Never read the comments, they say, and indeed it’s often a depressing experience. But it can be instructive too. I’m a little astonished, but better informed, by the comments below my piece for the Atlantic on Babylonian astronomy. It had honestly never occurred to me that merely by suggesting we not call the Babylonian astronomers scientists I would be deemed to be dissing them. From what I’ve seen, this historians will not have anticipated his misconception either.
It speaks volumes, though, about our cultural preconceptions. The idea seems to be that if you deny someone is doing science then you’re saying they are ignorant fools dabbling in a load of superstition. Oh crikey – how did the public perception of the history of science ever come to this? What have we done to land us here? Who is to blame? It seems that all those scientists cherry-picking from the past to hand out medals for getting things “right” really have captured the conversation, if the popular conception is that if you don’t get a pat on the head for being a “good scientist” then you fail the test.
Actually this really is a bit depressing. I’m not sure even where to start. Maybe just with this: when we say that we are not going to mine the past for congruence with the present, we are not dismissing that past as worthless ignorance. On the contrary, it means that we are taking it seriously. (And that, incidentally, is why modern “astrology” seems to me not to be perpetuating but in fact to be undermining its tradition. To pretend that astrology is a serious business today is, even if unintentionally, to do an injustice to its historical context.) So let me just say it again: Babylonian astronomy was not an “imperfect science” but a self-contained intellectual framework woven into the rest of their culture.