The view that historians can be biased is not controversial even amongst historians. Lynn White, a famous historian of medieval technology, once said that "The past in the hands of historians is not what it was". Modern historians of science, when referring to many of the more important early historians of science assume that they had a positivist bias [_1_] . It would be a mistake to completely ignore these biases in any discussion of church and science. This is especially true since many of the modern myths and misconceptions about the history of science and the church are inherited from the late 19th century and early 20th centuries.
The dominant bias of historians of science from the early twentieth century was positivism. To a positivist historian, science is equated with progress. But for every positive there is a negative, and for these historians the negative was Christianity. A good example of this was George Sarton, who is often described as "the father of the history of science". One of his more famous quotes is "The history of science is the only history which can illustrate the progress of mankind". But he also had strong views on the church's role in history; strongly negative views. As late as 1955, he was still praising The History of Warfare of Science with Theology [_2_] . This book was virulently anti-Christian and anti-Catholic. Worse, with regard to George Sarton, is that the book was never credible. The book even referenced events from a fictionalized history of Christopher Columbus (written by the same author who gave us the "headless horseman" and "Rumplestiltskin") as fact.
The fact that an important historian of science such as George Sarton had a strong anti-church bias is not a problem on its own. It is unreasonable to expect historians to be free from biases. Scientists have their biases too. Scientific methods are not intended to eliminate the researcher's bias (which is impossible), but to neutralize the effect of these biases on the final results of the research. Besides, if a case can be made that George Sarton had an anti-church bias, an equally good case could be made that another historian of his era, Pierre Duhem, had a pro-church and pro-french bias. And it would also be naive to assume that modern historians do not have biases.
There are important differences between George Sarton, Pierre Duhem and modern historians that do make his bias very important. George Sarton was much more than a historian of science. He was "the father of the history of science" and he guided the profession through its fledgeling period. He was the editor of the most important english-language journal on the history of science, Isis. He was also an important educator. He had a tremendous influence on what was studied and what was published during his lifetime.
The situation was different with Pierre Duhem. Pierre Duhem was only a historian of science (and a thermodynamicist and a philosopher of science), not an editor or educator. He had no control over the publication of others people's work or what avenues of research they followed. Modern historians of science are different too. They are working in a mature field with several reputable journals and where multiple biases are tolerated. Isis now has a policy of double-blind refereeing to protect against bias. Modern historians are also not working in a fledgeling academic discipline. Their success (at least in the English speaking world) doesn't depend largely upon publishing in one journal.
George Sarton was editor of the most respected journal of the history of science, Isis, for 40 years (from 1912 to 1952). If George Sarton really did let his bias color his work, some evidence should be found on the pages of Isis during those years. Sarton: The Isis Files takes a closer looks at Sarton's editorial record at Isis.