Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Yet More of Zero

A little while ago, I posted on the myth that the church tried to ban zero (the posts are here and here). Here's the sequel.

The other day, Dick Teresi, the author of Lost Discoveries emailed me about an unrelated matter. I took the opportunity to ask him about his contention about zero being banned. He said that Charles Mann, author of 1491, had already asked him about this because a blogger had challenged it. That blogger was actually my friend Chris Price (whose own blog post is here) bouncing off my own questions about zero. Anyway, Teresi did the same research as me and came to the same conclusion, that the story is untrue. It seems everyone, including Charles Seife, originally got it from Tobias Dantzig's book Number which has no reference.

None of these authors should be blamed for repeating a story which seemed totally plausible to them. But the whole thing does illustrate how myths can get going even among science writers. A learned explanation of resistance to Arabic numbers in general (not just to zero) is given by Alexander Murray in chapter 7 of his Reason and Society in the Middle Ages. He shows that the concern was about fraud rather than anything religious, even if the Church had some hand in policing the honesty of merchants. More to the point, Arabic numbers were widely used in the Middle Ages and eventually won universal acceptance because they were just too useful to ignore.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

It's Not Been a Good Month for Freedom of Speech

In 1996, a British judge described David Irving as a holocaust denier, anti-Semite and racist after he lost a libel case he had brought himself. This all looked pretty fair to me. This week, Irving said he now accepted that the holocaust did happen after all. I have to say I am totally unconvinced by this change of heart which looks like an attempt to placate an Austrian judge. It didn't work and Irving was sentenced to three years in jail. Austria is a country with a seriously horrible skeleton in the closet. While it has successfully made out that World War II was all Germany's fault, the Austrians were enthusiastic allies. Worse, fascism is still popular and racism endemic. A couple of years ago a neo-Fascist party was even elected to join the government. Austria has long had a live and let live attitude to the multitude of Nazi war criminals that lived there. It is ironic that their only recent attempt to combat domestic fascism has been to imprison a British nut case. To liberals like me, this hypocrisy simply underlines Austria's credentials as the most fascist state in Europe.

Freedom of speech is a misunderstood concept. We actually do not need freedom of speech to say uncontentious things like the holocaust happened or poverty is bad. The freedom exists so that people can say things that are outrageous, offensive, wrong and abhorrent. A freedom that only applies to people who don't need to use it is pointless. Free speech is rapidly dying in Europe. Let me be clear that I do defend the right of people to make blasphemous or religiously offensive comments. I also have the right to argue stridently against the people doing so.

The problem with being a liberal is not that you have to defend the likes of Irving. Instead, it is being accused of defending him when you are only trying to defend rights that took centuries to achieve. Unless the media wake up soon, they will find that their freedom will have been eroded far more than they realised.

Scarely less craven is the British government's silence. If an old Stalinist was imprisoned in a far away country for denying the Ukrainian famine, all hell would break loose. But because they think Irving is beneath contempt (and let's face it, he is), freedom of speech can go to hell. Actually, the UK has just made glorifying terrorism a criminal offence. This is a stupid law and strongly suggests that fascism has even crept into the UK Labour Party.

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Thursday, February 16, 2006

Another Bad Book on Christianity Being Good

Continuing on with Tuesday's theme, I reviewed Rodney Stark's For the Glory of God here a while ago. I gave it a bit of a pasting, I'm afraid. It seems that Stark has not learned his lesson and his new book, The Victory of Reason, sounds every bit as bad. It's reviewed by Alan Wolfe in the New Republic and you can read that here.

Now I probably don't see eye to eye with the reveiwer, Mr Wolfe, on many matters. But he has Stark bang to rights. Although Stark overstates his case, I don't think he is actually all that wrong. Rather he doesn't do his home work, ignores counter-examples and does know the field well enough to make such sweeping claims.

The most awful thing is that Wolfe cites Charles Freeman's The Closing of the Western Mind as putting Stark to shame. This is depressing because Freeman's effort is almost as inaccurate and one-sided as Stark's (although Freeman does know his sources better and is not nearly so polemical). So, not only does Stark fail to convince a hostile reader, he also allows Wolfe to continue clinging to his comfort blanket of the old anti-Christian orthodoxies.

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Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Some New Books Say Christianity is a Good Thing. But Are They Any Good?

Thomas E. Woods, a right-wing popular historian, recently brought out a book called How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization. Woods' own plug for his book is hosted by a libertarian web site here. Woods has a PhD and something useful to say, but I fear that he has produced an extremely one-sided account of European history. That view was echoed in the Times Literary Supplement last week when they reviewed the book. You could argue, with some justification, that Woods has a right to be polemical. After all, anti-Catholic history has dominated the English speaking world since the Reformation. Worse, a good deal of Protestant propaganda has now been taken over by radical atheists as another weapon with which to beat Christianity.

Yes, the traditional history of the Catholic Church is almost completely wrong. There is a huge amount of work to be done overturning this orthodoxy and bringing the truth to light. I fear Woods isn't keen on doing the work. He has given a sustained case in favour of one side of the argument based entirely on secondary sources. He has done little to leaven that with some opposing views. The fact is you cannot get away with a history of the Church which ignores the Inquisition, makes out that Jewish and Greek thought had no input into European ideas and gives the Catholic Church credit for nearly everything. Protestantism can make its own claims towards furthering capitalism, human rights and natural science. So too can secularism. What we have to avoid are the old histories that refused to give any ground to opposing traditions. Secularism cannot claim science as its own, nor can it disown the tragedies that resulted from secular utopianism. But it can also lay claim to important ethical work such as Mills and Paine as well as a big chunk of post-Darwinian science (good and bad).

To replace a consensus requires a great deal more than preaching to your own denomination's choir. You have to start convincing people who are not already sympathetic to your point of view. Thus, you must not simply argue as a member of a particular minority. Nor can you allow your work to be ghettoised as 'Catholic' or 'Right wing'.

In fact, I think progress is being made. Back in the 1980s and 1990s it was still possible to write a book like William Manchester's A World Lit only By Fire or Daniel Boorstin's The Discoverers. Both were complete tosh. Nowadays, you have to nod at least towards a less anti-Christian view of history. Charles Freeman's The Closing of the Western Mind may be utterly wrong in its central argument, but at least it doesn't totally patronise Christian late antiquity. Anthony Gottleib's Dream of Reason is forced to spend a great deal more time on Christian philosophy than the author had bargained for (giving the book a weirdly overlong final chapter). Roger Osbourne's new book Civilisation is still old fashioned but, as Brian Appleyard noted in the Sunday Times, it can no longer just write off the 'Dark Ages'.

The challenge now is to move beyond the current situation. All the authors above set out to write an anti-Christian positivist history of ideas. On doing their research, they found the truth rather more complicated than they imagined. However, instead of ditching their thesis, they simply tacked on some up-to-date scholarship and tried to interpret it in the light of the traditional models. Now, we need to see the traditional models ditched completely. That will require a great deal more than the partisan works of Dr Woods.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The Biggest Threat to Science

I think that science is, in general, a good thing. While it is possible to show that science has done far more harm than some of its more one-eyed supporters claim, the good outweighs the bad. Of course, some foolish commentators think science has no moral status, that it is "the disinterested pursuit of knowledge." Quite how the atom bomb, eugenics and pollution have no moral facet escapes me. Nevertheless, I wholeheartedly support the interested and morally respectable work of most scientists.

So, an ideology that seeks to prevent scientists from doing their work is a bad thing. If that ideology backs up its claims with violence and intimidation, it is a very bad thing. In fact, here in the UK it is the biggest threat to science. Is it creationism? Of course not. Who has ever heard of creationists engaging in arson, grave robbery and assault. Most of them wouldn't say boo to a goose. Which is odd, because if you listen to the rhetoric of Dawkins, Grayling and their ilk, you might think that creationists are a serious obstacle to science.

In fact, the biggest threat to science are animal rights fanatics. In the last year, they have successfully prevented my university from building a new lab to carry out lifesaving medical research. They are presently engaged in a campaign where all the dons and students of Oxford are fair targets. I'm writing this in Oxford and I can't say the atmosphere of fear is palpable. Oxford students are too laid back for that. But it is a constant subject of concern and has further increased the security here.

Why, then have the so-called guardians of science not used their formidable public profile and powers of polemic against the animal rights crowd? I think there are a number of related reasons. First, it probably is fear. Frankly, I would not invite these guys down on my neck by making public attacks on them (Hang on, this is a public attack. Yikes!). Second, in the case of Dawkins and Grayling, their hatred of religion far outweighs their love of science. As I have said before, they want to encourage creationism so as to use it to beat Christians with. Their rhetoric all points towards a primary concern for atheism and not evolution. Third and most disturbingly, their philosophy is a direct support for animal rights fanatics. I have no doubt Dawkins deplores their activities, although it would be nice if he actually said so from time to time. But he also using fallacious concepts like 'speciesism' to downgrade humanity and provide intellectual ballast who for those who prefer children dying of leukemia to rabbits dying in their sleep. The worst offender is Peter Singer who, whether he likes it or not, is the major philosophical influence of the animal rights movement. He has always been slow to attack their violence and occasionally appears to support it.

Still, next time you are assaulted by someone who things it is worth losing much sleep over creationism, remind them about animal rights. I don't know for sure, but I expect rather more animal rights fanatics sign up to atheism than sit down on pews.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

The Mohammed Cartoons Row

Who are the hypocrites?

I support free speech rather more robustly than your average liberal. That is, I support the right of free speech for people I disagree with as well as the ones who think like I do. I get the impression that for institutions like the BBC and the police, free speech only applies to causes they like. Examples abound.

Two racists were acquitted this week of stirring up racial hatred. The case was brought by a BBC undercover sting operation. On the charges where the jury did not reach a verdict, the Crown Prosecution Service is going for a retrial. Free speech? Not on the BBC's watch.

When a couple of old people complain to the local townhall about homosexual propaganda, the police come around and give them the once over. When a family campaigner says gays should not adopt on the radio the Old Bill are around in no time. Likewise, when a Moslem writes a letter to the Daily Telegraph that is unflattering to gays, the police get involved. Free speech? Not if you dare question homosexual orthodoxy.

Then we have the cartoon row where the British press (whether through principle or cowardice, I don't know) censor themselves and get a pat on the back from the foreign secretary. Which is odd, because Jack Straw did not feel a need to condemn the BBC for showing the deeply offensive Jerry Springer: The Opera last year. It is equally odd that the BBC won't show the Mohammad cartoons on its web site but did broadcast that musical.

Yes, Moslems over-reacted. They have a habit of flying of the handle and ought to grow up a bit. But they are the lucky ones. Institutional Britain won't stand up to their riots and insists we must respect their taboos. But Christians are fair game. As if you needed proof, no one seems to be particularly concerned that shock-artists Gilbert and George have a new show sonofgod pictures subtitled "Was Jesus a Heterosexual?". Don't even thing about what would have happened if they had picked on Islam instead.

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