George Sarton, Isis and Historian Bias

History of Science: An Inside View

The past in the hands of historians is not what it was.
Lynn White

The author of the quote above was a leading historian of science from the twentieth century. The quote serves as a warning against putting too much faith in the history we have been taught about science. If the history of science from Lynn White's time is suspect, so must be the history of the church and science. Many historians from the time openly showed a conflict bias. It is this history and this bias that commonly shows up in church and science discussions even today.

Conflict bias is a belief that science and Christianity are fundamentally opposed. It was very common amongst historians; even being held by the "Father of the Modern History of Science", George Sarton. This is important since he had tremendous influence over what was discussed and studied in the history of science, especially in the United States. George Sarton pioneered the teaching of the history of science as a separate discipline, and was the editor of the most influential journal of the history of science, Isis, for four decades. If Sarton let his bias affect his judgement, it would show in the pages of Isis.

The Isis Pages

The history of science is the only history which can illustrate the progress of mankind. In fact, progress has no definite and unquestionable meaning in other fields than the field of science.
George Sarton

George Sarton started Isis, a journal for the history of science, in 1912 and was its editor until 1952. The quote above shows how extreme his belief in the good of science was. He had a correspondingly negative view of religion, but especially Christianity. A conflict theorist from 1952 could safely point to the pages of Isis to argue his/her point. The work of church scientists from the middle ages came across as muddled and misguided and the church scientists from the early modern period were largely ignored. The central figures of the conflict theory were given space even when the figures never made unique contributions of any utility to other scientists (e.g. Giordano Bruno).

What is missing from the pages of Isis is more notable than what was in them. There were large bodies of important work from both the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period that were largely ignored. Church scientists were important contributors to these bodies of work. This gave a distorted view of the church's contributions to science during those periods. This is outlined in more detail in The Isis Pages.

One influential group of medieval philosophers that got short treatment in Isis were the Calculators (see The Isis Files). They made important advances in the classical mechanics that Galileo is so famous for. In fact, the first publication of Galileo's Law of Free Fall was made by a Calculator 4 years before Galileo was born. Galileo's Odd Number Rule was first published by a Calculator more than 2 centuries before Galileo. Galileo's conception of impetus follows on from two centuries of discussion amongst Calculators. The Calculators were widely known and widely taught. All the most notable Calculators were Roman Catholic clergy.

Sarton knew of the Calculators but didn't think much of them. The Calculators represented something that Sarton couldn't accept, that there was real light and real progress in Christian Europe during the middle ages. It also meant that the great scientists like Galileo owed a debt to medieval philosophers.The leading authority on the Calculators, Pierre Duhem (see The Real da Vinci Code) seems to have been blacklisted by Isis. Even though Duhem is recognized as one of the most important early historians of science, references to his large body of work were very rare in the early volumes of Isis.

The Early Modern Period spanned the lives of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and Lavoisier. During this time there many advances in many different disciplines. The map below shows that modern science is so much more than astronomy and classical mechanics (see Eigenfactor). Early science was also. Hundreds of priest-scientists made either minor or major contributions to these disciplines (see List of Catholic Clergy Scientists) during this period.

Map of Science

One discipline that was barely touched upon in Isis was ethno-botany. Discoveries in ethno-botany from the Early Modern Period would dramatically transform the lives of millions, poor and rich alike. These included the discovery of a miracle cure for malaria (see Jesuit's Bark ) and the discovery, breeding and dissemination of 4 American superfoods which became staples in Europe and the rest of the world (see The Isis Files). The church, especially the Jesuits, were particularly active in this discipline.

Important science doesn't have to be exciting. Finding out what happens when you submerge a vial of alcohol stoppered with pig's bladder into water doesn't sound important. It is. That is because cell biology, some areas of medicine, sanitary engineering, and many areas of agricultural science depend on an understanding of osmosis (aka dialysis). Osmosis was discovered by a Catholic priest (see Abbe Nollet and Osmosis) in 1748. Osmosis was never mentioned in the early volumes of Isis.

The revival of atomism during Galileo's time was an important event in the history of science. The key player in this revival was a Catholic priest, Pierre Gassendi. When the scientists of the Royal Society further developed the concept of atomism, their goto reference was Gassendi. Gassendi, and his friend, Marin Mersenne, were also more strict empiricists than Galileo. Galileo often used mind experiments in place of real experiments. Gassendi also arranged an international experiment that was an early support for Kepler's Model of Planetary motion ( see Gassendi's Transit). This wasn't enough for Sarton to justify an article on Gassendi in Isis.

Conflict Theorists favourite examples are from the discipline of astronomy. The church was considered an important contributor to the development of the telescope before and after Sarton (see Church and the Early Telescope). Before Sarton's time, Marin Mersenne (a Catholic priest), was widely considered the inventor of the reflecting telescope [_1_] . After Sarton's time, historians recognized a wider variety of contributions made by several different priest-scientists. Two reflecting telescope designs in common use today are named after Catholic priests (the Cassegrain and Mersenne). There is currently a dispute over which of two priests from the period is responsible for the invention of the terrestrial telescope (Scheiner or Rheita). The Vatican itself was directly involved in these developments, sponsoring both the astronomer, Cassini, and the greatest of the early telescope makers, Giuseppe Campani. By the end of Sarton's time as editor of Isis, Marin Mersenne had been written out of the history of the telescope (see The Early Reflecting Telescope) as were many other contributions of the church to the development of the telescope.

There were many more contributions made by church scientists or through church sponsorship than can be done justice with a few paragraphs. And the Middle Ages were anything but a Dark Age. You certainly wouldn't know it from the pages of Isis. Sarton was a conflict theorist, and on his retirement the volumes of Isis reflected a history of science from the point of view of a conflict theorist.

biasisisSartonDuhemGeorge SartonPierre DuhemLouis de BroglieStanley Jakisciencehistory

Copyright Joseph Sant (2019).

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Sant, Joseph (2019).George Sarton, Isis and Historian Bias. Retrieved from


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1. Francis Lieber,ed., Carey and Lea, Encyclopedia Americana, Vol. 12, , 170
Quote:'The reflecting telescope was invented by father Mersenne, a Frenchman, in the middle of the seventeenth century'