History Must Be Curved

Books, Culture, Fun, Geekery, History, Philosophy

I'm about to quote almost 700 words from a blog post, which normally would be considered long…but it's from an almost book-length series of posts, so as a proportion of the whole, it's actually quite short.

http://tofspot.blogspot.com

HISTORY MUST BE CURVED, for there is a horizon in the affairs of mankind. Beyond this horizon, events pass out of historical consciousness and into myth. Accounts are shortened, complexities sloughed off, analogous figures fused, traditions “abraded into anecdotes.” Real people become culture heroes: archetypical beings performing iconic deeds. (Vansina 1985)

In oral societies this horizon lies typically at eighty years; but historical consciousness endures longer in literate societies, and the horizon may fall as far back as three centuries. Arthur, a late 5th cent. war leader, had become by the time of Charlemagne the subject of an elaborate story cycle. Three centuries later, troubadours had done the same to Charlemagne himself. History had slipped over the horizon and become the stuff of legend. In AD 778, a Basque war party ambushed the Carolingian rear guard (Annales regni francorum). Forty years later, Einhard, a minister of Charlemagne, mentioned “Roland, prefect of the Breton Marches” among those killed (“Hruodlandus Brittannici limitis praefectus,” Vita karoli magni). But by 1098, Roland had become a “paladin” and the central character, the Basques had become Saracens, and a magic horn and tale of treachery had been added (La chanson de Roland). Compare the parallel fate of a Hopi narrative regarding a Navajo ambush (Vansina, pp. 19-20). This suggests that 17th century history has for the bulk of the population already become myth. Jamestown is reduced to “Pocahontas,” and Massachusetts boils down to “the First Thanksgiving.” And the story of how heliocentrism replaced geocentrism has become a Genesis Myth, in which a culture-hero performs iconic deeds that affirm the rightness of Our Modern World-view.

Conclusion: Our ancestors were not fools.

In three centuries, the long complex story of how the mobile Earth replaced the stationary Earth dipped below the horizon from History into Legend. Like all good legends, the story of heliocentrism and the culture-hero Galileo is simple and general and geared toward supporting the Rightness of the Modern worldview. But history is always detailed and particular.

The reasons for the stationary Earth were rooted in empirical experience and successful modeling. The dual motion of the Earth is not sensibly evident and was difficult to establish on empirical grounds. Heliocentrism triumphed first of all because Neoplatonic number mysticism had become au courant during the Renaissance, and Platonists equated mathematical elegance with physical evidence.

Resistance to heliocentrism was rooted in the science of the day and religion entered the picture mainly because the Church Fathers had interpreted Scripture in the light of that science. They weren’t about to change until there was solid evidence that the science (and hence the interpretation) was wrong; not in the middle of no honkin' Reformation they weren’t. Thomas Huxley said after investigating the affair that “the Church had the better case.” But Pierre Duhem put it differently. The Copernicans were “right for the wrong reasons.” The Ptolemaics were “wrong for the right reasons.”

Science doesn’t follow a mythic positivist ideal but the plural scientific methods described by Feyerabend: a mixture of empiricism, flights of fancy, intuition, aesthetics, doggedness, and jealousy. Scientific theories are underdetermined. Any finite set of facts can support multiple theories, and for a long time the available facts were equally explained by geostationary or geomobile models.

In the Legend, the conflict was between Science and Religion. But in the History, the conflict was between two groups of scientists, with churchmen lined up on all sides. Copernicanism was supported by humanist literati and opposed by Aristotelian physicists; so it was a mixed bag all around. Science does not take place in a bubble. International and domestic politics and individual personalities roil the pot as well. The mystery is not why Galileo failed to triumph – he didn’t have good evidence, made enemies of his friends, and stepped into a political minefield. The real mystery is why Kepler, who actually had the correct solution, constantly flew under the radar. A deviant Lutheran working in a Catholic monarchy, he pushed Copernicanism as strongly as Galileo; but no one hassled him over it. Too bad he couldn’t write his way out of a paper bag.

This is from the conclusion of Michael Flynn's masterful nine part essay on "The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown".

I can not recommend it highly enough.

  1. The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown
  2. The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown: Down for the Count
  3. The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown:
    The Great Galileo-Scheiner Flame War of 1611-13
  4. The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown:
    The Down 'n Dirty Mud Wrassle
  5. The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown: Here's Mud in Yer Eye
  6. The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown: Comet Chameleon
  7. The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown: Time and Tides Wait Not
  8. The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown: Trial and Error
  9. The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown: From Plausible to Proven

If you find the idea in the first quoted paragraph above ("Beyond this horizon, events pass out of historical consciousness and into myth. Accounts are shortened, complexities sloughed off, analogous figures fused, traditions 'abraded into anecdotes.'") somewhere between tantalizing and fascinating, then you could do worse than to check out his Spiral Arm series of novels:

  1. January Dancer
  2. Up Jim River
  3. On the Razor's Edge
  4. In the Lion's Mouth

I loved the books.

Wikipedia has this to say about them:

Wikipedia

This is a far future science fiction novel set in a universe populated with only humans and "pre-human" artifacts. It is told as a narrative presented with variations on English, Chinese, Indian, and Celtic words. The literary style has been described as extremely difficult to read due to the inclusion of non-English terms and historical accounts that are not common knowledge to most SF readers[1][2]. The characters in the story belong to 2 major factions of humanity: The United League of the Periphery, and the Confederacy of Central Worlds. The Confederacy is the remnant of Earth and its original colonies while the League is composed of the planets far out on the spiral arm of the galaxy. These 2 factions are in a galactic "cold war" and both have secretive pseudo-military agencies that feature prominently in the book. The story centers around the Confederacy and League agents seeking the answer to a mystery of the disappearance of ships in the rift between the spiral arm and the central worlds. The story's title comes from a "pre-human" artifact called the Dancer which is discovered early in the book. It exerts a subtle but very profound effect on various characters throughout the story. It is eventually revealed to be part of an ancient race of silicon based lifeforms called "The Folk of Sand and Iron" that have played a very significant but almost unknown role in human history. The story has 2 sequels and a third planned[3]. The January Dancer was a finalist for the 2009 Prometheus Award.

ObDisclosure about this review:

  1. I've never met Michael Flynn, and have no personal or economic stake in his success.
  2. I do, however, have a memetic stake. He thinks Deep Thoughts that I agree with. I wouldn't mind him getting funded so that he can keep writing.
  3. The links to his books above use the Amazon Popehat affiliate code. Read about how that money gets spent here.
  4. Depending on the reaction to this post, I may end up writing reviews of science fiction novels that I find worthy of note. Whether or not people like this one, I'm pretty likely to write one of my big-honkin' pieces on the topic of left/right/centrist post-apocalyptic novels.

UPDATE: Thanks for dropping by, Hacker News readers. If you liked this you might want to subscribe to the RSS feed. Popehat is a group blog. Ken is the most prolific blogger and covers civil rights law. I'm the second most prolific blogger (this week, at least) and talk about science, politics, and – upcoming – intended to dive deep into Urbit and will soon start writing reviews of science fiction novels. The other co-bloggers are also fascinating nerds and write about stuff that the typical news.yc reader would enjoy. Stick around!

Last 5 posts by Clark

83 Comments

77 Comments

  1. TomB  •  Oct 9, 2013 @1:01 pm

    Clark, thanks for making up my mind for me as to what I'm doing for my upcoming long weekend. It looks like engrossing reading.

    It's nice to come upon a thinker who looks at the Galilean tragedy as real history and not just an easy indictment of organized religion. As the article says (albeit in passing), Galileo was more a victim of his rather irascible personality than his scientific views. To indict those that indicted him merely on the clarity of 20/20 vision is the height of arrogance.

  2. lelnet  •  Oct 9, 2013 @1:01 pm

    I'll arrogantly pretend to have authority to speak for all popehat readers (after all, what would the blogosphere be without nobodies who bloviate in public about authority they don't actually have, eh?) when I say that your disclosure point #4 presents a plausible future (ie, one in which you are regularly writing posts of the described nature) which is significantly preferable to the present state of affairs in the world, and should be encouraged to come about by any and all means moral and expedient.

    HTH. HAND.

  3. Irk  •  Oct 9, 2013 @1:12 pm

    I am all for political analysis of SF novels.

  4. ZK  •  Oct 9, 2013 @1:13 pm

    Very interested in reading reviews of scifi novels.

    Not too familiar with anything that could be called 'left' post-apocalyptic novels, unless you count the Wicca-communes in Stirling's Dies the Fire series (which I wouldn't).

    I guess there are entries in the "Post-Global Warming" sub-genre, but surprisingly not many (or at least not many that are any good).

  5. Craig  •  Oct 9, 2013 @1:20 pm

    Thanks! I'm just reading the first in the blog series. It's excellent.

  6. Dan Hill  •  Oct 9, 2013 @1:33 pm

    The phenomemon he describes doesn't just apply to history, or require long passages of time. The received wisdom on most issues is a ridiculously simplified and horribly inaccurate morality play, rather than a reasonable attempt to understand what actually happened. Exhibit 1: the "understanding" 99.99% of people have of the causes and progress of the global financial crisis in 2008.

    Any book reviews you care to share will, I am sure, add to the considerable consumer surplus I experience in reading your blog. As an author (I've written a couple of post apocalyptic novels, probably too obscure for mention in this hallowed place) I'd add a word of caution when drawing conclusions about the politics and motivations of the authors. My experience at least has been that well-formed characters have their own goddamn agendas – but a surprising number of readers seem to think every word that comes out of every character's mouth is mine. I don't mind being accused of holding radical political views (I do) but only if they are the ones I actually hold!

  7. B  •  Oct 9, 2013 @1:37 pm

    For what it's worth, @clark, I generally agree with your conclusions, but disagree with your premises. So, I really like these posts that are information dump and opinion. I'll be checking those books out later in the month.

  8. Randall  •  Oct 9, 2013 @1:41 pm

    I've had January Dancer recommended to me by others, and it is on my Amazon wish list. I'm not sure something set that far in the future should be called "post-apocalyptic" however – that genre really seems to encompass the immediate and near aftermath of said apocalypse and how individuals and/or society cope. Otherwise all stories are, in a sense, post-apocalyptic.(ie Toba catastrophe)

    Also, doesn't it seem likely to you that the post-apocalyptic genre is close to falling from it's perch at/near the top of F/SF? I've started yearning for more hopeful SF, so maybe its just me.

  9. Alistair  •  Oct 9, 2013 @1:42 pm

    I would also be keen on reading SF reviews here. I have read January Dancer, and Up Jim River and agree with you that the Author thinks deep thoughts. However I don't think he expresses them very well.

  10. Sam  •  Oct 9, 2013 @1:55 pm

    Count me in. Hell, my masters thesis was on Jerry Pournelle.

  11. Jim  •  Oct 9, 2013 @2:02 pm

    "I'm pretty likely to write one of my big-honkin' pieces on the topic of left/right/centrist post-apocalyptic novels."

    Where would you place "A Canticle for Liebowitz?"

  12. Lizard  •  Oct 9, 2013 @2:04 pm

    I did read the whole thing, so I'll be kind and give people the TL;DR:"I'm tired of people always whining about Galileo when religion vs. science comes up! Galileo wasn't so great!"[1]

    True enough. And this isn't a deep, dark, secret hidden from the masses by the scurrilous forces of godless materialism; one of the gods of godless materialism, James Burke, points it out at length in his Day The Universe Changed series, showing Galileo to be the narcissistic jackass he was, and showing the Church was much more concerned with politics than theology at the time.

    However, this article does provide a good example of a typical form of argument used by those who oppose godless materialism, namely, the "more scientific than thou" argument. The Church wasn't backwards and anti-science, oh no… they just wanted a level of real, empirical, proof. One couldn't just go around supposing that if there was no visible parallax, it meant the stars were both very big and very far away. No, there must be high levels of proof of this. (Eh? What's that? No one has said exactly what the stars WERE, so arguing that they must be proven to NOT be small and nearby is sort of silly, since there was no reason to think they WERE in the first place? Heretic! Burn!)

    The "lack of parallax" problem rests on first assuming facts not in evidence about the stars, then using these assumed facts to claim that heliocentrism contradicted them, so, faith is science, up is down, and black is white. If we acknowledge that no one had a freakin' clue what the stars were, and toss parallax out the window (presumably, measuring its rate of descent), we get a better comparison of which model of the universe is more "scientific". However, the game rests on someone not cluing in to that fact. It's classic intellectual sleight-of-hand, making the target focus on a triviality, the intent being to provide a defense of the long time it took for the Church to finally acknowledge reality. They were just being *careful*, that's all. And ever so much more "scientific" than the scientists, who weren't scientists, but satanists, I mean, humanists.

    This game is played a lot on the Internet. An arbitrarily high definition of proof is demanded of any theory one opposes, while accepting a lack of proof of the theory one accepts. Often, this is done by the good ol' religious two-step, in which the actions of capricious supernatural deities can be invoked to explain any gaps in one's favored theory, while of course "Nobody knows" or "It's indeterminate" is proof of failure in the opposed theory, even if the gap in the former is miles wide and the gap in the latter mere millimeters. This occurs not just in scientific debates, but conspiracy theories, and generally almost anything in which one wishes to seem open-minded and rational, but refuses to accept contradiction. The game is played by hoping the opponent thinks all unknowns are created equal, or at least that the audience thinks they are. Thus, "No one can (yet) conclusively demonstrate the exact process by which self-replicating molecules formed and began to evolve" is considered equal to "No one can prove God didn't just make it all happen", and so, both are equally flawed. Further, there are countless bits and pieces of evolution that cannot be proven to an arbitrarily high standard of proof, but everything is proven if you can say "God did it!" (and the only standard of proof needed to prove God did it is for anyone to say, at any time, that something is unknown — if there's any gap in any theory, God's existence is proven, case closed.) When you encounter someone who argues like this, no matter how intelligent they are, no matter how much they proclaim the virtues of reason and rationality, remember what we all learned from WHOPR:"The only winning move is not to play.")

    (Shortly before I decided to hit "Post", I figured I'd do a little empirical research myself, and see if my pattern-matching on the parts of the blog I'd read were sustained if I read further. And… a-yup. A classic case of how intelligence has much less to do with choosing beliefs than with defending beliefs.)

    [1]Expected reply:"That's ALL you got from all that?" (Please read in condescending tone). And my reply: Yup. It is thousands of well-written, well-researched, well-argued words that all boils down to "Shut up shut up SHUT UP about Galileo already!!!!" It is one of a large category of articles, essays, rants, etc, that play rhetorical games which mix actual facts, quotes of philosophy, and a great juggling act of "Empiricism" and "Philosophy" to attempt to defend religion while appearing to be objective and rational and not a Bible-thumping loony. After a quarter century on the net, though, I can hear a Bible being thumped by a baby rabbit through 20 feet of solid concrete. Most people lack the time, knowledge, or inclination to go through them point-by-point (I am among the Most People, in this case), and those who are not as scholarly as the author (again, I am not) will be trivially savaged. "Never get into a war of words will a man who buys ink by the barrel", Mark Twain reputedly said, and Lizard adds, "Never get into a prolonged debate over philosophical and historical minutiae with anyone who dashes off thousands of words on the topic." So I won't. Feel free to dismiss my dismissal on that basis, if you wish.

  13. Lizard  •  Oct 9, 2013 @2:09 pm

    The received wisdom on most issues is a ridiculously simplified and horribly inaccurate morality play, rather than a reasonable attempt to understand what actually happened.

    Humans understand the world primarily through stories, and understand complex issues by incarnating them in iconic individuals (who are progressively stripped of their individuality until nothing is left but the icon) or symbols, parables, and myths. (And/or all of the above.)

    So what else is new?

    Is this surprising to anyone? Odd? Unusual? Not what you used to think? I keep seeing it brought up as if it's a Great Revelation, as opposed to "So basically self-evident it doesn't bear mentioning."

  14. Sure, Not  •  Oct 9, 2013 @2:10 pm

    One thing that is not mentioned often about Galileo, he was linked with the heretic Giordano Bruno who was burned at the stake in 1600. They both applied for the same position, Chair of Mathematics at the university of Padua, Galileo succeeded. Bruno was burned at the stake for religious heresies. Galileo's writings were similar in some ways to Bruno's they both supported the same ideas of astronomy and mathematics. And there were other minor similarities with their published books, but it was enough to bring down the wrath of the church also vigil in stamping out heretical teachings.

  15. Sure, Not  •  Oct 9, 2013 @2:33 pm

    The victor writes the history. Add time into the mix and who knows which side will be the folk hero in 300 years.

  16. Justin kittredge  •  Oct 9, 2013 @2:37 pm

    You and HandOfGod137 probably have talked about Iain M. Banks before, I would guess? Anyway I am new-ish here so I missed it if it happened but now that it is not off-topic, Great taste in authors HandOfGod137! Though whenever I first saw yer name it did not immediately register, it did click eventually.

    @Clark have you read any fiction or science fiction by Iain Banks?
    Also I liked "Wool" by Hugh Howey more recently, it was a good read.
    I've never read Michael Flynn.

  17. Rhonda Lea Kirk Fries  •  Oct 9, 2013 @2:41 pm

    I adore Michael F. Flynn, and I think I've read everything he's every published…but I couldn't make myself finish January Dancer or even begin Up Jim River, much less the two newest offerings. I'm glad someone enjoys them, because Flynn has earned some success.

    Eifelheim was my favorite.

  18. Jason  •  Oct 9, 2013 @2:51 pm

    Sci fi reviews? Yes, please.

    You could review that leftist fantasy called the Foundation series…

  19. Kevin Kirkpatrick  •  Oct 9, 2013 @2:59 pm

    HISTORY MUST BE CURVED, for there is a horizon in the affairs of mankind. Beyond this horizon, events pass out of historical consciousness and into myth. Accounts are shortened, complexities sloughed off, analogous figures fused, traditions “abraded into anecdotes.” Real people become culture heroes: archetypical beings performing iconic deeds.

    A powerful sentiment – I once applied it to the stories in the Bible, and came out an atheist on the other side.

  20. Clark  •  Oct 9, 2013 @2:59 pm

    @Jason

    Sci fi reviews? Yes, please.

    You could review that leftist fantasy called the Foundation series…

    Why bother when we can just read Sad Ass Harry Seldon's blog?

  21. Clark  •  Oct 9, 2013 @3:00 pm

    @Rhonda Lea Kirk Fries

    I adore Michael F. Flynn, and I think I've read everything he's every published…but I couldn't make myself finish January Dancer or even begin Up Jim River, much less the two newest offerings. I'm glad someone enjoys them, because Flynn has earned some success.

    Eifelheim was my favorite.

    Eifelheim was indeed excellent.

    I'm suprised that you liked that and didn't like the others; they seem very similar in tone.

  22. Clark  •  Oct 9, 2013 @3:00 pm

    @Justin Kittredge

    @Clark have you read any fiction or science fiction by Iain Banks?

    I've read every single book he's written, both mainstream and SF.

    Also I liked "Wool" by Hugh Howey more recently, it was a good read.

    Decent. Among the best self-published stuff out there, but not great by conventional standards.

  23. Clark  •  Oct 9, 2013 @3:01 pm

    @Sure, Not

    The victor writes the history. Add time into the mix and who knows which side will be the folk hero in 300 years.

    Indeed; it took less than 50 years to celebrate FDR as a hero and not a tyrant who destroyed the Constitution.

  24. Clark  •  Oct 9, 2013 @3:01 pm

    @Jim

    "I'm pretty likely to write one of my big-honkin' pieces on the topic of left/right/centrist post-apocalyptic novels."

    Where would you place "A Canticle for Liebowitz?"

    Deeply Catholic; not on that spectrum at all.

  25. Clark  •  Oct 9, 2013 @3:02 pm

    @Alistair

    I would also be keen on reading SF reviews here. I have read January Dancer, and Up Jim River and agree with you that the Author thinks deep thoughts. However I don't think he expresses them very well.

    Flynn is better at world building and character building than he is at telling ripping yarns. :-/

  26. Clark  •  Oct 9, 2013 @3:02 pm

    @Randall

    I've had January Dancer recommended to me by others, and it is on my Amazon wish list. I'm not sure something set that far in the future should be called "post-apocalyptic"

    Indeed. I was making two points:

    1) here's a series of blog posts and you should read January Dancer

    2) at some point I will write a review of post-apocalyptic novels

  27. Clark  •  Oct 9, 2013 @3:02 pm

    @ZK

    Very interested in reading reviews of scifi novels.

    Great!

    Not too familiar with anything that could be called 'left' post-apocalyptic novels, unless you count the Wicca-communes in Stirling's Dies the Fire series (which I wouldn't).

    That series is worth talking about, but, not, that's not what I was going to feature in my – ahem – feature.

  28. Tom  •  Oct 9, 2013 @3:27 pm

    Clark – definitely interested in book review posts. I liked this post very much.

  29. bill  •  Oct 9, 2013 @4:25 pm

    @Clark, I don't get much time to read fiction and can't think of a science fiction novel I've read in the last 10 years (unless Michael Chrighton's Next counts) – if you review it, sign me up to both read it and buy it through the affiliate link if it's on Amazon.

  30. Lizard  •  Oct 9, 2013 @4:30 pm

    You could review that leftist fantasy called the Foundation series…

    Foundation and Earth was the book that convinced me Asimov had gone plum loco. All through it, it seemed the logical conclusion of the main character would have to be that the immense variety of human experience would be lost if the galactic hive mind of conformity were allowed to come to fruition. Instead, the answer is the opposite: Variety bad. Stagnation good. The frak?

  31. stillnotking  •  Oct 9, 2013 @4:49 pm

    Lots of hand-waving and transparent attempts at equivocation in that article, not to mention the "Look over there!" tactic of pointing out that Galileo was a bit of a dick. (One presumes he had many dickish contemporaries who were not sentenced to house arrest.)

    Galileo was accused of heresy, not faulty empiricism. The defense rests.

  32. Ken  •  Oct 9, 2013 @5:03 pm

    I read January Dancer a few years ago. It's very good.

  33. Lago  •  Oct 9, 2013 @5:08 pm

    Looks like it's time to clear my schedule. That's a whole lot of reading to be done.

  34. Clark  •  Oct 9, 2013 @5:23 pm

    @Lizard:

    After a quarter century on the net, though, I can hear a Bible being thumped by a baby rabbit through 20 feet of solid concrete.

    You've made it clear that you can also hear a bible being thumped when someone closes a cabinet door, or coughs, or flushes a toilet.

    I read your entire reply and didn't see a single rebuttal, but I did see, stated over and over and over, an opinion that boils down to "it defends the Church therefore I know it's wrong, therefore I don't have to rebut it".

    Argument from authority is bad. Argument from the authority of a guy named "Lizard" who's c.v. is "I've been debating on the internet while other people were reading books" is worse.

  35. SPQR  •  Oct 9, 2013 @6:15 pm

    Clark, I had missed that Flynn had a blog. Great pointer.

  36. HandOfGod137  •  Oct 9, 2013 @6:25 pm

    @Justin kittredge

    You and HandOfGod137 probably have talked about Iain M. Banks before

    No, actually. But I'm glad to see Clark has read his books. A wonderful author. I had quite the attack of melancholy when Amazon recently recommended I buy a book by him I've already got, and I remembered there will be no more Culture novels. Or anything further in the worlds of The Algebraist, Feersum Endjiin and Against A Dark Background.

    If anyone here hasn't read his books, go get them all now.

  37. George William Herbert  •  Oct 9, 2013 @6:29 pm

    Very interesting; I read the Eifelheim short story in 86, and some of his more recent stuff, but the discussion here was new to me. I agree that Flynn is someone who plays deep thoughts.

    I agree this is good stuff. Please don't stop your other rabble-rousing just to bring us more of this, though.

  38. Mike  •  Oct 9, 2013 @6:33 pm

    Book Club!

  39. Allen  •  Oct 9, 2013 @6:46 pm

    I took out of this post more than one thing but I'll just comment on a single aspect. What I'll call the curvature of history in science, or how an idea can be accepted or rejected with astonishing speed.

    I would suggest that in a literate society with fast communication means that the history of a discovery would be less relevant sooner. I believe the curvature (acceleration if you will) is dependent upon the velocity of which information is spread.

    What took years of work, and then long publication times, now in many cases takes only months. This is because of our fast manufacturing abilities and that the knowledge can spread around the world in hours.

    Quite quickly the background becomes rather quaint, and the current thinking becomes the important thing. I could easily see how this might be problematic when some of the work is still in it's infancy.

  40. Justin Kittredge  •  Oct 9, 2013 @7:06 pm

    @HandOfGod137
    I remember fondest Consider Phlebas, Excession, and Player of Games, in part because I bought the first 5 or 6 books all at one time and Consider and Excession set the stage of the universe and had that "something fresh, wonderful, and new smell."
    Feersum Endjin (and to an extent Inversions) I could've done without. :P
    Also Transition was great, I read 80% of the way through The Quarry and stopped, as if not finishing the book keeps the journey going. Or something.
    Haven't tackled all his fiction yet, read "The Bridge" long way back. Loved all the later Culture novels as well.

    Can I ask if anyone's read the memoirs:
    Infidel – Born on a Blue Day – Bossypants – American on Purpose – ?

  41. Mark - Lord of the Albino Squirrels  •  Oct 9, 2013 @7:31 pm

    The real mystery is why Kepler, who actually had the correct solution, constantly flew under the radar. A deviant Lutheran working in a Catholic monarchy, he pushed Copernicanism as strongly as Galileo; but no one hassled him over it. Too bad he couldn’t write his way out of a paper bag.

    I think banishment from Graz, putting Kepler's mother on trial for witchcraft (repeatedly), and banning his books on Copernicanism might constitute "hassle", but that's just me.

    On the other hand, looking forward to the book review/discussion idea a great deal. The last two post-apocalyptic books I've read – Bacigalupi's Wind-up Girl and the second of what I call Shirley Jackson's "Chickie Nobs" books – has got that whole doom taste in my mouth.

    Chickie Nobs with a side of Nuka Cola. mmmmm…..

  42. Bruce  •  Oct 9, 2013 @7:59 pm

    Book club is of interest.

    Someone recommended Perdido St Station in a previous book thread and that was a dense and rewarding book. Thanks to whomever that was.

    Excession made a big impact on me.

    I'll get to the Galileo links soon, but history suggests that Clark is likely to be showing us a religiously apologistic slant.

  43. Lizard  •  Oct 9, 2013 @8:20 pm

    Argument from authority is bad. Argument from the authority of a guy named "Lizard" who's c.v. is "I've been debating on the internet while other people were reading books" is worse.

    I'm glad you took me up on my offer to dismiss my dismissal. :)

    My inability to explain how Mysto the Magnificent makes his gorgeous assistant disappear does not reduce my confidence that it's a trick.

    My unwillingness to spend decades studying stage magic so that I may do so to someone else's satisfaction does not make me feel any sense of personal shame. (Granted, not much does.)

    As to the article: There's not much to rebut. The facts, from what I can tell, are correct. The conclusion we are supposed to draw, however, relies on a lot of philosophical and rhetorical sleight of hand. And this is part of the trick, the game, the con: To list a number of facts, intermixed with pieces of philosophy, arranged so as to SEEM as if they are all part of the same argument and lead to some conclusion, which isn't really clearly stated, but it sure *sounds* like it's going somewhere.

    What, really, is the actual takeaway?

    "History is written by the winners." OK, yeah.

    "Nearly all of history is overly-simplified stories designed to turn complex, messy, intricate, and interwoven facts into paragraph long morality plays." Ditto.

    "Galileo was an asshat." No argument there.

    "Early attempts at heliocentrism were muddled and confusing, as they worked with a limited set of facts." Sure, pretty much obvious, as well.

    Leading to the conclusion of:
    "The Church isn't anti-science, because the only reason they rejected heliocentrism was that it wasn't proven to an unreasonably high degree of certainty."

    Uhm…

    It's much the same argument as "People were right to reject Darwin because so much of the modern science that supports evolution wasn't known at the time." In a complete vacuum, that might make a weird kind of sense. It's sort of akin to the rejection of continental drift, for example. Except that the world isn't a vacuum. If the full facts known to all sides at the time are weighed, Darwin demonstrated evolution far more conclusively than any competing theories at the time, even with the well-known gaps and unfulfilled predictions.

    The defense of the Church relies, as I noted, on several forms of bait-and-switch, false equivalence, and mixing of contexts. The pattern of argument seemed familiar to me, so I checked other articles on the site, to make sure I wasn't getting a false positive. I wasn't.

    Given the inability of anyone to become an expert on *everything*, or even on a handful of things, it becomes necessary to recognize patterns of debate and argument that indicate a faulty premise, just as learn how to recognize the signs of something being a likely con, fraud, or deceit without knowing all the details or investigating each and every claim to exhaustion. How many Nigerian princes do I need to personally validate as false before it's not intellectual laziness to simply delete such messages without reading?

    This particular game is played as follows:
    Person "A" says something that meets the pattern you've learned to associate with Wrong Ideas.
    Person "B" says so.
    A replies "Well, you haven't shown me what's wrong with it!"
    B foolishly attempts to show this. At every turn, A moves goalposts, raises bars, nitpicks words, argues definitions, exaggerates the importance of unknowns, refuses to accept references ("Well, have YOU been to the Van Allan belts? Then why do you believe you could survive passing through them?"), etc. Often, A is very intelligent and well-skilled at rhetoric, and much more passionate about the subject than B. Eventually, B gives up.
    A then says, "NO ONE had refuted my claims!"

    And then poor, innocent, person "C" comes along, and it's repeated…

    The facts, in terms of who said what and when, what was published, and so on, as stated, seem to be facts. The conclusion, formed by mingling facts and philosophies without regard to context, will seem brilliantly insightful, clever, and wonderfully argued to those who already reached the same conclusion but aren't sure how they got there, and will seem like a load of codswallop to those who have *not* reached the same conclusion.

    You've made it clear that you can also hear a bible being thumped when someone closes a cabinet door, or coughs, or flushes a toilet.

    I believe it's Korans that get flushed down toilets.

    Are you claiming the main thrust of the article is *not* the defense of religion against charges of being irrational? That the site's tone, in general, is not anti-materialistic?

    Are you saying I'm seeing a religious/spiritual element where there is, in fact, none? I think that would be a hard argument to make.

    Are you arguing that I'm heavily biased against anything I perceive as being spiritual/religious? If so, let me be clear: I absolutely am, and do not deny it at all.

  44. Gabe  •  Oct 9, 2013 @8:36 pm

    I apologize in advance for the length of this comment. I have to disagree with many of the negative reactions to the series. As an atheist with no sympathies towards the church, I found it fascinating. I realize that it is biased, but the fact that Galileo was convicted for the crime of heresy is damning enough to the church. As a well researched series that gives history and context to the trial, it is great, even with its flaws.

    It catalogues the development of ideas and documents much of why each side believed what they did. It also makes it clear how non-obvious the correct answer was, why genuine scientists defended geocentrism for a long time, and how the personalities clashed. In the same way as 'Chasing Venus' or 'Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman', this series really humanizes scholars and gives an interesting perspective that I had not seen before.

    To Clark, let me try to explain some of the complaints about the series. Firstly, Galileo was not an unpleasant crank long past his prime at the time of the trial. He was unpleasant, but the briefly mentioned Discoursi, published in 1638 while he was imprisoned, contains several major breakthroughs. It states that two bodies will fall at the same rate in the absence of air resistance and proposes the correct relationship between time and displacement (quadratic). It is not as if he was some rabble-rouser past his prime, as implied.

    Secondly, the argument that the church authorities were judging Galileo's work on its merits is controversial and even undercut by other parts of the series, where it is established that the bureaucrats had little interest in the science. One of the commenters on TOFspot has made this point well and so I defer to him. Galileo was convicted of heresy, not fraudulent research.

    The argument that many of the theories of the universe were somehow equivalent in that they were all wrong is misleading. Asimov stated this well when he said: "When people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together." The plain fact is that Copernicus' model is far better than the others, even though it is not perfect. The fact that the Copernican theory has epicycles wasn't good evidence against it in the 17th century. The geometric simplicity of the model, even if pursued for the wrong reason, is significant evidence towards the theory. Furthermore, Tycho's geocentric universe was proposed as a compromise in large part to appease religious sensibilities. This is completely glossed over by TOF (he mentions Tycho's scientific argument, but not any of the arguments for Copernicus over Brahe at that time).

  45. Demosthenes  •  Oct 9, 2013 @8:49 pm

    Lizard's quite brilliant attempt to be Person "A" has caused in me some admiration. But as I now know what will happen if I attempt to take up the "B" position, I'll find a better use for my time. That Spiral Arm series of books sounds tempting…

  46. Clark  •  Oct 9, 2013 @9:16 pm

    @Bruce

    Someone recommended Perdido St Station in a previous book thread

    I think that was me; certainly I've recomended it to many people.

  47. grayaj23  •  Oct 9, 2013 @9:36 pm

    I'm a fan of Flynn too, and didn't know he had a blog until this post.

    I'm not a fan of Banks. I've managed to finish Use of Weapons. Consider Phlebas and Excession, I was not able. it sucks, because the scope and subgenre of his work should put them right in my wheelhouse. On the other hand, I generally despise SF that re-uses the same characters or the same settings for more than two or three books. In the modern era of subtitles like "A So-and-so Mystery" or "Book X of the Y Cycle" etc, this makes good books very hard to find.

  48. Mark - Lord of the Albino Squirrels  •  Oct 9, 2013 @9:42 pm

    Oops.

    Earlier I wrote that Shirley Jackson wrote the "Chickie Nobs" books, but just remembered that it was Margaret Atwood who wrote Oryx and Crake, Year of the Flood, and Madd Adam.

    gettinsenilehaven'thadmycoffeememoryfullofgoblins etc. etc.

  49. Zazlo  •  Oct 9, 2013 @10:40 pm

    Although I'd be surprised if I'd written even a dozen comments, I want to say this comment is the most deadly serious comment I've yet written.

    1. The concept and word "underdetermined" ought to be one of the ten most important of 2013, and for at least a decade or two – and, not inconceivably, beyond.

    2. Does Lizard have a blog? Seriously, in equal measure to the bloggers here, Lizard's comments, even more than others (and there were others), are what kept me reading the comments long enough that I got hooked, which was nearly a year ago (and that over a year after I started reading Popehat)

    2.b. Is this a good time to say that I highly recommend nearly a year of lurking before commenting? And not just because by then your first time is less rubberneckably stupid than just a shrugs-worth of disdain. This is a complicated group of authors and readers, and the set-up, system, and style of even just the comments is… well, not anything else I've ever come across. But it is, essentially, deranged. I mean, kick-ass. Well, both. You know.

    2.a. Although I'd rather it didn't, if that does annoy Lizard, that would be pretty funny.

  50. Marconi Darwin  •  Oct 10, 2013 @12:33 am

    @Lizard

    However, this article does provide a good example of a typical form of argument used by those who oppose godless materialism, namely, the "more scientific than thou" argument. The Church wasn't backwards and anti-science, oh no… they just wanted a level of real, empirical, proof. One couldn't just go around supposing that if there was no visible parallax, it meant the stars were both very big and very far away. No, there must be high levels of proof of this. …

    The "lack of parallax" problem rests on first assuming facts not in evidence about the stars, then using these assumed facts to claim that heliocentrism contradicted them, so, faith is science, up is down, and black is white.

    This!

  51. Mike  •  Oct 10, 2013 @1:10 am

    Who showed whom the instruments of torture?

  52. Aaron  •  Oct 10, 2013 @1:14 am

    @Clark

    Depending on the reaction to this post, I may end up writing reviews of science fiction novels that I find worthy of note.

    That would be wonderful. I have an additional recommendation/request to make, on that note: I would love a sidebar list of your or all the Popehat author's favorite/most recommended books. So I have stuff to buy off the Amazon affiliate link.

  53. Aaron  •  Oct 10, 2013 @1:20 am

    Also, thanks to this thread, I have now purchased Perdido St Station. I have been meaning to read some Miéville for a while now, anyway.

  54. Ted K.  •  Oct 10, 2013 @1:33 am

    Re : Spiral Arm (aka January Dancer) series

    Per a bibliography site in the UK your list has #3 and #4 swapped. #3 s/b "In the Lion's Mouth" (2012) and #4 s/b "On the Razor's Edge" (2013).

    http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/f/michael-f-flynn/

  55. HandOfGod137  •  Oct 10, 2013 @1:45 am

    Miéville is great. I have just reread Kraken, which is a worthy successor to the Bas-Lag books.

    For those of us who like our SF hard enough to provide blueprints for functional inertial-suppression technology, Alistair Reynolds is well worth a look. Revelation Space is marvellous, and House of the Suns is astonishing. And check out Greg Egan while you're at it: Diaspora is one of the most jaw-dropping books I have ever read.

  56. launcap  •  Oct 10, 2013 @3:22 am

    I'd *love* to read those books but Amazon (in its infinite wisdom) obviously considers them to advanced to sell in the UK store. And being a poor benighted denizen of these sceptered isles, I'm obviously too far below the notice of that home of All-Holy Capitalism that is the US Amazon website..
    Bah. Regionalism sucks.

  57. G. Filotto  •  Oct 10, 2013 @3:30 am

    Can I send you autographed copies of my two SF books? A review would be amazing since I am a solo guy writing without funding and a 13 hour a day job. And I think you would enjoy the politics and sociology. You can get an idea by googling "Overlords of Mars". And if interested at all, just PM me an address and I'll send you copies. Thanks.

  58. Clark  •  Oct 10, 2013 @3:52 am

    I'd *love* to read those books but Amazon (in its infinite wisdom) obviously considers them to advanced to sell in the UK store.

    Back in the day I would get my Iain Banks and Alastair Reynolds fix 6 months in advance by buying from amazon.co.uk and having them ship here to the States. I imagine the process works in reverse.

  59. Clark  •  Oct 10, 2013 @4:02 am

    @HandOfGod137

    Miéville is great. I have just reread Kraken, which is a worthy successor to the Bas-Lag books.

    For those of us who like our SF hard enough to provide blueprints for functional inertial-suppression technology, Alistair Reynolds is well worth a look. Revelation Space is marvellous, and House of the Suns is astonishing. And check out Greg Egan while you're at it: Diaspora is one of the most jaw-dropping books I have ever read.

    @HandOfGod137 and I don't agree on much, but in this case we do: I endorse every single word of the above.

  60. Tarrou  •  Oct 10, 2013 @5:31 am

    @ Clark, thanks for the link over, that was a great read.

    @ Lizard, I largely agree with your conclusion, I do think he is trying to absolve (dissolve?) the Church of some of the anti-science tar which currently covers it. I disagree that it is completely unreasonable. The church, and indeed any temporal authority (this being long before any division of temporal and spiritual power) should be circumspect in accepting new science. Tradition is powerful, and just because someone thinks you can predict future criminality from the bumps on people's heads doesn't mean the government should start training the cops in phrenology.

    There is a human tendency to demand unreasonable proof for theories they dislike, and lower levels for what they like. One study in the Cultural Cognition project (might have been Kahan) refers to this as the "May I/Must I believe X?" problem. If Flynn's point is that the Catholic Church is not as anti-science as Hitchens thought, I have to agree with him. If it is that the church has always accepted new science as soon as it was reasonable to do so, I disagree.

    and I think your attributed conclusion of

    The Church isn't anti-science, because the only reason they rejected heliocentrism was that it wasn't proven to an unreasonably high degree of certainty

    is damned close to strawman. Science doesn't change overnight, just because someone say something one time. It often takes years, decades, centuries. The comparison is not between the Catholics and a hypothetical computer that changes the "scientific consensus" as soon as it is 1% more likely than the competing theory. It is between Catholics and other people who have the same sort of biases and inertia. If Flynn's goal is to absolve the Church of specific guilt in impeding heliocentrism, he doesn't have to show they accepted it at the same time it became empirically more likely. He only has to show they didn't significantly lag everyone else. I don't think he can do that, but it's worth keeping in mind.

  61. Clark  •  Oct 10, 2013 @6:09 am

    @Tarrou:

    The comparison is not between the Catholics and a hypothetical computer that changes the "scientific consensus" as soon as it is 1% more likely than the competing theory. It is between Catholics and other people who have the same sort of biases and inertia.

    Perfectly said.

    You'd think that an atheist scientismist would understand proper choice of a control group. ;-)

  62. the other rob  •  Oct 10, 2013 @6:29 am

    On Kepler, one of the most gripping and informative books that I read as a boy was The Watershed, a biography of the man and his work.

    I don't remember the author and have no idea whether it's still in print, but can heartily recommend it. Indeed, I may have to search out a copy to re-read myself.

  63. Tarrou  •  Oct 10, 2013 @6:58 am

    @ Clark,

    I would think that, because I am an atheist scientificator. Scientismus. Scientificus! There we go! Just think of me as the Inquisition of Psychology. Here to ensure that the doctrines of our Holy Father Sir Karl Popper are adhered to. Someone fetch me my rack. Not that rack, put your clothes back on, sweetie.

    Do note I'm not defending the Church, I'm defending the process of the guy defending the Church.

  64. the ungoverned  •  Oct 10, 2013 @7:25 am

    Dammit, Clark! How dare you have waited so long to find this for me!

  65. Xenocles  •  Oct 10, 2013 @8:32 am

    I find myself wondering if it really matters why the Church objected to Galileo. The bottom line is that they imprisoned him for what amounted to the crime of pissing off the wrong people, and that imprisonment was a compromise with the accused in exchange for some intellectual concessions. They could have done much worse. That was the norm for people in power back then, but that's hardly a defense for an organization that's supposed to be in touch with the giver of universal and constant moral laws.

    In a certain way it's interesting that the motive for the persecution might have included an interest in scientific rigor, but to be honest the mainstream explanations of preserving religious orthodoxy and political power are far more plausible candidates for the main drivers of what went on there.

  66. CJColucci  •  Oct 10, 2013 @8:41 am

    There were genuine scientific problems with early heliocentrism, just as there were with early Darwinism. The Church's error was not in coming down on the wrong side of a scientific debate, but in thinking it had any business trying to decide it. That, of course, is the modern view, which would have been incomprehensible to the 17th-century Church and many literate 17th-century laypersons. There is much to be learned in studying why the modern view would have been incomprehensible then, and deliberating over the gains and losses of coming to the modern view and rejecting the older view, but we can't really see the rights or wrongs of this with any eyes other than our own.

  67. Tarrou  •  Oct 10, 2013 @12:05 pm

    @ CJColucci

    Keep in mind, in the 17th century, the Catholic Church wore quite a few hats. Temporal ruler of several Italian states, spiritual guide to most of Europe, international trade courts and international scientific consortium. All universities of the day were church institutions. One had to become a member of the clergy, if only a subdeacon, to study anything. The Church was, in fact, the only organization on the planet at the time with a reasonable claim to be able to judge between scientific facts. If not the Church, then who? They were the UN of their day, if the UN actually owned a country or two. The church had more legitimacy to decide such matters than any temporal king, and many of their clergy were deeply involved in scientific matters. It is the nature of power to fill vacuums.

    If you read the story of Galileo as linked, what amazes me is not the capriciousness of power, but the intricate legal framework it all takes place in. The church had a bureaucracy for this. There were investigators and lawyers and panels of experts, witnesses deposed, so on and so forth. That they did not conform to modern norms is not an indictment of their process. It must be viewed within the mileau of the day. Yes it would be capricious and brutal today, but it was measured and temperate by the standards of the time.

  68. Clark  •  Oct 10, 2013 @12:42 pm

    @Tarrou:

    It must be viewed within the mileau of the day. Yes it would be capricious and brutal today

    Would it?

    Seems to me that the Church of the 17th century had a noticeably lighter touch than the US government in the 21st.

  69. Xenocles  •  Oct 10, 2013 @1:04 pm

    Clark-

    Am I wrong for imagining that if the US government:
    -convicted a scientist of thought crime and placed him under house arrest for the rest of his life,
    -forced him under threat of further punishment to recant the offending beliefs, and
    -banned publication of any future work he might do
    you would have one or more scathing blog posts ripping the government about it?

    When the popehat is functionally equivalent to a crown one ought to show it the same disdain.

  70. Burst  •  Oct 10, 2013 @1:51 pm

    I'm a huge fan of Flynn and the January Dancer series. I would characterize it as slow, deep, and beautiful. If the depth and beauty don't assuage the slowness for you, it won't work for you.

    I really enjoy the way he exemplifies the ideas quoted here by creating myths out of our modern scientific heroes.

  71. Tarrou  •  Oct 10, 2013 @3:00 pm

    @ Clark,

    Yes, yes it would. And what they did to Galileo was moderated by the fact that he had powerful patrons, was well regarded by about half the clergy and was quite famous. One need not look far for those less fortunate than he when crossing the office of the Holy Inquisitor.

  72. CJColucci  •  Oct 10, 2013 @4:35 pm

    Tarrou:
    I don't disagree with you. That's largely why the "modern view" would have been almost literally unthinkable back then. As you say, "The Church was, in fact, the only organization on the planet at the time with a reasonable claim to be able to judge between scientific facts. If not the Church, then who?" The answer "How about nobody?" would have seemed absurd then. Now it doesn't.

  73. Rich Rostrom  •  Oct 10, 2013 @4:44 pm

    HISTORY MUST BE CURVED, for there is a horizon in the affairs of mankind. Beyond this horizon, events pass out of historical consciousness and into myth. Accounts are shortened, complexities sloughed off, analogous figures fused, traditions “abraded into anecdotes.”

    This immediately invoked the following quote from one of my favorite authors.

    Were there eight kings of the name of Henry in England, or were there eighty? Never mind; someday it will be recorded that there was only one, and the attributes of all of them will be combined into his compressed and consensus story.
    — R. A. Lafferty, And Read the Flesh Between the Lines

  74. Clark  •  Oct 10, 2013 @6:23 pm

    Were there eight kings of the name of Henry in England, or were there eighty? Never mind; someday it will be recorded that there was only one, and the attributes of all of them will be combined into his compressed and consensus story.
    — R. A. Lafferty, And Read the Flesh Between the Lines

    Genius.

  75. Tarrou  •  Oct 10, 2013 @8:27 pm

    If there's one thing that springs to mind when thinking of King Henry, "compressed" doesn't make the cut.

  76. launcap  •  Oct 11, 2013 @3:16 am

    >> I'd *love* to read those books but Amazon (in its infinite wisdom)
    >>obviously considers them to advanced to sell in the UK store.

    >Back in the day I would get my Iain Banks and Alastair Reynolds fix 6 >months in advance by buying from amazon.co.uk and having them >ship here to the States. I imagine the process works in reverse.

    I used to do likewise (buy SF books from Amazon.com via surface mail (6 weeks delivery) and making sure I ordered regularly enough that I had a good stream of books arriving. This was in the mid-90's (well before amazon.co.uk opened)!
    Now, amazon.com refuses to allow my UK delivery address and pushes me to the amazon.co.uk site even if it doesn't have the books concerned. And don't get me started on regionalisation of e-book sales!

    Ho hum. Such is life.

  77. Darryl S  •  Oct 11, 2013 @10:07 am

    Having read the article series one-and-a-half times (I found it interesting but, frankly, hard to follow in places, and need a re-read to absorb some bits), it doesn't really strike me as a defense of the Catholic church.

    The main take-aways that I get are:
    1) The disagreements among scientists/philosophers between heliocentrism and geocentrism were complicated, and, in the context of the knowledge and mindset of the age, fairly reasonable. At least, as reasonable as the battles that occur every time scientific consensus shifts.
    2) The church's punishment of Galileo was for reasons much more complicated than "The church thinks heliocentrism is a lie". Political and interpersonal factors were major factors, as they are in most things.

    None of this seems to be a defense of the church. It doesn't deny that Galileo was imprisoned for heresy, and it doesn't argue that imprisonment for heresy is just and moral. If anything, it suggests that Galileo's imprisonment was arbitrary and unfair because the church did not act consistently and allowed itself to be swayed by external factors. What the article does do is add depth beyond "The church hates science and progress".

    An analogy: Imagine that I make the claim that John set his neighbour Jack's house on fire because his Jack blew his leaves into John's yard. Someone else comes along and says "Well, actually, those two have been feuding for ten years. Who knows who started it; they're both stubborn and combative jerks, and it's been steadily escalating. It was bound to boil over sooner or later". The precipitating factor is still the leaf-blowing, and John still committed arson. But the story is more nuanced than the headline "Man burns down neighbour's house in leaf-blowing dispute!"

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