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Science and the Church:Beyond Galileo

Charles Babbage, a 19th century scientist, is primarily known as the inventor of the first modern programmable mechanical computer. His other interests, the practice of science, led him to write "Reflections on the Decline of Science in England". This book is the source of modern terms such as "cooking the data" and "trimming the data". Scientists cook data by ignoring selected data from their experiments to make some conclusion seem more compelling. It is part of the scientific ethos that you should have a good reason for excluding data from consideration. But scientists are not the only ones that can cook data. Anyone can cook data including historians, directors of award-winning television biographies and famous authors.

How can you cook history? One way is to completely ignore positive interactions between the church and science in the modern era. It would be naive to believe that the church's interaction with science began and ended with Bruno and Galileo. Yet many discussions rarely veer from these two historical figures. Another way is to ignore major scientific advances in the middle ages, a time when the church was a central influence on society. This is why the middle ages is more often associated with supersition and alchemy and not advances in physics that helped make the important works of Galileo and Newton possible.

No-one would question that careful consideration of Galileo's interactions with the church would be necessary in a church-science debate. As with cooking in science, the suspicion of cooking is drawn not from what is included but what is excluded. Why is the Jesuits' lifelong support of Galileo's contemporary, Kepler, not part of the discussion? Kepler wrote a glowing thank you to the Jesuits in the preface of his last published work. Abbreviations of the names of three Jesuit-trained or Jesuit-financed scientists are to be found on almost every consumer electronic device or consumer appliance sold around the world. Why are these scientists (Ampere, Volta, Ohm) not part of the discussion? The priests or monks who founded scientific disciplines (e.g. Mendel and genetics) are excluded from discussion. There is cooking even when it comes to the discussion of cosmology, the only area that got Galileo into conflict with the church. It was a Catholic priest, George LeMaitre, who was the most prominent early advocate of the Big Bang Theory. Cooking also occurs in discussions of Galileo and the Church. The Jesuit, Christopher Scheiner, is often discussed only as an adversary of Galileo's cosmology and astronomy. The fact that it was Scheiner, not Galileo, who built the first modern astronomical telescope, is rarely mentioned (see Timeline of the Telescope).

The cooking goes beyond ignoring scientists from the modern era. There were important advances in physics during the middle ages, advances that are usually associated with the scientific revolution. Few would know the names of the medieval thinkers, Thomas Bradwardine and Jean Buridan. Thomas Bradwardine was an early proponent of the mean speed theorem; a theorem usually attributed to Galileo. Jean Buridan was an early proponent of the impetus theory, that was also attributed to Galileo. Both lived in the 14th century but had an academic following that continued to Galileo's time.


Copyright Joseph Sant (2014).
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