The Conflict Hypothesis-A Conflicting View

A benefit and curse of the web is that questions long thought closed have been opened. One of these questions is whether the church aided or hindered the development of science. This question is now considered controversial, but it hasn't always been. Over the last two centuries, if you considered yourself reasoning and scientific you probably accepted that the the church and science were natural enemies. This belief became known as the "conflict thesis". The argument has become controversial for a reason. Once you scratch beneath the surface of the belief it is neither reasoned or scientific.

What you find are many contradictions. The contradictions are present today, as they have been since the thesis' early days. Today, the most prominent advocates of the thesis are evolutionary biologists. Modern evolutionary theory is not the same as that proposed by Darwin over a century ago. Biologists of the late 1800's actually discarded Darwinism because of serious flaws in his arguments. But it was rehabilitated in the twentieth combining Darwin's original ideas with the results of church-sponsored hybridization research conducted at an Augustinian monastery (see Mendel, Darwin and Evolution). It is ironic that the scientists most indebted to church-supported research are the ones arguing most strongly that the church did not support science.

This contradiction is only one of many. The thesis has been defended by censoring it's critics (see Duhem and the DaVinci Code). Certainly not a very scientific approach. And even today, the thesis is wittingly or unwittingly supported by resorting to popular myth (the Flat earth myth). This is hardly reasoned.

But the biggest contradiction is that the discussion, which on the surface is about church and science, is not about science at all. We know this both from what is discussed and how it is discussed. And we have centuries worth of writing and discussions to base this on.

If the discussion was about science, it would deal with what scientists consider important to science. It doesn't. Every year scientists around the world vote on the most important facts and concepts necessary to develop a grounding in science. That is because every year scientists around the world create and revise introductory curricula for university science programs. What conflict theorists consider important and what university science educators consider important is very different. In fact, two mainstays of the conflict thesis, cosmology and geodesy, are rarely mentioned in introductory science curricula. If you were only to look at active scientific research, you would see this pattern repeated. Scientometric analyses of scientific research activity show an even greater disconnect between conflict theory and active research in science. The map of modern science below illustrates this (more information on the map is available at The bubble size represents the relative number of papers from the discipline and the size of the arrows represent the amount of inter-referencing between disciplines. The map was developed from the computer analysis of hundreds of thousands of scientific articles.

It is not just what science is discussed that tells us that the conflict thesis is not about science. It is also how science is discussed. We see this in discussions of the Galileo Affair; an event where the church and Galileo clashed over both the theories and models of planetary motion (see Galileo's Battle for the Heavens). This is a favorite example brought up by conflict theorists. These discussions often confuse a discussion of a Heliocentric theory with a discussion of mathematical models of planetary motion. Theories and models are very different. In simplest terms, theories explain and models represent. This confusion allowed for flawed discussions of both the Heliocentric theory and the Copernican model.

The interest in the Galileo Affair and the Conflict Thesis spiked in the early nineteenth century. This timing could not have been better for anyone really interested in the scientific aspects of the Galileo affair. The mean squared error, a simple but elegant statistical technique to compare mathematical models had just been developed. There was easy access to reliable ephemera which recorded exact astral positions for stars and planets for a given location. Slide rules that could efficiently calculate the roots and squares necessary for a mean square had recently been invented. If you were interested in the performance of the Copernican model and it's competitors, all that needed to be done was to plug in the predicted values for each of the models and compare the mean squared error of the competing models against actual astral locations. Galileo was a supporter of the Copernican model. The Jesuits involved in the Galileo affair were supporters of the Tychonic model (although other Jesuits were supporters of the model accepted today, the Keplerian model). After 200 years of intensive discussion by academics and the general public, we are still waiting for the first valid statistical comparison to be made between the performance of the Copernican and the Tychonic models. This would be inconceivable if the discussion was actually about science.

Discussions of Heliocentric theory and the Galileo affair are also flawed. Theories invariably force some consequences. With heliocentricity, this necessary consequence is stellar parallax ( see Copernicus and Stellar Parallax). Most discussions on the Galileo Affair ignore this issue or the fact that stellar parallax was not observed until two centuries after Galileo's death. In science, a proper discussion of a theory must include both it's pros and cons.

If conflict theory is neither scientific nor about science, what is it? It is a rhetorical argument that takes the position that the church was against science. With rhetorical arguments you are allowed to come to a conclusion first and find the facts later. This explains the extremely unusual collection of events that have been used to support the theory over the years; events in cosmology that had very minimal effect on the wider study of science, and mythical events that gave wonderful colour to the argument but had no basis in history (the Flat Earth Theory). Rhetorical arguments do not prove anything; their goal is to convince the reader. And rhetorical arguments remain rhetorical arguments even if they are being argued by a scientist (even a famous scientist).

Rhetoric's goal is to persuade. This means that if a simplistic argument convinces better than a comprehensive argument, it should be used. The conflict thesis has been accused of presenting a naive view of both history and science. The focus was on a few great men with grand ideas. This approach is known as the Great Man Theory. But this approach, popular in the nineteenth century, had largely been dismissed by historians of the twentieth century as too naive. This accusation can be applied to the treatment of science. The Galileo Affair is the centerpiece of the conflict theory. It has been distilled down to a clash between science and the church. But in fact, the affair had similarities to the experiences of later scientists such as Charles Darwin and Alfred Wegener when they introduced radical theories. New theories typically do not arrive without some glaring 'holes'. They also threaten the scientific establishment. Discussions of the Galileo Affair present Galileo's arguments as more compelling than they actually were and his opponents' as less compelling than they were. They also ignore the sociological elements of science that influenced the acceptance of Galileo's, Darwin's and Wegener's ideas ( see Wegener and Continental Drift Theory).

This ebook is intended to put the conflict thesis under the microscope. It is not intended to prove the opposite. In fact, it is hoped that it might act as a warning to those arguing the opposite. In some cases, they repeat the methods of the conflict theorists, which is to cherry-pick events that support their theory and ignore or explain away countering data. A proper discussion of the issues involved should have the necessary breadth and should deal with the importance or lack thereof of the event in question. The reason that this has never been done may be that it is such a large undertaking.

Copyright Joseph Sant (2014).
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