Submitted for your disapproval: “Scientists burned heretics?!”

When reality is a foreign destination, it’s hard to know what to say. So watch this video and count the crazy:

I wonder what he will say when someone explains to him that the Washington Irving stories about “Columbus bravely sailed toward what his sailors thought was the edge of the earth” which were taught as fact when our generation was in school was nothing but bologna.

Even so, I don’t recall anybody claiming that scientists did a lot of roasting of those who challenged popular explanations of natural phenomena.



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4 responses to “Submitted for your disapproval: “Scientists burned heretics?!”

  1. TomS

    I am not aware of any case where anyone was persecuted by anyone for believing anything about the shape of the Earth.
    The Wikipedia article on “Death by burning” lists these famous cases:
    “Jacques de Molay (1314),[63] Jan Hus (1415),[64] Joan of Arc (1431),[65] Girolamo Savonarola (1498),[66] Patrick Hamilton (1528),[67] John Frith (1533),[68] William Tyndale (1536), Michael Servetus (1553),[69] Giordano Bruno (1600),[70] Urbain Grandier (1634),[71] and Avvakum (1682).[72] Anglican martyrs John Rogers,[73] Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley were burned at the stake in 1555.[74] Thomas Cranmer followed the next year (1556).[75]”
    There is occasionally confusion between the controversy about geocentrism and the flat Earth. Even at that, the only heliocentrist who was burned at the stake (or executed otherwise) was Giordano Bruno, but he was accused of heresy by religious authorities, and I think that the major offenses were about doctrines other than heliocentrism.
    As far as other scientific opinions being the cause of serious persecution:
    There are stories about the Pythagoreans punishing some of their members for revealing some secrets, such as the existence of irrational numbers. The shape of the Earth was not one of the causes. Burning at the stake was not their punishment. And the Pythagoreans were a religion as well as mathematicians and scientists.
    Stalin punished people for not going along with Lysenko.
    We know of some of the people who have lost their jobs because of non-acceptance of Young Earth Creationism. (I don’t know of any place where we can find a list of public instances.)

  2. Thanks for your elaborations, TomS. I have long been fascinated by the idea of consolidating into a single academic field of study (perhaps even its own academic department with its own faculty in every major university’s College of Arts & Sciences) the investigation of a human phenomenon which I struggle to concisely and adequately label. In a very real sense, it would be the systematic study of human ignorance in its most important and varied forms. Even the “taxonomy” and labelling of the wide variety of manifestations of “incorrect knowing” gets very complicated quite quickly. I also have found it especially interesting that some widely held incorrect conclusions and explanations result from multiple rounds of an underlying debate and rebuttals of rebuttals.

    I don’t have my archival notes at hand but here’s one which comes to mind: Back in the 1930’s I recall science books filled with experiments/demonstrations for the average person that involved weighing balloons both inflated and deflated. The conclusion of the experiment was that “Air isn’t nothing. It has weight.” Yet, years later I recall books citing that classic experiment as not actually weighing air because the slight difference in weight of inflated and deflated balloons was too little for generally available scales to detect. Additional years after that I recall yet another round of “debunking” that sounded more like my own thinking on the matter: We know that air has weight because in the experiment the air in the balloon is slightly pressurized by the stretched material of the balloon itself. And because that high pressure forces the air in the balloon into a smaller space, it is slightly more dense than the surrounding air. Accordingly, the inflated balloon sinks in the surrounding lower density air outside of the balloon. That is only possible because air has mass and can be compressed to have greater density and therefore air is NOT just “nothing”.

    I use that example because over the years, different people had different ideas of what constituted a “superior” understanding of the science behind the balloon air-has-weight experiment. Of course, some people held the “correct” view of the experiment from the very beginning—but some of those people may have given up their correct explanation because of what a science book said about the experiment. I wonder how science teachers over the years may have graded a student’s explanation of the experiment and whether an inferior explanation was given more credit simply because it matched the teacher’s answer key.

    Now I don’t know what to conclude from all of that. No doubt the Science academy itself never had it wrong–but the people who write elementary school science textbooks and many of the books on science for the general public are not necessarily scientists with PhDs with physics. And sometimes I think of “creation science” as that sort of “confused science” of the balloon experiment multiplied by a 100,000. (Or whatever that means.) Incredibly, one can visit the website of a tenured physics professor, Dr. John G. Hartnett, who manages (somehow) to support every cliched “creation science” mangling of real science that one can imagine, right down to the silly “observational science vs. historical science.” Truly, because each such view of science has its own “subculture”, it’s as if the different perspectives of large numbers of people falling into very different views of the world represents multiple realities. Yet, because those subcultures are chosen on the basis of loyalty to cherished traditions and religious faith, recognizing scientific errors and correcting them is virtually impossible because evidence rarely breaks through once someone has built up resistance, a kind of permanent immunity.

    And that is just one example of the many kinds of ignorance I’ve considered in a systematic study of our human foible of “intellectual failures”. I don’t know how to concisely and accurately label the different kinds: the study of popular misconceptions, false factoids, misrepresentations, and even misinterpreting the misconceptions. We humans seem to have a propensity for being wrong and remaining wrong in a limitless variety of ways. And being well educated in one or more academic fields appears to provide little immunity for magnificent bloopers in other areas–even while demonstrating the Kruger-Dunning Effect. [You mentioned the the execution of G. Bruno. In the reboot of the COSMOS series, episode 1 managed to erroneously cast Bruno as a kind of martyr for science–much like the original COSMOS saw Carl Sagan bungle the ancient Hypatia as a “martyr for Science” in virtually the same way. Both versions of COSMOS insisted on spinning these executions as if they were scientists persecuted by religion for their noble scientific inquiry. (In actual fact, both were cases of the prevailing power establishment using religion as justification for dealing harshly with religious heresy. Indeed, despite Sagan’s efforts to make Hypatia into a martyr for reason running into the brick wall of religion, Hypatia was hardly all that much of a scientist but she was definitely a “pagan religionist”!)

    Frankly, although there was so much that was good in the two COSMOS series, I was amazed that neither appears to have benefited from historical consultants in the editing and proofreading of the screenplays. However, it’s no surprise that the ideological biases of Sagan and Tyson seemed to prevail in both cases and the final products were sadly tainted as a result. [I’m not saying that Tyson had final text narrative approval in the reboot but it sure sounded similar to many of his philosophy-ignorant, religion-ignorant, and history-ignorant lectures.]

  3. By the way, while I’d have to think for quite a while to come up with any executions of people for publishing unpopular scientific explanations at the hands of scientists, I can certainly think of many scientists being executed by the “academic intelligentsia” of the Enlightenment. When euphorically praising the virtues of the Enlightenment “winning out” over the irrational religious forces, neither Dawkins nor Tyson are prone to mention the huge body count of the French Enlightenment, where the numbers were so large that the intelligentsia asked scientists to come up with a more efficient, assembly-line means of execution (versus the “backwards” burning at the stake of prior religious governments.) The French Revolution was quite “irrational” in purging the ideologically impure. A lot of scientists were guillotined. Antoine Lavoisier, “The Father of Modern Chemistry”, was “eliminated” at age 50.

    Despite constant exaggeration of the Spanish Inquisition–where popular opinion bears little resemblance to what historians have determined about the period–the Enlightenment-based French Revolution was far bloodier, yet barely a warm-up to the massive body-counts of the 20th Century that had nothing to do with traditional “religious war and persecution.” I mention all of this not to prolong the lame debate over whether religion or anti-religion is the greater evil in terms of death tolls–but to simply point out that war and violence is a well distributed human failing that inevitably arises wherever humans struggle for scarce resources. Leaders will use whatever factors of ideological conflict and excuse can be exploited to influence people to their advantage. Sometimes differences in religious views are exploited. At other times its economic systems, ethnicity, patriotism, family heritage, or language differences. None of these things in and of themselves cause violence and war. People do. And leaders use them as a means to an end.

  4. I’ve had several Young Earth Creationist critics ask me why I don’t focus on the hypocrisy of so many history denialists harping on the Spanish Inquisition taking three and a half centuries to manage to kill between 2,000 and 5,000 people total…..while the Enlightenment-inspired French Reign of Terror killed about 40,000 in about a year and a half. (And that doesn’t even count the bodies from a lot of violence and vigilante justice carried out in the name of the new government by mobs.) If the Spanish Inquisition is blamed on Roman Catholicism (which shifts the real blame away from the Spanish royals and their governments) than the Reign of Terror could just as easily be blamed upon the atheists and deists of the French Revolution—who made the Spanish Inquisition look like a slap on the risk by comparison.

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