Wonky science quotes of the week

May 21, 2022 • 12:00 pm

While perusing a recent issue of Science, I came upon a review of the book below (access is free, click on book to see Amazon link); the review is called “Rethinking the ‘Western’ revolution in science” and was written by Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, a Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin.  Poskett, the book’s author, is an Associate Professor in the History of Science and Technology at the University of Warwick.

The point of Poskett’s book, which I haven’t yet read, is apparently to show that science began as an international enterprise, with nascent science developing in many places, and that the “Eurocentric view” that science is solely a Western phenomenon is misguided. Fine; I agree, although I have to say that “modern” science since the 18th century is almost wholly a product of what we call “the West.” Science started and was conducted elsewhere, but often died out (as with the Greeks), or was abandoned (as in Islamic nations). In contrast, it’s been was a more or less continuous enterprise in the “West” since about 1600.  There’s no doubt that earlier influences played a big role, and of course people from all over the world have made huge contributions to science, but many of them did so after being trained in the West or influenced by “Western science.”

But I don’t want to argue about this; I’m fine with admitting that science began as an international enterprise. What I’m not fine with admitting is the distortions that Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra engages in to show that Western science was not only not dominant, but resulted from with all kinds of bigotry, hatred, and perfidious acts. This includes Newtonian physics and, yes, evolutionary biology. Here are two paragraphs from Cañizares-Esguerra’s review. Remember, I’m not reviewing the book, but pointing out tendentious and misleading statements by the reviewer. I have no idea whether Poskett himself would agree:

Similarly, Poskett demonstrates how all the key evidence Isaac Newton relied on to revitalize physics came from comparative studies conducted in equatorial and Arctic locations. To reach isolated islands in the Pacific to obtain such data, nations needed considerable seafaring capabilities. Ultimately, Poskett argues, it was the Atlantic slave trade that made the accumulation of evidence for Newtonian physics possible.
All the key evidence? Here, the reviewer leans over backwards to connect Newton and his physics to the slave trade. Is this convincing? Not from what I read, for “considerable seafaring capabilities” were already well developed well before the Atlantic slave trade, and I can’t envision a case whereby the slave trade so greatly improved navigational skills so that these skills gave rise to “all the key evidence Isaac Newton relied on to revitalize physics”. Optics? Gravity? Well, I’m sure there are people out there who could cobble together such a case, but it would be a stretch. And the dragging in of slavery seems, well, a bit gratuitous.

And then Cañizares-Esguerra comes to evolution:

According to Poskett, 19th-century industrialization, nationalism, settler colonialism, and imperialism drove the development of evolutionary biology, particularly Darwinian natural selection. The idea of evolution as the survival of the fittest was a trope that informed the development of national armies and frontier societies. Nineteenth-century Argentina, Russia, Japan, and China, he notes, excelled in paleontology and evolutionary biology.

My first response to this entire quote is “it’s not even wrong,” but I’ll try to be charitable.  It is just possible that capitalism (but not war) can be seen as part of the Zeitgeist that inspired Wallace and Darwin to come up with the view of natural selection, though Darwin’s own explanation involved reading Malthus, not pondering factories and clashing armies. But that could just be a coincidence: a correlation rather than a causation.  I don’t know about paleontology, but it’s not my understanding of the field that Russia, Japan, China, and Argentina “excelled in evolutionary biology” in the nineteenth century.  National armies and frontier societies? Well, you won’t find that in Darwin’s own work, but perhaps he didn’t recognize his own influences.

This all reminds me of the frequent claim that “Hitler was a Darwinian”: a reverse claim that Darwin’s work on “survival of the fittest” inspired Hitler in his genocidal and imperialistic acts. In fact, though that was also “a trope,” it’s a misguided trope, as my colleague Robert Richards pointed out in his long essay, “Was Hitler a Darwinian?” (The answer is “Nope!”).  That essay is free online. What it shows is that a temporal succession of two people whose work involved “competition” (Darwin and then Hitler) does not show that the former influenced the latter.

The drive to discredit science, and “Western” science, by connecting them to acts of immorality will continue, as will the denigration of Darwin as just one more feet-of-clay idol who needs to be toppled. It’s easy to draw connections between science and nearly every other societal development, but making a strong case that the latter influenced the former often leads to tendentious  and inflammatory speculation meant to do down science.

41 thoughts on “Wonky science quotes of the week

  1. Doubtless it wasn’t an apple falling that inspired Newton but the splash from a slave being thrown overboard…

  2. The Hitler-Darwin connection seems so silly. Sure, Hitler believed in survival-of-the-fittest between races but Darwin didn’t invent or discover the concept of competition. Surely that has been around since there were creatures capable of conceptualizing.

    1. I don’t think Hitler believed in survival of the fittest in the Darwinian sense, but rather that the Aryan race was created superior to the other races by divine plan. This is what White Nationalists believe, and why they reject Darwin.

      1. If you believe your race is in competition with other races and must win the competition, of course you’re going to think your race is the best. It has little to do with a “divine plan”. Hitler wasn’t particularly religious. Of course, he knew he couldn’t alienate the religious and still achieve his goals. Just like Trump, he pretended to be in favor of religion in order to further his goals.

      2. No, that’s what white supremacists believe. White nationalists believe white people should have homelands of their own where they will remain a supermajority.

    2. The Darwinism in “Social Darwinism” is metaphorical. Blaming Darwin for it makes as much sense as cursing a hillside after a rainstorm because someone has made a fallacious slippery-slope argument.

    3. I managed to find quotes in Mein Kampf once that implicitly denied evolution by natural selection – things along the lines of “rabbits will always breed rabbits” etc.

  3. What detractors call “Western” Science was derived from the philosophical argumentation style of Greek philosophy, which didn’t rely on authority but instead embraced the idea that skeptical challenges from every direction were necessary to arrive at truth. Everyone is biased and liable to see the flaws in other people’s views more clearly than in their own. Therefore, everyone’s argument lives or dies on merit. This attitude and approach is the exact opposite of Strong People socially or culturally dominating Weaker People.

    Many of the non-western cultures which are given credit for science were I think just practicing Technology With Improvements. Science involves predictions coming from explanations, with those explanations becoming more certain as they withstand criticism and alternatives. Making a more efficient widget is one thing. Societies steeped in tradition, authority, and harmony can usually accommodate that. “Here’s why the cultural explanation for the widget must be wrong” — not so much.

    Strong ideas dominating weaker ones isn’t colonialism. It’s how colonialism eventually dies.

  4. And of course, even if Darwin had been a significant influence on Hitler, it would have no relevance for the question of whether Darwin was right or not. More generally, a correct hypothesis is not correct because of its salubrious effects on human behaviour but because it is supported by empirical data.

  5. I don’t understand how Newton needed to learn anything from distant parts of the world to advance physics. But maybe there were important clues about triangulation to measure distances to planets (?) One can just as well argue that for ‘survival of the fittest’, Darwin was in turn inspired by Genghis Khan and other empire builders.

    1. Gravitational acceleration is slightly less at the equators. That’s all that I can think of.

      1. That would make sense. The earth wouldn’t be a perfect sphere, but would bulge at the equator and the added distance from the center would mean a smidge less gravity.

      2. Yes, and there were famous expeditions to the Arctic and South America to measure the ellipsoidal shape. But Newton didn’t need those measurements. He PREDICTED the effect. The expeditions were undertaken years later to confirm Newton had it right.

  6. The relentless effort to make literally everything fit the woke world view. It’s like the apologetics of the Jesuits, only multiplied by a thousand.

  7. I am rather surprised that conventional wisdom still seems to be about Great Men and their spontaneous ideas, rather than uncountable influences that conspired to bring about important developments. I find it plausible that seafaring in the age of sail, plus all the other influences have contributed to Newton’s insights. It’s just tendentious to hitch it onto slavery. Sailing was probably helped a great deal by Dutch capitalism, and that due to the spending and lending habits of Phillip II of Spain and so on. Should we thank the Spaniards today? That seems to be the kind of reasoning that comes out of such pieces.

    Most of the seafaring activity was, in hindsight, nefarious, as was most of the activity on a large, world-wide level. People can be personally kind and empathic and good. But once they team up large enough as expeditions, armies, or nations, they become entities driven by some objective that serves themselves, often at the expense of the other. They traded in ways vastly more beneficial to them; they stole land; exploited whenever possible, the poor, lower estates, or subjects elsewhere; they plundered, pillaged and raped; and yes, trafficked slaves. Breaking News, in other words.

    When it gets really stupid is when the argument essentialise whole peoples, extent them to today, and make every person of the group today somehow complicit, ignoring of course that the ancestors of, say, white people where rather poor serfs, exploited by parasitic clergy and monarchy. Thank a Spaniard! Slavery is their fault. Or arguments like “science was used in the making of bombs, therefore science is bad” or such nonsense.

    Further on, there was as much a “Christian West” as there was “Western Science”. From a particular view it can be declared as technically true, but it’s nonsensical. You can make a thing, lob off all the inputs, and preceeding “stages” from Ancient Greece, Chinese key inventions, or the Islamic Golden Age, and declare that’s where it all came together, making discrete what was really a continuity of influences. Then pick out something, say, Christianity, and assert that was it — the one magic ingredient that made it happen, and not something else, say, tribes, nations, feudal houses, or competing groups generally.

    What have the Romans ever done for us? Would there be any of this today without the Roman Empire, which brought “international” cultures together, collected the best ideas, and which created “the West”. But the Romans took some of their best ideas from the Persians and Greeks, so thus, Rome didn’t matter? That could be argued in the same way. Right-Wingers typically are real party bores when they drone on about the “Judeo-Christian West”. They are interested in drawing the lines between “our culture” and the evil others, here chiefly Islam and to some extent China.

    When you spread out history like that, or the intestines of a goat, or tea leaves, you can find all sorts of patterns to support whatever agenda, ideology or beliefs you hold.

  8. All roads lead back to our groupish natures. Religion, anti-religion, culture, the need to exclude the other and punish heretics. The author of the article is part of a group that identifies with tearing down past heros and heroic ideas. If the past was imperfect, as it always was, then we can show our superior values and our membership in a particular cultural group by destroying the reputations and monuments of yesterday’s heros. The more contortions we need to prove our points, the cleverer we deem ourselves to be. Tarot decks have a fool card for a very human reason.

  9. By that logic, the American civil rights movement was a result of capitalist industrialization because the protesters used buses.

  10. There is a much better book that considers international developments in China and the Islamic world before the scientific revolution, and then offers a theory of why modern science ended up developing in Europe:

    H. Floris Cohen’s The Rise of Modern Science Explained (Cambridge University Press, 2016).

    It presents a much more serious, evidence-based discussion of the development of Newtonian mechanics.

    1. Another recommendation is The Dialogue of Civilizations in the Birth of Modern Science by Arun Bala. It also argues for a more global view of the development of modern science, but was published in 2006, before tiresome culture wars had devoured absolutely everything.

  11. I presume that Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra at the University of Texas doesn’t personally represent any non-Western culture, such as the Chukchi-Kamchatkan, Maori, !Kung, a-Mazigh, or Inuit. No, he exemplifies the current fad for individuals who grew up in the West-European culture to talk down their own cultural inheritance in every possible connection. This fashion, exactly analogous to teenage rebellion against daddy, is striking mainly in the advanced age of many of its rebellious, perpetually teenaged practitioners. Is this an entire trend of prolonged childhood/adolescence? In future, perhaps we can look forward to aged pensioners playing with skateboards, living in their parents’ basements, and indignantly rejecting all of “Western” civilization because of its relationship to the Atlantic slave trade, the Berlin Conference of 1884-5, and the genetically modified soybean.

    1. Well, there recently was a 70+ years old president of the US that never outgrew his pre-teens world view. And he was into basements too, on occasion. Just to get some perspective.

  12. By chance I was reading that same issue of Science today. When I came upon that sentence about Newton, I thought “what a crapload of woke nonsense,” and I turned the page. Unfortunately this sort of thing is becoming typical in the AAAS.

  13. The fact (if it is a fact) that, in formulating his theories, Newton relied on data gathered by sea-farers throughout the world doesn’t make those sea-farers co-authors of the Newtonian laws. They may have been very observant, but they did not organize their observations into general theories that explained their observations and enabled predictions.

  14. I read Robert Richards’s article a few years ago, and I’d have thought that it would definitively have killed the notion that Nazism was inspired by Darwinism, it was positively not. Hitler’s ideas had no connection with -and were anathema to- Darwin’s or Haeckel’s, but were inspired by Gobineau and Chamberlain. One also should note that the trope ‘ survival of the fittest ‘ was Spencer’s, not Darwin’s.
    But then, we have seen endless -completely spurious- attacks on Darwin and Newton for decades. I think the apotheosis of these wonky (or ‘wokey’?) notions would be Sandra Harding calling ‘Newton’s laws’ (ie his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, I guess) “Newton’s rape manual” , as early as 1986. Nobody has been able to beat that, as yet. I also guess she never actually read the ‘Principia’.
    And yes, the passage quoted is definitely ‘not even wrong’.

    1. Alexander von Humboldt was one of my heroes in my youth. I had a book of his exploits and kinda identified with Aimé Bonpland, a lesser follower.
      As far as Darwin goes, I think his Grandfather Erasmus Darwin and Thomas Malthus were also inspirational.

  15. “Similarly, Poskett demonstrates how all the key evidence Isaac Newton relied on to revitalize physics came from comparative studies conducted in equatorial and Arctic locations.”

    Sounds like horse pucky to me. When I scanned Newton’s Principia Mathematica, I was struck by how important the moons of Jupiter loomed in confirming his theory. They formed a perfect analogy to the solar system: a large mass circled by small masses, but the difference of masses (compared to the solar system) allowing a test of the scaling of gravitational force with with mass. And that confirmation of his theory was dependent entirely on Galileo’s invention of the astronomical telescope! So here is the missing element in all these discussions of the ascension of modern science: it is fueled by the continuing invention of ever more powerful instruments of observation and measurement. Where would Watson and Crick be without the X-ray diffractometer?!

  16. Well, I waded through a bunch of his writings and interviews, and concluded that he considers himself a revolutionary and an intellectual, with the goal “to upset the normative narratives at the core”. He uses a lot of woke boilerplate which is not always easy to decipher, so it is not always easy to tell what his point is supposed to be.
    One well used tactic he seems to employ in the referenced work is to refute a claim nobody has made, particularly that western science and culture are claimed to be wholly original creations of English people. He also seems to see colonial Spanish culture as pretty much what he believes English culture is claimed to be.
    Most of us with a less biased view of colonial history see England and Spain as just two of many important European colonial powers. France, Holland, and Portugal among the major players.

    We have seen Afro-centrist historians try to re-write a version of history where Equatorial Africans occupy places they did not, and achieved pretty much everything of importance to humanity, only to have it stolen by the White devils. Esguerra seems to be working from a Latino-centric perspective. Obviously, history from lots of different perspectives is a good thing, but only if it is based on reality.

  17. Is Canizares-Esguerra getting Newton mixed up with Lt. James Cook? I can’t think of any connection between Newton and far-distant islands in the Pacific Ocean. Cook sailed to the South Seas a century after Newton lived to test the newly developed chronometer, without which you can’t compute longitude, so necessary for making reliable landfall on the small islands that dot the vast ocean. The transAtlantic slave trade to Virginia required only a magnetic compass and rudimentary instruments to find latitude: keep sailing west in latitude 37 degrees and you can’t miss it. Getting around Cape Horn or into Davis Strait were heroic undertakings in Newton’s time and had nothing to do with the slave trade. I’ll grant that the chronometer made voyages for commerce and colonization, as opposed to just exploration, possible in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The chronometer was a wonderfully clever invention, not a scientific discovery. It wasn’t even a scientific instrument any more than a sextant or a GPS is.

    If the reviewer is quoting Poskett accurately, and not just grinding his own axe, then Poskett sounds all wet, too. I’m not going to buy the book to find out.

  18. I have a theory that is confirmed nearly every day- that the “scholars” trying to discredit science don’t have even a rudimentary understanding of science, even those specializing in fields with “science” in their name, such as history of science and philosophy of science. The latter was the specialty of Sandra Harding, whose career trying to topple “male science” and “male logic” – and of course now it’s “dead white European male science and logic”- has continued to bear malign fruit to this day. It has led to no new understanding of the world, only to generations of students being increasingly ignorant of science even as they are convinced that they can see through it and judge its faults. They “see through” things they haven’t even seen.

    One piece of evidence is how they continually see instances of “bad science” (mostly in their imagination) and infer that these instances are evidence that science itself is bad. They fail to grasp the difference between a bad idea and a system of rules for finding and correcting bad ideas. Or that “science” and the intellectual products of humans attempting to do science are two fundamentally different things. Thus, the Dunning Kreuger effect rages unabated in academia.

    I have a theory which, as a thought experiment, I find compelling: Consider every time a “woke” scholar tries to give examples of the failures of science. I would bet money that in every case the example will demonstrate profound misunderstanding of the subject material, such as the many examples I find on this site, including claims about “white empirical statistics”, theories of relativity (always having to do with differing human perspectives), string theory and quantum mechanics. If so, and if this is the best the Woke’s best and brightest can come up with, I take this as positive evidence of their ignorance. Their views are not informed in the least by actual science.

  19. Attacks on dead white European male science by specialists in feminist post-colonial “philosophy of science” is so 1990s. The new trend of the present century has the attackers within the gates, in the form of science education — in those antechambers of real science departments which claim to specialize not in the subject but in its teaching. Sandra Harding’s counterparts today might be found disseminating (so to speak) their view of Newton in a “Physics Education” program.

  20. For a remedy, read Steven Weinberg’s “To Explain the World,” a more honest (and quite thrilling) take on the history of science by one of its great practitioners.

  21. “Ultimately, Poskett argues, it was the Atlantic slave trade that made the accumulation of evidence for Newtonian physics possible.”

    Newton’s work on mechanics is from 1687. British Atlantic slave trade was just beginning.

  22. God was responsible for everything….

    God Invented Slavery; Faces Prospect of Impeachment

    by Lorna Salzman

    A respected historian and scholar, Amadeus Nihilis, has concluded after years of research that the Judeo-Christian god bears ultimate and full responsibility for the institution of slavery in the United States.

    Nihilis, who has followed the debate for decades in the USA about American responsibility for slavery and possible reparations to slaves’ descendants, laid out his argument with merciless clarity, while fending off the outrage of Black Lives Matter and Christian and Jewish clergy, who have indicted the entire 21st century American population for the importation of slaves starting in the 17th century from Africa to work on colonial plantations.

    Opposing his finding, other scholars pointed out that the Atlantic slave trade originated in north Africa and other Mediterranean countries with the willing assistance of black tribal leaders and Arab merchants. But not all scholars found this accurate. Some blamed ship builders, owners and captains who facilitated the means of transporting slaves to the New World. Further complicating the matter were charges by other scholars of the history of intercontinental trade that ship captains could not have made the ocean crossing without the charts showing the northern hemisphere sky’s constellations, which were used for navigation. Still others went further back in history, blaming the inventor of glass lenses which allowed telescopes to map the sky.

    But Nihilis authoritatively dismissed all of these claims by pointing out that, like everything else in our galaxy, the fixed stars used for navigation were placed in their position by the God who is worshipped by Christians and Jews and credited with being the creator of the universe. (Whether this is the same god called Allah by Muslims is not clear.)

    Said Nihilis: “This god is, as long suspected, a god of megalomaniacal proportions who has never prohibited slavery and continues to carry out acts of ruthless vengeance, retribution, exhibiting a lack of mercy and a generally petty and petulant character. He is an unmitigated sexist who inspired the widespread oppressive patriarchy that persists today in the Catholic church, orthodox Judaism and above all the Muslim world. It is not surprising that he would create and arrange objects and patterns in our galaxy that would lay out a path for humans to exploit and dominate other humans. Ultimately the descendants of slaves and those who blame one particular nation’s actions at a time in their distant past need to re-think and re-write their faulty history. And further, even more challenging will be the inescapable prospect of indicting their own god for this cataclysmic and reprehensible act”.

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