs were at Cornell and here at Draper.

My own contribution to Galileo was not directly about what is often called “the warfare thesis.” Rather, like a handful of other essays in the book, it’s more concerned with the alternative belief in a deep-seated harmony between scientific and religious conceptions. I wrote about the claim that quantum mechanics supported the notion of human free will in particular, and, in general, what might be called mysticism, typically derived from western interpretations of Buddhism (though it’s worth pointing out that the current Dalai Lama is a big fan of QM). Taking that claim apart turns out to be a complicated task, actually, and less about debunking a myth than taking an opportunity to tell an interesting story about the subtle interactions between scientific ideas (such as the mathematical nature of wave equations) and mystical ones (such as the interconnectedness of all things or the ability of the human mind to determine reality). I leave the legitimacy of such interactions to other people to hash out.

Of course, while the relationship of science and religion has attracted more than its share of myths, it’s not the only science-related topic that has done so. Over the past couple of years, my own interests have shifted toward the misunderstandings that cluster around the interface between another pair of categories: science and the public. There are some similarities with the case of science and religion, including a frequent sense of conflict in the past and the present. The upcoming special topics seminar in Science Studies this fall will look in particular at the idea of public fear of science and technology, which is itself sometimes supposedly rooted in traditional religious beliefs. It’s a truism now that the masses will panic if extraterrestrial life is ever discovered—something like the dark side of “the people.” Part II of the Science Studies Intro in the spring will look more generally at ways in which science and the public have been in harmony, in conflict, and even ignored one another.

One final thought that I think about as much as Morgan’s claim. Debunking myths is a particularly attractive exercise for scholars insofar as it draws on their expertise, but there may also be a certain note of arrogance in it. I haven’t as yet figured out the best way of dealing with this quandary or the larger questions it raises about what sort of role experts and intellectuals ought to play in the world. I suspect the answer is ultimately about approach—using one’s scholarly training as a resource rather than a weapon. Whether the authors of Galileo Goes to Jail managed to do that, you’ll have to judge for yourself. I think we did.

Daniel Thurs