January 6, 2010

Ronald L. Numbers has long been at war with the war metaphor. For more than two decades, Numbers has argued that conceptualizing the relationship between religion and science as a battle between powerful opposing forces is “neither useful nor tenable.” In Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (2009, Harvard University Press), Numbers continues his mission. For this book, Numbers presents 25 essays by noted historians debunking common “religion vs. science” myths. Audio interview

In his earlier works, Numbers demonstrated the utility of putting aside the martial metaphor. For example, in The Creationists (1992), Numbers examined the doctrinal politics leading to the development of modern “creation science” outside the war frame. Rather than implying that the movement’s leaders were ignorant yokels or members of some dark Southern Baptist Illuminati, as many “outsider” histories do, Numbers told a story of real people engaged in a more or less self-contained theological struggle. By doing so, Numbers was able to provide new insight on the resurgence and cultural power of literalism within fundamentalism, and opened numerous other productive avenues of historical research.

This is not to say Numbers suggests equivalence. He stops well short of asking us to take the radical step of viewing the complex of class, history and myth that define creationist or fundamentalist culture as a functional response to the modern world, no more or less valid than the complex of class, history and common stories that define, say, university culture. Others, like Christopher P. Toumey and Edward B. Davis, have stepped closer to the flame, suggesting we all create myths that “conjure a semblance of science” to, in the words of Jerome Ravetz, provide “comfort and reassurance in the face of the crucial uncertainties of the world of experience.”

Numbers is not so willing to say myths, or at least these myths, are a necessary component of culture. His work reflects the irritability of a man forced to cut himself free from the reassuring stories of his youth. Raised a Seventh Day Adventist, Numbers now claims no mooring faith. Adrift, though apparently not unhappily, in a world of contingency, the scholar wants to make sure the rest of us don’t commit the sin of relying on (historically and scientifically plausible, but no less false) myths when doing history or promoting our worldview.

Galileo Goes to Jail is dedicated to this Sisyphean task.

Of the 25 essays presented in the volume, about a quarter (your categorizations might vary) are devoted to undermining myths that support a secularist faith in the natural progress of science while warning of the lurking dangers of fundamentalism (myths 5, 7, 14, 17, 20, 24). About at third are devoted to challenging myths that suggest religion is naturally hostile and unsupportive of science or that science can be disentangled from the (typically religious) cultures in which it is embedded (myths 1, 2, 3, 4, 8, 10, 11, 13, 18, 25). The rest are more or less equally split between those devoted to exposing myths now being fostered by the Discovery Institute and its allies (myths 15, 16, 19, 21, 23), and those that simply challenge the too pat views of supposed paradigm shifts or new age proofs (myths 6, 9, 12, 22).

Numbers is to be congratulated for attracting such an impressive array of major scholars from all points on the spectrum to the project. Of his essayists, Numbers notes, “nearly half, twelve of the twenty-five, self-identify as agnostic or atheist,” but that the rest include a couple evangelical Protestants, a Roman Catholic, a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist and a couple impossible to categorize. Be warned though, despite the balance, the net effect of 25 back-to-back essays challenging conspiracy theories and conventional views can be a bit bullying, almost a comic everything you know is wrong, if consumed in just a sitting or two.

The only general complaint I have with Galileo Goes to Jail is the obviousness and tiredness of some of the topics. For anyone familiar with the literature, particularly historians of science, the idea “that medieval Christians taught that the world was flat,” or “that Catholics did not contribute to the scientific revolution” (Gregor Mendel anyone?), or even “that Galileo was imprisoned and tortured for advocating Copernicanism” (territory Dava Sobel covered in her very popular Galileo’s Daughter), are not ideas that need to be challenged.

I found Edward Larson’s contribution, “that the Scopes trial ended in defeat for antievolutionism,” particularly irksome. But that should come as no surprise to regular readers, as that topic is the ax this blog regularly grinds. Still, Larson’s contention is very old news within academia. In fact it is the counter-myth, that the Scopes trial represented a defeat for science (see Grabiner and Miller, Skoog), that has dominated the literature for the last 40 years.

Though the constraints of the form work somewhat against the intent, Galileo Goes to Jail should entertain and challenge its readers to regularly stop and think. Some of the arguments are old hat, but the book does offer a generally contemporary digest of the academic challenges to conventional views. By his selection of essayists alone, Numbers has provided a good index of who to turn to when one is ready to think beyond the myths.

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