Friday, February 12, 2016

On being "harsh" to Babylonia

Never read the comments, they say, and indeed it’s often a depressing experience. But it can be instructive too. I’m a little astonished, but better informed, by the comments below my piece for the Atlantic on Babylonian astronomy. It had honestly never occurred to me that merely by suggesting we not call the Babylonian astronomers scientists I would be deemed to be dissing them. From what I’ve seen, this historians will not have anticipated his misconception either.

It speaks volumes, though, about our cultural preconceptions. The idea seems to be that if you deny someone is doing science then you’re saying they are ignorant fools dabbling in a load of superstition. Oh crikey – how did the public perception of the history of science ever come to this? What have we done to land us here? Who is to blame? It seems that all those scientists cherry-picking from the past to hand out medals for getting things “right” really have captured the conversation, if the popular conception is that if you don’t get a pat on the head for being a “good scientist” then you fail the test.

Actually this really is a bit depressing. I’m not sure even where to start. Maybe just with this: when we say that we are not going to mine the past for congruence with the present, we are not dismissing that past as worthless ignorance. On the contrary, it means that we are taking it seriously. (And that, incidentally, is why modern “astrology” seems to me not to be perpetuating but in fact to be undermining its tradition. To pretend that astrology is a serious business today is, even if unintentionally, to do an injustice to its historical context.) So let me just say it again: Babylonian astronomy was not an “imperfect science” but a self-contained intellectual framework woven into the rest of their culture.


Chemdiary said...

As someone who read a few of your books and agree with you on almost everything you write, I have to disagree on your take about Babylonians.

If I understood you correctly, according to your definition, you call a person scientist by the questions he asks; or call it science depending on the purpose of data collection or the motive behind. Assuming that this is what you meant, then we can't call many of today's chemists as scientists. Someone who is trying to find a new cross-coupling reaction or a catalyst, or who is doing a total synthesis of a natural compound etc. None of these people has an ultimate goal of understanding how nature works.

Philip Ball said...

Hi Chemdiary,
Glad to know we mostly agree! I'm generally very inclusive when it comes to "science": I dislike most definitions that focus solely on "understanding the world", and argue that we must also include folks who make stuff, like chemists and engineers. On the whole, I take an operational view: science is what scientists do. But that of course presupposes a category of people called scientists. It's a vague category, and I do think it extends back before Whewell coined the word - but it gets ever hazier the further we go, and by the time we get to the ancient world I'm not sure it retains much meaning. What scientists do seem to share in common is a set of core principles: a particular view of matter, agency etc. Even a chemists making a natural product buys into that, as does a plant biologist or planetary scientist. I think there have been other systems of thought that share some features of science - such as the idea seen here of using maths to make predictions - while using a rather different set of core principles. The overlap with, say, the tradition of natural magic is quite strong. There is some overlap with astrology. But I think that some of these systems warrant being mostly regarded as intellectual frameworks in their own right, not a kind of degraded or fledgling science. After all, even modern-day astrology can sometimes look a little superficially like science - but I think we'd be right not to call it that.

Robert Currey said...

Hi Philip Ball,

Whether the Babylonian stargazers were scientists or proto-scientists or not depends on a definition of science - a topic which has always been contentious.

The Babylonians collected their data methodically and applied the same rigour to their mathematics, their astronomical theories and to astrology. Long after the Babylonians, astrology remained a stimulus for scientific advance. Johannes Kepler discovered his third law through a quest for a harmonious pattern in the solar system based on astrology and Newton learnt geometry through a text book on astrology.

Today astrology is mostly treated as a delusion by critics or light entertainment by fans. Most practitioners consider it an art or discipline and not a science. However, it is still possible to apply scientific methods to astrology and some astrologers and researchers do so.

I believe that those who still take astrology seriously are upholding the ancient Babylonian tradition. A scientific approach to modern astrology would be to take the claims of serious astrologers seriously and to investigate them with an open mind before drawing a conclusion. Good scientific practice requires a spirit of inquiry and critical thinking rather than follow accepted wisdom without investigating the ongoing research.

To support this here is some background to the basis of astrology.

Kenneth McRitchie said...

Hello Philip,

Your true colors are showing and whether it occurred to you or not you have written disrespectfully about Babylonian stargazers and their efforts to understand order in the world. You characterize them as sort of like astronomers except they wore sandals and loin-cloths. Really? They studied “quirks of the gods’ messaging system.” Is that your theory? Later you say that alchemy was a “fool’s quest.”

It begins to sound like you know where all the effort was going, to the glory of modern science except you believe you need to maintain the line of demarcation across which the transport of common ideas and the connection to modern thought is forbidden. “The idea seems to be that if you deny someone is doing science then you’re saying they are ignorant fools dabbling in a load of superstition.” You said it.

Philip Ball said...

"You characterize them as sort of like astronomers except that they wore sandals and loin-cloths." No: I said this is how we should not characterize them.
"You say that alchemy was a 'fools quest'". No: I said this is how it has been mischaracterized in the past ("it's sometimes said that...").
If I have still been unable to get past your determination to read my words in a particular way, then I don't see that any further attempts will help.