Science, Right and Wrong: The evolution of knowledge

Sam Kean in The American Scholar:

ScreenHunter_260 Aug. 03 17.25Aristotle called it aimless and witless. St. Augustine condemned it as a disease. The ancient Greeks blamed it for Pandora’s unleashing destruction on the world. And one early Christian leader even pinned the fall of Lucifer himself on idle, intemperate, unrestrained curiosity.

Today, the exploration of new places and new ideas seems self-evidently a good thing. For much of human history, though, priests, politicians, and philosophers cast a suspicious eye on curious folks. It wasn’t just that staring at rainbows all day or pulling apart insects’ wings seemed weird, even childish. It also represented a colossal waste of time, which could be better spent building the economy or reading the Bible. Philip Ball explains in his thought-provoking new book, Curiosity, that only in the 1600s did society start to sanction (or at least tolerate) the pursuit of idle interests. And as much as any other factor, Ball argues, that shift led to the rise of modern science.

We normally think about the early opposition to science as simple religious bias. But “natural philosophy” (as science was then known) also faced serious philosophical objections, especially about the trustworthiness of the knowledge obtained. For instance, Galileo used a telescope to discover both the craters on our moon and the existence of moons orbiting Jupiter. These discoveries demonstrated, contra the ancient Greeks, that not all heavenly bodies were perfect spheres and that not all of them orbited Earth. Galileo’s conclusions, however, relied on a huge assumption—that his telescope provided a true picture of the heavens. How could he know, his critics protested, that optical instruments didn’t garble or distort as much as they revealed? It’s a valid point.

More here.