There Is More Than One Way to See the World

By: Jake
November 3, 2011

The following is a review of a great book that I have recently written for my PhD supervisor, it is a fantastic book that I would encourage everyone to read. As I read it many parallels between the history of science and the history of Mormonism seemed to stand out to me. I don’t want to force the analogy upon you but leave you to consider the way in which you think, or do not think (as the case may be) the history of science echoes the way in which we tell our own history.

Patricia Fara – Science: A four thousand year history (Oxford University Press, 2010)

geek_preview.pngThe history of science has for several decades been written as the story of the inevitable domination of science. It is the tale of a series of great men who stood up against superstition and religion in order to help science take its rightful place as the king of knowledge. As the writer Jim Bennet laments:

Too much big-picture popular writing from outside the discipline is a recital of familiar expectations – great minds, great inventors, tortured genius, heroic achievement – and the narrative takes place in an environment curiously lacking in the political, material, social and institutional dimensions of life.[1]

This big picture narrative (known in academia as the Whig interpretation of history) has been attacked over the past 20 years by revisionists who have attempted to dismantle its heroic tale. This revisionist phase of history has for a long time cast its shadow over the history of science. A result of this has been a paralysis of confidence in big narratives of history by historians. As notions such as the scientific revolution have been dismantled by revisionists, historians have been left unable to say much more than the past is more complicated than the historians of the early 20th century portrayed it as. As Steven Shapin in his review of Science said ‘For a very long time reputable historians of science have lacked the desire, the knowledge, or the nerve to undertake a book like this.’

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Patricia Fara has rectified this unfortunate state of affairs in her recent book Science: A four thousand year history. The book is expansive in its coverage but also brings decades of neglected scholarship into the narrative she tells. In the book she dismantles the myths of the history of science, myths that historians have long rejected but which have been preserved in the academic ivory towers, and transfers them into a popular history book that exposes them without condemning them.  Fara points out that history is not the accumulation and sequencing of facts; history is a way to interpret the past. History redefines our world and gives us new perspectives on the stories we tell.  Historians select the stories that they deem worth telling and exclude the stories that don’t fit their narrative.  In changing how we view the past, historians also alter how we act in the future.

The book’s central theme is that science has not progressed simply on merit.  As she says:  “being right is not always enough; if an idea is to prevail, people must say that it is right.” (p.xv) Fara explores the social and political contexts behind prevailing opinions. She also seeks to correct the Eurocentricism that has plagued scientific history books, and look at the way in which knowledge and skills were imported from other cultures and geographies in order to comprise what we call science. She reminds us that “scientific knowledge has not travelled neutrally from one environment to another, but is constantly adapted and absorbed in different ways.” (p. xvi)

Early in the book, Fara treats the iconography of science in a section entitled “Heroes.” She juxtaposes the early Greek writers with the historians who have written science’s history.   She then looks at the construction of narratives to make sense of the past. In the process of writing history we incorporate plotlines and focus on the climatic moments such as the intellectual battles, the discovery of a new chemical or a ideological revolution.  These imposed narrative structures inevitably incorporate fictional elements, blurring myth with fact and converting humans “into intellectual equivalents of mythical gods endowed with superhuman brains, [who] float above worldly affairs as they think great thoughts.” (p.21) In their original context, these “heroes” were viewed in a much less favourable light.  “By examining heroic thinkers in their context it becomes clear that great geniuses are made, not born.” (p.22)

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Fara also attempts to deconstruct a European focused story. European historians have written to reinforce their perceived superiority over other nations. These accounts ignore or minimize Chinese and Islamic influence.  Fara looks at the work of Joseph Needham and the history of China, exposing that many supposed European inventions originated in China. She also evaluates the impact of Arabic scholarship and the translation of Greek and Roman documents into Arabic. Fara reminds us that the Renaissance was enabled by the influx of Greek texts from the Arabic world into Europe. These texts stimulated new ideas. She debunks the notion that the western world has a monopoly on the genesis of modernity.

As Fara says in the postscript “the system that you are brought up with is the one that seems obvious – any others seem intuitively wrong, however rationally they may have been constructed.” (p.429)  This then is her aim: to cause us to question the system that we are raised in, and not to assume that the one that we have is superior.  All human schemes are provisional, including science.  There is no guarantee that the science of today will be the discredited alchemy of tomorrow.

Thoughts:

  1. Did you see any similarites between the history of Mormonism and Science?
  2. What narratives have been created by deliberately including some stories and excluding others?
  3. What heroes have been created that were viewed differently in their own time and context?
  4. What influences from outside Mormonism have influenced it without credit?
  5. How do we maintain objectivity about our own traditions?

Discuss.


[1] http://www.historyextra.com/book-review/science-four-thousand-year-history

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7 Responses to There Is More Than One Way to See the World

  1. Stephen Marsh on November 3, 2011 at 7:50 PM

    “history is a way to interpret the past” — I think we need to always remember that.

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  2. Mike S on November 3, 2011 at 9:18 PM

    “the system that you are brought up with is the one that seems obvious – any others seem intuitively wrong, however rationally they may have been constructed.”

    I think this is the most important point of the post. I was raised LDS. Because of that, it is very easy to assume that the LDS way is “right” and the way of other religions is “wrong”. In fact, that forms the whole basis of the missionary program – otherwise, why would we try to convert other Christians with a message about Christ?

    We need to always be willing to challenge our own assumptions and try to see things from someone else’s perspective. “Prove all things; hold fast that which is true”. If we have the truth, it should hold up to all such challenges.

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  3. Casey on November 3, 2011 at 10:30 PM

    Shapin’s book The Scientific Life illustrated the same kinds of ideas, along with Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It’s good stuff that everyone who claims to put their trust in science and/or rational thinking should know. The liberal internet circles I tend to gravitate towards include lots of folks who like to proclaim their Dawkinsian-style freedom from superstition (often in contrast with conservative and religious types in their view) but everyone who subscribes to a belief system, be it science, religion, or whatever mix of the two you like, ought to know the human factors that necessarily constrain it (to me Dawkins is as much a crank as the people he lambasts). Science works and I’m glad for it but it’s driven as much by money, politics, personality, prejudice beliefs as any other human institution!

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  4. Jake on November 4, 2011 at 6:23 AM

    Mike S,

    I couldn’t agree more I think it is vital that we constantly challenge our beliefs, opinions and ‘knowledge’. From our stand point it seems obvious that we are right and that the crazy things believed in the past, or by others are wrong. Yet, people cleverer and smarter then me, believed them and they had very good reasons to believe them.

    The danger that can stop us from challenging our assumptions is that for it to be a true challenge it has to go up against the strongest arguments against it, and we must at least a slight degree of ability to accept that we could be wrong. To often people use a weaker opposition to make their position seem as if it stands up against it, or they will listen to arguments against them with a predetermined attitude that they are wrong.

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  5. Jake on November 4, 2011 at 6:24 AM

    Casey,

    I agree Steven Shapin’s books are very good. It makes me sad that we have all these great texts that help us to have a balanced view of science that are read by academics but the ideas just never escape the confines of university walls. I think anyone really interested in science’s claim to objectivity and superiority should also read Shapin’s ‘A social History of Truth’ and Paul Feyeraband’s ‘Against Method.’

    I am currently reading Dawkin’s God Dellusion, and I couldn’t agree more with you about him being a crank. I think after reading him I have more skepticism about natural selection then I did before, as he uses a false dicotomy of you are either a enlightened free thinking atheist or a close minded, ignorant religious fool. A good critique of him is Mary Midgeley, whose work I use as a way of seeing Dawkin’s ‘The Selfish Gene’ view of Darwinian Natural Selection as an account of the creation of the earth as a secular creation myth that is just as encoded in mythology, symbols, metaphors as Genesis.

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  6. Casey on November 4, 2011 at 10:31 AM

    Try telling a Dawkins enthusiast that they’re projecting Thatcherite economics onto biology and watch the sparks fly ;)

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  7. dpc on November 4, 2011 at 11:40 AM

    I think that science is at its best when it deals with its “core” subject: the material universe and how it and its constituent parts operate. Problems arise however, when scientists start intruding into other areas such as theology, metaphysics, ethics and law where the scientific method just doesn’t work. Could you imagine someone trying to reduce the U.S. Constitution to a mathematical formula and then make predictions about the outcomes of lawsuits? It just doesn’t make sense to think of the Constitution in those terms.

    As far as heroes are concerned, I think that it’s human tendency to create myths. Sir Issac Newton was a brilliant scientist, but no one ever told me in school that he spent his later years devoted to religious tracts and alchemy. We have myths about the prophets and apostles (ancient and modern). But past heroes can also transform into modern pariahs. Bashing Bruce R. McConkie seems to be very chic right now.

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