Sunday, July 30, 2006

Anyone who remembers ...

... Scientific American's treatment of Bjorn Lomborg (see Defending science and The litany and the heretic, both from The Economist), will not be surprised at this dim-witted piece: Folk Science.

Ptolemy may have been wrong, but he was hardly a "folk scientist." And I would submit that ancient astronomers did quite a creditable job given their lack of instruments. "Folk astronomy, for example, told us that the world is flat," the piece asserts. Now when would that have been exactly? On my vacation I read a volume of ancient Greek poems. I remember one - dating several hundred years B.C. - that referred to the Earth's globe. I also remember that at the very beginning of the Summa Theologiae Aquinas bases an argument on the roundness of the Earth. Eratosthenes (third century B.C.) accurately calculated the size of our planet and Aristarchus (same time) advanced a heliocentric theory. Astronomers in ancient India postulated such a theory even earlier.
Then there's the inevitable evolutionary explanation. Only that explanation doesn't explain Aristarchus or Eratosthenes - and doesn't address the actual problems born of observation that led Ptolemy to devise his system. Instead, we have an assertion - in this case one with little or no factual data to back it up - and then an evolutionary fairy tale to explain it. As for how we get from Ptolemy to intercessory prayer is anybody's guess. The folk science here is Michael Schermer's.


  1. Frank, since you're on the topic of the ancients and astronomy, there's a great book out there called "Homer's Secret Iliad" by Florence and Kenneth Wood (ISBN: 0719557801). It's a very interesting read that will have you looking at Homer in a whole new way. It's a well-researched book, and not at all pseudo-science or astrology. Check it out.

  2. Thanks, Peter. I just looked it up, in fact. Unfortunately, AbeBooks only has two copies available, one for $150, the other for $119. Guess I'll have to keep looking. But it sure sounds interesting.

  3. And I was incensed by the ad they had up on the page yesterday, which they seem to have taken down now: 'Do you prefer fact to fiction? Science to speculation? Then read Scientific American.'

    I wonder just how much science we'd have, for example, without speculation.

  4. Scientific American is not a very serious scientific publication.
    Any more than Bjorn Lomberg is a serious scientist.
    Honestly, the guy is a.... well, can't say it here. The Nature review of his book said it all much better than I could have done, and more entertainingly.
    (subscription only, so please email me if you want the full article: maxineLclarkeATgmailDOTcom.

    Lee, I think that "speculation" in the context here means "going beyond the evidence" which is not favoured by the mainstream science profession, though is by fringy and non-professional science. Professional science is only as good as the evidence. I'm not trying to say this is right or wrong, just trying to cast light on where the ad is coming from.