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The Church and Science

The year is 1631 and a small group of priests is meeting in the Collegio Romano, the Jesuits' centre for teaching and scientific research in Rome. The Jesuits of the Collegio had celebrated Galileo's astronomical discoveries decades before but were shortly to become his dangerous adversaries in the Galileo Affair (see Galileo's Battle for the Heavens). The Galileo Affair is a powerful symbol for those who believe that church and science conflict. The meeting wasn't about Galileo or anything astronomical. The priests had to decide what to do with a parcel that had arrived from Jesuits in Peru. The parcel contained bark from a tree from the foothills of the Andes. It was used by Native Americans to fight off chills. Eventually, they decided to test the effect of a tea made from the bark to see if it could combat the chills associated with malaria. The results were shocking; the potion was a remedy for malaria itself, not just the chills. The bark was rich in quinine, an anti-malarial compound (see The Jesuit's Bark). Soon, thousands would be benefiting from this discovery, and over centuries that would turn into millions. For the Jesuits, science was much more than just astronomy. Maybe there is a lesson here for discussions of church and science.


Jesuits Bark:Encyclopedia Brittanica Plate

Blinded by Science Astronomy

Discussions of the relationship between church and science are very common on the internet and in books. The problem is that very few of these discussions are serious about science. We know this from what is discussed and how it is discussed. And it doesn't seem to matter whether the author is a high profile scientist or just someone venting on the internet. Scientists, who are so judicious in their use of scientific data, do not apply the same care to their use of historical data (see The Galileo Myths). The discussion might be improved by taking a broader look at science and by borrowing some common practice from science. This means looking at science, not astronomy. The Scientometric map below shows the relative importance of Astronomy in modern science, based on number of papers and referencing patterns (A map showing labels for all nodes is available at Eigenfactor-Mapping Science). In discussions of the church and science the relationship between Astronomy and Cell and Molecular Biology is likely reversed.


Map of Science

The map shows us how disconnected modern discussions of church and science are with modern science. They are disconnected with earlier science in similar ways. There were advances in seventeenth century in areas other than astronomy (see Galileo Contemporaries Timeline). These are typically ignored. Some of this activity, like the discovery of the Jesuit's Bark, is pertinent to discussions of church and science. In Biology, we have Francesco Redi. Francesco Redi is famous for his controlled experiment to challenge the concept of spontaneous generation. Francesco Redi did many of the things that were supposed to have gotten Galileo in trouble with the church yet he never had any troubles with the church (see Galileo's Twin). Looking at things in isolation is not always a good idea.

Redi, Maggots and flies

Storybook Science

We are taught some very strange things about the history of science. Apparently science was started by a very small cabal of rare geniuses working alone and was sustained by periodic contributions from other rare geniuses through the rest of its history. Science needed a Galileo to discover the parabolic trajectory of projectiles, a Newton to invent calculus, and an Einstein to develop Special Relativity theory. In fact, science didn't need a Galileo, Newton, or Einstein for those advances. The answers were already "in the air" (see In the Air). In each case, there were others who arrived at the same conclusions independently around the same time. Multiple discoveries are common in science. There is more to science than great men.

Storybook science is only one way that science works. The other ways are much more subtle. They relate to method and communication. Methods were needed to move a hypothesis to a theory. Common practices were needed for gathering observations and using tools like predictive mathematical models. Mechanisms for rapid sharing of new discoveries were also required. These weren't provided by great men. The development of all these tools was aided by a Medieval European invention, the University.

It is the subtleties that give us another clue that discussions of the church and science are not about science. So much of the discussion of church and science has some link to the Copernican model. The Copernican Model is a predictive mathematical model. Scientists typically evaluate these based on their "goodness of fit" (how well the model's predictions match real world values) and a few other criteria (e.g. simplicity). Why is it so rare to find discussions of the Copernican Model that address it's "goodness of fit"? Is it because most of them are not about science?

The Rest of the Story.

It is hoped that these pages will give a better glimpse of the big picture than more narrow personality-based discussions. Modern Science presents the theme that intelligent discussions of church and science must start with a discussion of modern science. Pages on modern scientists such as Gregor Mendel and Alfred Wegener follow on this theme. The Calculatores describes how the calculatory tradition so important to modern Western science had its origins well before the Scientific Revolution. Galileo's Battle for the Heavens presents several of the "missing bits" from most discussions of the Galileo Affair. Galileo's Contemporaries and Galileo's Contemporaries Timeline illustrate how Galileo was not working in a vacuum. Kepler was one of Galileo's contemporaries..one that he largely ignored. Important medical advances from Galileo's time included the discovery of a remedy for malaria (see The Jesuit's Bark). Finally, The Real da Vinci Code recounts the censorship of Pierre Duhem, a historian of science who had discovered important advances in science originating in the Middle Ages.


Copyright Joseph Sant (2016).
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