Magazine article Science & Spirit

The Art of Myth Busting: 'Did You Hear the One about Galileo?'

Magazine article Science & Spirit

The Art of Myth Busting: 'Did You Hear the One about Galileo?'

Article excerpt

It's one of the most compelling stories ever told. A group of ignorant church officials beat up on an old man, who had scientific "truth" in his grasp. Then they threw him into a medieval dungeon. There he died--tortured, sick, and alone.

This, of course, is the story of Galileo Galilei, who in the seventeenth century wrote a groundbreaking book on how Earth went around the sun. Only problem is, the story is essentially a "myth." Galileo did argue the case for a heliocentric solar system. The Church disagreed. But what really happened next is shrouded by storytelling--a myth so powerful that it has shaped Western views of science, the Church, and religion ever since.

Indeed, Galileo might actually be the envy of some of today's professors and retirees because of the way he spent the last nine years of his life. Historians know for sure that he was not tortured.

Fortunately, for every myth about science and religion, there is a myth-busting historian who will try to salvage the more complicated truth.


That is what twenty-five historians are trying to do in a project that hopes to explain the "25 Myths of Science and Religion" to the general public. Under that title, the historians, from North America and Europe, convened at the University of British Columbia in late August to assess and debate their findings. The project was conceived and organized by University of Wisconsin historian Ronald L. Numbers. The finished product, a book of twenty-five popular essays to be published by Harvard University Press next year, is expected to bear a title that plays up the Galileo mystique: Galileo Goes to jail and other Myths about Science: and Religion.

During the three-day conference, the historians and philosophers discussed everything from Greek science and religious views of autopsies to Descartes' supposed "dualism" of mind and body and what Albert Einstein and Werner Heisenberg supposedly believed about God. The main "myth" of the entire project seemed to be that the relationship between science and religion is well understood, although historical reality suggests that this relationship is far more complicated than it appears.

The context for the vast majority of topics was the story of science and religion in the Christian West. And according to many of the twenty-five presentations, a casual observer could not be blamed for putting a number of impressions together--from books, television, news reports, or college full sessions--and reciting the two thousand-year-old history of Christianity and science so it sounds something like this:

      Once upon a time, science flourished in the ancient world. Early
   Christians attacked it, however, so science died in medieval
   Europe, where the Church only endorsed mystery and people believed
   in a flat Earth. The ancient scientific ideas were preserved, but
   not developed, by medieval Islam, but then Europeans took back the
   mantle of science. Thus, Christianity, particularly Protestantism,
   gave birth to modern science, making it a separate activity from
   religion. The Catholic Church still resisted the new fields of

   It was suspicious of astronomy and its Inquisition burned Giordano
   Bruno at the stake and sent Galileo to jail for their belief in the
   Copernican theory that the Earth orbited the sun. But science did
   progress, and it made society more secular. Newton's physics led to
   a belief in a clockwork universe without a need for God. Then the
   theory of evolution sounded the final death knell for religion.
   Darwin's theory of evolution, justified by circular reasoning,
   caused Darwin to lose his own faith. Also, Thomas Huxley
   embarrassed Bishop Wilberforce in an 1860 debate at Oxford,
   bringing an end to natural theology. Then in America, William
   Jennings Bryan was similarly embarrassed at the 1925 Scopes
   "Monkey" Trial. … 
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