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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 scientific research in Rome. The Collegio had celebrated Galileo's astronomical discoveries decades before but was shortly to become his adversary (see Galileo's Battle for the Heavens). This meeting wasn't about Galileo. The priests had to decide what to do with a parcel of tree bark that had arrived from Jesuits in Peru. The bark was being used by natives of the Andes to fight off chills. Eventually, they decided to test tea made from the bark to see if it could combat the chills associated with malaria. The results were shocking. The tea was a remedy for malaria itself. 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 modern discussions of church and science.


Jesuits Bark:Encyclopedia Brittanica Plate

Blinded by Astronomy

Discussions on the church and science are very common on the internet. The problem is that they are not very scientific. We know this from what is discussed and how it is discussed. They are too narrowly focused. The Scientometric map below outlines the importance of various disciplines in modern science(A map showing labels for all nodes is available at Eigenfactor-Mapping Science). The map shows us how disconnected discussions of church and science are with modern science. In these discussions Astronomy is the most important discipline and Cell Biology isn't important at all. A broader look at science is necessary. This means looking at science, not astronomy.


Map of Science

The discussions 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

Science is as much about how you do things as it is about what what you study. Scientists are careful about the quality of data. Discussions on church and science aren't. That is why so many myths have crept into the discussion. Famous scientists are as much prey to these myths as internet trolls (see The Galileo Myths).

So much of the discussion of church and science has some link to the Copernican model. The Copernican Model is a 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). In the thousands of pages that discuss the Copernican Model, why is it so difficult to find any that address "goodness of fit"? Is it that the authors don't know better or that they don't care?

Science - A Bad History

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. This is the Great Man approach to history. 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.

Historians dropped the Great Man Theory long ago. They felt it was wrong to ignore the social, economic and technological impacts on history. These concerns apply to the history of science as well. Today, you cannot discuss Science policy without considering universities. Universities were important to science through most of the last millenium. The modern university is a social structure used to organize higher learning that was formalized by the Catholic Church between the 11th and 13th centuries. Technology is important too. By the time telescopes were developed in the seventeenth century, the artisans of Europe already had three centuries of experience in grinding and polishing lenses for eyeglasses. Perhaps it is time for discussions of church and science to drop the Great Man Theory as well.

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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