Archive for the 'History of Science/Medicine' Category

Nov 09 2020

The Truth About Galileo and the Church

The story of the conflict between Galileo Galilei and the Catholic Church is a classic one, often cited as primary evidence for the historical conflict between science and religion. In 1992, after 359 years, the Church finally admitted that Galileo was right. Here is a quick summary of the affair in the New Scientist:

In 1633, the Inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church forced Galileo Galilei, one of the founders of modern science, to recant his theory that the Earth moves around the Sun. Under threat of torture, Galileo – seen facing his inquisitors – recanted. But as he left the courtroom, he is said to have muttered, ‘all the same, it moves’.

This is the Hollywood version of history. Galileo never muttered the famous line, “all the same, it moves” or any version of it (at least there is no record of such a statement, and how could there be?). It is also not accurate to say that Galileo recanted under threat of torture. But – the core of the story, it turns out, is true. Here is the short version from

The reality, however, is quite different. At the time of Galileo’s trial, the scientific evidence did not support his assertion that the earth moves, and his ‘proof’ that it did was based on a flawed argument. It was only many years later that scientists were able to confirm that he was right. Galileo was foolish and arrogant in the way he argued his case; he made enemies unnecessarily and threatened the establishment’s hold on the education system. Even at the time, many considered that he was the victim of politics rather than attempts to safeguard Christian doctrine.

This version of events is completely false. This is the equivalent of saying that the American civil war was not really about slavery. Fortunately, the trial of Galileo is a well-documented event. This is one advantage of having an institution that survives for centuries – they can keep accurate records. We actually have transcripts and reports from the trial itself, and letters written by the key players, including Galileo. Galileo was already famous at the time, and there was great interest in the trial. The Church itself wanted the results of the trial to be widely known – that was kinda the idea.

Here is a great summary by Richard Blackwell who walks the reader through the trial and cites the key documents to support his narrative. The documents really leave zero doubt as to the big picture. Of course, there is always more complexity. I’m sure there was a lot of politics and backroom dealing going on that did not get documented, but nothing could change the broad brushstrokes of what happened. I will give a much briefer summary, but if you are interested in all the details read Blackwell’s article. It is interesting reading and not that long.

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Jun 12 2020

China and the Pangolin Trade

Pangolin’s are adorable and weird animals. They are mammals, with eight (although some references say seven) species in their own order, the Pholidota (all eight species are also in the same family and genus). They have scales, no teeth, and a long tongue, and are native to Africa and Asia. They are also endangered for a very specific reason – their scales are valued as medicine in Traditional Chinese Medicine. They are endangered because of culturally and politically sanctioned pseudoscience.

This is why it has come as welcome news that China has finally removed pangolin scales from the list of official TCM treatments. They have also upgraded pangolins to the highest level of protection. I applaud this decision, which may be a “game changer” in terms of protecting pangolins, but I do have to point out that China is just mitigating a problem entirely of its own creation. It’s like announcing that you are going to stop beating your wife. Congratulations.

What remains to be seen is how strictly they are going to enforce their new protections. Striking pangolins from the list of official TCM products will not magically erase centuries of culture, or a very lucrative black market – just as banning ivory did not instantly disappear the ivory trade and save the elephant. Further, China needs to do the same thing for the entire list of TCM treatments based upon animals parts. No tiger bones, bear bile, or rhino horn.

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Mar 19 2012

Galileo Syndrome and the Principle of Exclusion

The other night I was looking through a telescope at Jupiter and Venus with my daughters (they are next to each other and in good view – the planets, not my daughters). These are the very two planets that Galileo viewed with a telescope that ultimately led him to conclude that not everything in the universe revolves about the earth. Venus goes through phases, like the moon, and Galileo concluded that it must go around the Sun. Around Jupiter he discovered four moons that clearly were revolving about Jupiter. It was exciting to show my daughters the very thing that led to such a profound change in our view of the universe and our place in it.

This led to a discussion of Galileo. I believe I am one of the many scientists and skeptics who independently observed that cranks of various kinds have a tendency to compare themselves to the great Italian astronomer. Galileo Galilei was persecuted and his claims were dismissed out of hand, the logic goes, and so when the crank’s claims are likewise dismissed they feel that means they must be analogous to Galileo in other ways. There are multiple problems with the line of reasoning, however.

The definitive assessment of this comparison comes from the original version of the movie, Bedazzled (highly recommended). Dudley Moore’s character calls Satan a nutcase (for claiming to be Satan), and Satan replies, “They said the same of Jesus Christ, Freud and Galileo.” Moore then replies, “They said it of a lot of nutcases too.”

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Dec 07 2010

The Context of Anecdotes and Anomalies

The most succinct criticism of postmodernist philosophy as applied to science that I have heard is this – that proponents confuse the context of discovery with the context of  later justification. It occurred to me that the same is true of the role of both anecdotes and anomalies in science. Often when I criticize reliance on anecdotes or so-called anomaly hunting, I get feedback that makes the exact same confusion of context.

The context of discovery refers to how new ideas are generated in science. Playing off of Thomas Kuhn’s work on paradigms (and without getting into a side discussion of Kuhn’s own position), some post-modernists argued that science is a humanist-type of endeavor because scientists come up with their ideas in quirky and culturally contingent ways, rather than rigorous or methodical ways.

However, what makes science methodologically rigorous is not how new ideas are generated (the context of discovery) but how they are tested (the context of later justification).

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Jul 06 2010

Modern Bloodletting

I used to think that bloodletting was a Western cultural invention – part of Galenic medicine involving the balancing of the four humors, one of which being blood. Bloodletting faded away with the advent of science-based medicine in the 19th century. But it turns out that bloodletting was common throughout ancient cultures and not unique to the west.

In fact acupuncture was originally a form of bloodletting – the “needles” were really lances and the acupuncture points locations over veins to be opened. Chi, or the Chinese concept of the life force, was believed to be partly in the blood, and bloodletting could be used to free the flow of chi. This was closely related to the Galenic concept of using bloodletting to free the flow of static blood in the tissue.

For example, in the ancient medical text of Suwen, we find:

When heaven is warm and when the sun is bright,
then the blood in man is rich in liquid
and the protective qi is at the surface
Hence the blood can be drained easily, and the qi can be made to move on easily…

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Jan 28 2010

Mark Twain on Patent Medicine

Mark Twain would have made an excellent blogger. The man had a wit and eloquence difficult to match, and he was not afraid to use his skills. Fortunately, some of his writing can be repurposed for blogging – Letters of Note brings us a letter written by Twain in November of 1905 to the seller of a patent medicine that had just attempted to sell his wares to Twain.

The letter shows that Twain was savvy regarding the nature of patent medicines – they were a scam, born of the carnival barker tradition. Anyone unhindered by ethics could put whatever they wanted into a bottle, usually cutting it with some alcohol or other such substance, and then make whatever health claims they wished for their concoction. The FDA put an end to the patent medicine era, but now we are in the middle of a resurgence of patent medicine scams. The only thing that has changed is the name – now they are called “supplements”. The FDA has been weakened to allow anyone to put just about whatever they want in a bottle (as long as it is not already classified as a drug) and make whatever health claims they want for it (as long as they are the slightest bit clever in their wording – phrasing the claims as “structure/function” claims, rather than disease claims).

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Jan 24 2008

New Creation Research Journal

The man who brought us the creation museum in Kentucky, the leader of the Answers in Genesis propaganda ministry, young-earth creationists Ken Ham has started a new peer-reviewed journal, the Answers Research Journal (ARJ). This development, to any scientifically literate thinking person, is a travesty. But let me explain exactly why and what, if anything, can be done about it.

It is critical for science as an institution to be dedicated first and foremost to the principles and methodologies of science. Science is about discovering the nature of reality – what is, what happened in the past, and how stuff works. Scientific conclusions must be based upon evidence and adhere to the demands of logic. This requires that conclusion flow from evidence, that beliefs and claims are slaves to logic and evidence and can be altered as needed to accommodate new or better evidence.

It is simply not possible for legitimate science to reverse this process – to begin with a conclusion and subvert facts and logic to this belief. Institutions dedicated to a belief are not, by definition, scientific.

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Jan 11 2008

Changing Attitudes

In response to my blog entry from yesterday, When Quacks Were Quacks, nfpendleton wrote: “When will we see the advertisement with the doctor who recommends Charlestons because they’re a ‘cleaner, healthier’ smoke?” While this question is a non sequitur, having nothing to do with the original post (I specifically distanced myself from any nostalgia for my colleagues of the past), it did inspire me to delve deeper into the changing attitudes over health care and doctors in the last half century.

It is true that up through the 1950 doctors were not generally warning against smoking, and some doctors were even shills for the tobacco industry. Orac has already collected a number of videos from the 1940’s and 1950’s showing how much attitudes toward smoking has changed. Included is one in which a physician is asked, “what brand of cigarrettes do you smoke, doctor?” Of course I cringe at all these advertisements, but especially the scene of a doctor smoking and recommending his favorite brand.

Here is an interesting anecdote – my grandmother told me that she started smoking in the 1930’s on the advice of her physician, who told her it would calm her nerves (she had just lost a her one year old daughter to pneumonia).

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