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The Copernican Demotion

...if Copernicus were right, the Earth would be demoted, no longer the Earth, the World, but a world, an earth, one of many.
Carl Sagan, Varieties of Scientific Experience

When scientists venture into the history of science they often expose their presentism. This is the assumption that attitudes in the past were the same as the present. A good example is Carl Sagan's belief in a Copernican Demotion. When Copernicus presented his model he thought he was promoting earth...so did Galileo and most others from that time.

Some of the text on this page is taken from The Copernicus Myths.

The Copernican Promotion

Dante's Ninth Circle of Hell

The picture above is Dante's medieval vision of the center of the universe (illustrated by Gustave Dore). It was the ninth circle of hell located at the center of the earth. Here, Satan is half-encased in a frozen lake, chewing on three men who betrayed their benefactors. In Copernicus's time you couldn't demote earth any further. The demotion myth is an example of presentism; assuming attitudes of times past were the same as the present. Being at the center of the universe wasn't a great place to be in medieval or early modern Europe. Thomas Aquinas described a medieval cosmology where the earth was at the centre, being the most material and coarse. Even Galileo thought Copernicus's model was promoting the earth.

“I will prove that the Earth does have motion . . . and that it is not the sump where the universe's filth and ephemera collect.

Scientists, History and Hubris

Scientists are typically respectful of the expertise of other scientists in other specialities. Perhaps they realize how difficult it was to develop and maintain their own expertise, and therefore shy away from making statements on others' specialities. This (admirable) discretion seems to disappear when it comes to commenting on the history of science. It seems that they believe that knowledge of science is a license to publicly discuss its history even if little effort is spent understanding that history.

The problem of scientists playing historian goes well beyond Carl Sagan and the Copernican Demotion Myth. Famous scientists getting it wrong about history include Carl Sagan, Bertrand Russell, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Steven Pinker, Stephen Hawking and others. This recently has even engendered pushback from historians ( here,here, and here ). Famous scientists' deep knowledge of their own specialty doesn't give them license to discuss history, regardless of what they think.


Copernicus MythsCopernican MythsCopernican ModelCopernican Demotion Copernican PrinciplePresentism

Copyright Joseph Sant (2019).

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Sant, Joseph (2019).The Copernican Demotion. Retrieved from http://www.scientus.org/Copernican-Demotion.html

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