Cartoons and Fables – How Cosmos Got the Story of Bruno Wrong


Now, don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed the latest incarnation of Cosmos. I loved the Carl Sagan version as well, because both versions did their best to communicate the wonder of scientific discovery to a lay audience. And that’s great.

What bothers me however, is how quickly – and unthinkingly it seems – these shows veered off course and into unfamiliar waters. Sagan and DeGrasse Tyson were/are both formidable scientists with some pretty hefty CVs attached to their names; Seth McFarlane, the new Cosmos’ executive producer is a talented screenwriter and television producer. But historians and social scientists they ain’t.

Again, because it bears repeating (and apparently needs to be repeated): being an expert in one field does not make you an expert in others, and just because you want to tell the wonderful story of the evolution of science, doesn’t mean that you should get a free pass on bungling history. If you want to know how things went down in the past, why not take the time to actually ask an historian, instead of parroting worn-out pseudohistorical myths and New Atheist fables as fact?

Here’s a blog post that says it much better than I. Take it away, Tim…

Originally posted on The Renaissance Mathematicus:

One of the joys of writing this blog is that I have a number of readers/commentators who are more intelligent, more knowledgeable, more erudite and above all more sensible than I. Every now and then I succeed in trapping, blackmailing, bullying or conning one of them into writing a guest post in order to give you the readers an alternative perspective on the world of the history of science and the chance to read something of quality. This time I have succeeded in acquiring the literary services of Tim O’Neill, historian and inexhaustible warrior against the misuse and abuse of the history of science. In his post Tim adds his tuppence worth to the debate raging far and wide about the Bruno cartoon in the first edition of the Cosmos reboot. Enjoy! 

A few months ago while visiting Rome I did something a tourist should not do in a strange…

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Opining Outside Your Field

Yes, I know. I haven’t blogged in a long time. But hey, that’s the life of a PhD student; your time is not your own – even the time that is supposed to be your own. I’ve come to accept that days off, holidays and sick days are things that happen to other people. Ah well. On to the rant.

Many of you – well the ones that read this blog regularly anyways – have probably figured out that I spend a fair amount of time on reddit. That’s not surprising; lots of people spend a fair amount of time on reddit. For the most part, I avoid the ‘default subs’ (those sub-communities to which every user is automatically subscribed) because they are largely garbage. They’re dumping grounds for the internet’s lowest common denominators; the racists, the misogynists, the ever-so-edgy tweens with their newly-discovered swear words and slurs. They’re not all that appealing to me. Where I do spend my time is in the category of subreddit known as the ‘meta-sub’. These communities are largely dedicated to discussions about reddit. They talk about trends among reddit users, or about commonly held beliefs or myths perpetuated by users, that sort of thing. One of my favourite of these subreddits is called ‘Badhistory’, and it’s purpose is to chronicle and discuss instances of users repeated debunked historical fictions, conspiracy theories about the past, or ‘common wisdom’ about history that are not actually true. This morning, this submission caught my eye: it seems that a rather well-known physicist and atheist named Victor Stenger published a piece on the Huffington Post that was ostensibly about debating with Christian apologists. And that’s fine; you can publish a blog about whatever the hell you want. What wasn’t fine however, was when Stenger invoked one of the most oft-commented on untruths about medieval European history, that the Church and its suppression of knowledge brought about the 1000-year period known as the Dark Ages.

“Science was well on its way in ancient Greece and Rome. But the Catholic Church muffled science when it took over the Roman Empire in the 4th century, ushering in the 1,000-year period known as the Dark Ages. This ended with the Renaissance and the rise of the new science, when people could once again think and speak more freely. So it is ludicrous to argue that science was a product of Christianity.”

Wait, how the hell did the chart’s creators settle on the dotted line? How do they know what the curve of ‘scientific advancement’ *should* have been? This is why history is best left to historians, rather than in the hands of people who only stumble on to history accidentally while playing Civilizations.

So what’s the problem with this? Well, for one, the chart – and the argument it supports – is complete bullshit. The “Dark Ages” were decidedly less dark than many people seem to think. Need some concrete examples of ‘progress’ during the “Dark Ages”? Well, how about the University system – or the intellectual and institutional movement known as ‘monasticism’? How about the architectural advancements required to build things like this gargantuan beauty?

Yes, it is a church and it’s also an architectural marvel and evidence of a fairly solid understanding of construction techniques. And this is just scratching the surface of what Europeans were able to do during these apparently barbaric “Dark Ages”. Because that’s what we’re talking about here: Europe. Outside the rather nebulous and diffuse borders of that region, the world continued to move and continued to advance. I mean, do people honestly think that Europe was the sole engine of technological innovation in the world? I mean, that’s what that chart above is implying. That’s the subtext: Europe is where technology comes from, and when the Church gained power during the Dark Ages, it stymied development in Europe. Therefore technological innovation all over the world ground to a halt. If the Church hadn’t fucked with Europe, we’d all be driving flying cars right now. Because no one else anywhere was doing anything scientific-ish when Europe wasn’t.

While we’re at it: define ‘progress’.

Getting back to Stenger: his claim that the Church is to blame for Europe’s “Dark Ages” shows a fundamental ignorance of not only Medieval church history and practice, but also an ignorance of history more broadly. This is ironic, given Stenger’s advice to eager defenders of evolutionary theory:

“Certainly atheist debaters will make their own arguments for atheism during their opening statements. I advise, again from observation and experience, that they limit these to their particular areas of expertise and avoid subjects outside those areas.

During their opening statements and throughout the debate, apologists are likely to make arguments with which atheists may not be so well versed. So, when the time comes for rebuttals, atheists often cannot provide cogent responses, or any responses at all, and so lose debating points.”

Stenger should take his own advice, because by repeated these tired tropes about the European dark ages, he’s betraying his own not-inconsiderable ignorance about a subject that is clearly outside his expertise. But at least he’s in good company; Richard Dawkins frequently opines about things that are outside of his bailiwick, as does Sam Harris with his laughably shallow forays into moral philosophy. Evidently these men feel that containing their discussions to topics they are familiar with is advice best followed by others and that’s too bad, because if they’d only take their own advice more often, they’d spend less time being laughed at by the experts in whose disciplines they trespass.