A while ago I came across this great blog post, which discusses an immensely popular tweet about Isaac Newton that was posted by astrophysicist and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson: “On this day long ago, a child was born who, by age 30, would transform the world. Happy Birthday Isaac Newton b. Dec 25, 1642“. The blog post challenges the mythologised view of Newton’s life that the tweet celebrates (he certainly didn’t transform the world by age 30!) and notes that Tyson’s “craving for objective truth doesn’t stretch to the history of science where he seems to much prefer juicy myths to any form of objectivity”.
This tweet and blog post are from late 2014/early 2015, but the issues at hand are on my mind fairly regularly and I’ve decided to start writing some thoughts down and shaping them into something substantial. I’m still mapping out my ideas, as the somewhat messy nature of this post will indicate, but I think my key concern and interests are clear: bad history and its real-world consequences. Neil deGrasse Tyson is a notable promulgator of some very bad history indeed, so this is where I start.
Aside from some terrible tweets and other social media posts, another example of Tyson’s penchant for fictionalised history of science can be found in the 2014 reboot of the TV series Cosmos, which he hosted. Cosmos gained some negative attention specially for its treatment of Giordano Bruno, 16th century Italian friar, mathematician, and astrologer, who it inaccurately portrays as a martyr for science, imprisoned and eventually executed in an intellectually backwards Italy. While Tyson was not a writer on the show, I think it’s fair to assume he’s endorsing the material he’s delivering and thus to send some blame for its content his way. This piece delves into some of the show’s problematic historical content and discusses key points about the consequences of bad history.
As might be expected, the idea of the persecuted scientist defending truth in an ignorant society is a powerful one within certain circles. I first encountered it in my teenage years, a time in which I devoured many books by Richard Dawkins and co., trawled through atheist forums online, and was generally extremely cranky about religion.* Years later, it’s difficult for me to pinpoint what set me down this particular path; I wasn’t raised in a religion and my family doesn’t have strongly-expressed atheistic leanings. Regardless, I was completely enthralled by the ideas I absorbed. Reading about the atheists of the past was mind-blowing. I felt profound solidarity across the centuries and found it easy to cast myself as their intellectual descendant.
While I’ve now moved away from my strong commitment to atheism, I can still clearly remember the powerful sense of belonging that it produced in me. I wasn’t part of a religion but I was definitely a part of something. Though I had little real-world contact with other atheists, simply reading widely and being aware of others like me was somehow enough to create strong feelings of solidarity.
Think of those who feel repressed growing up in a certain religion, those who are critical of religious influence on a secular society, those who feel that their present-day scientific work is under attack: it’s simple to understand how a connection with the past can be significant for people today. Having a sense of shared history can add new significance to life, and especially so when it involves carrying on a legacy of struggle. Even for someone like teenage me – not raised in any kind of religion, just a switched-on young person lurching between different ideological influences – this sense of an historical connection was deeply meaningful.
The idea of scientists as an oppressed group throughout history isn’t based on a pack of lies, of course, but it does rely on many misconceptions. For a start, even referring to historical figures as “scientists” is problematic! The concept of “scientist” as a profession is relatively new, and people who have contributed to natural science knowledge through history often held many diverse occupations, beliefs, and interests – including in religion. History of science is a rich academic field, but it sadly doesn’t have a communicator with the reach of Neil deGrasse Tyson to spread its work to the general public. If the average person receives any history of science education it will be through a popular presentation like Cosmos, and it’s clear that the people in charge of that kind of series are not terribly interested in historical accuracy.
People who should know better are simply being either lazy or intentionally misleading in sharing inaccurate historical material, and audiences who should know better aren’t taking a critical approach to what they’re hearing. At the risk of making a bit of a lame “gotcha” point: it is interesting and unfortunate that people who profess to value truth and rationality so highly are not applying these things to historical enquiry.
An obvious explanation for this is that we’re all really bad at identifying and correcting our own biases. It may never even occur to us to question the history we take for granted. Less obvious, but no less interesting, is the particular value we place on history and why this may make us amenable to accepting mythologised historical narratives. I think there are two ideas worth exploring here: that we all desire a meaningful and shared history for ourselves, and that history is one of the most used and abused tools in public debate.
Why would the story of a persecuted 16th century astrologer capture the imagination of a modern-day audience? Why is any history meaningful to us? I tend to gravitate foremost towards answers about it giving our own lives meaning and significance. It provides a kind of reassurance that we haven’t been randomly plonked on the planet to live atomised lives of unclear purpose, but are here today because of the collective lives that came before us. Perhaps we’re not always consciously looking for this kind of reassurance – sometimes we just want to learn about something like medieval warfare because it’s extremely cool – but I suspect it’s always lurking somewhere in the background. The popularity of many forms of identity-related history, from genealogy to national history and more, are testament to this.
Great webs of history and tradition sits in the background of present-day discussions on religion and opposition to it, and even those of us who aren’t well-versed in the history of religion have some sense of its major details and significance. Here I’m thinking not so much of the content of religious doctrine as of the ways that religion is a part of people’s individual lives, their communities, their cultures and national histories (though they are not unrelated). When was a given religion founded? How and where and when do people worship? When was their local church built? How long have people worshipped there for? What is the history of that religion in that city? In that country? and so on. I don’t suggest that an atheist wishes for something directly analogous to this; I do suggest that all of us want to feel the tendrils of the past reaching out and touching us, even if we don’t consciously wish it.
So, perhaps a part of what makes us receptive to mythologised history is its potential to offer us a meaningful connection to the past. Is there a problem in this? Is it a big issue if people believe some bad history and it helps them feel a little more significant in the world? It’s a shame if public intellectuals are spreading and endorsing inaccurate historical narratives and their fans are eating it up, but people believe in lots of demonstrably false things all the time – things with greater importance and repercussions than an inaccurate view of Newton’s life. Misconceptions about details of past lives probably aren’t too concerning. Of great concern, however, is what all this can lead into: bad history being used as ammunition in debates of the present day and propping up views that inform real-world actions.
History occupies an interesting place of authority in contemporary debates. We frequently make appeals to past events, people, texts, cultural practices, and so on. It’s powerful and satisfying to name-drop a significant historical figure who agrees with a point we’re trying to make, or to pull out a data set that demonstrates the pattern we’re attempting to show, or trace the development of a present-day practice back to origins that may surprise or shock us. Without due vigilance, however, history can quickly become “a pack of tricks we play on the dead” as Quentin Skinner so neatly puts it. We impose convenient narratives on past lives, we interpret words and events in disingenuous or dishonest ways, and we drag historical figures into debates they can’t possibly contribute to. We appropriate their authority (and a kind of cultural capital they have, perhaps) and use it to support our own causes.
When we go searching for historical back-up, we naturally want to find things that will provide simple and unambiguous support. Messy history doesn’t win arguments. Spending time exploring complexities is as good as ceding ground. Strong answers are needed, and when they aren’t forthcoming we like to create them. Powerful mythologies of the past are conjured up to bolster arguments and shape debate on race, gender, nationalism, economics, and so much more. As noted earlier, people may not even consider taking a closer look at the history they take for granted – and they may actually be disinclined to do so if they need its support in a high-stakes debate.
Their embrace of mythologised history indicates that atheists, secularists, and others are no less susceptible to being charmed and blinded by a satisfying historical narrative than anyone. The fulfillment of their latent desire for a history of their very own overpowers any drive to fact-check it. Rationality and scepticism are put aside when the chance arises to possibly claim a cultural and intellectual legacy that is both personally appealing and useful as a rhetorical device.
In the future I hope to expand on these ideas; I think I can create some interesting work that draws on Gadamer’s concept of the historically-effected consciousness. Something I’d also like to explore is my suspicion that there is a kind of Whiggishness lurking in aspects of atheistic rhetoric, which would explain a lot about the interest in a history of oppression and persecution.
Finally: as I had hoped, there is a blog that is devoted to the so-called New Atheists and the terrible history they insist on promulgating. Check it out: History for Atheists
* Interestingly, this never dampened my love for religious choral and vocal music; I have enthusiastically sung in choirs (and occasionally solo) for many years, and religious repertoire has long been a great passion of mine. Handel’s Messiah, which I first heard over 13 years ago and have sung many times, remains a firm favourite.