Kanye West & Galileo

Kanye West’s recent interview on Jimmy Kimmel Live took an unexpected turn when West invoked Galileo, implying that they were both misunderstood geniuses who wouldn’t be silenced by bullies telling them what to think. West was responding to Kimmel, who had asked about West’s views on the president.[1] I’m not interested West’s opinions about the president. I am, however, fascinated by his use of history.

In a long, meandering reply that didn’t actually answer Kimmel’s almost question—“Do you like…? Do you think he is a good president?”[2]—West seemed to be saying that he, West, was a free thinker and that he would not be told by anybody what to think. A minute or two into his reply, West enlisted Galileo as predecessor and partner in resisting the thought police and societal oppression:

Kanye West invokes Galileo to justify his free thinking.

[West] Right or wrong or even if I changed my mind about it[3] or thought about it more, which I’m not saying I did, just place a thought out there that everyone’s not thinking sometimes. Galileo, they wanted to chop his head off for saying that…the earth uh that, what did he say?, the the the sun revolves around the earth or vice versa …. So when you have modern, futuristic ….

[Kimmel] But the sun…but…but the sun…

[West] I’m not concerned about specifics sir.

Here’s the audio of that portion, if you want to hear it:

Wow. Let’s pause for a moment and process West’s hesitation. He stumbled over whether the earth revolves around the sun or the sun around the earth. That’s not history. That’s not science. That’s just basic life. So basic, in fact, that I can’t excuse West’s uncertainty as a nervous misstep.

Invoking Galileo as some martyr for free and rational thinking who stood up to the dogmatic, oppressive Church that wanted to execute him is nothing new. But usually people who conjure up the ghost of Galileo know that Galileo espoused and argued vigorously for the Copernican, heliocentric system, the model in which the earth revolves around the sun. And while we no longer think the sun is stationary, we still accept today the core features of the Copernican system as valid and verifiable (as Kimmel seemed to be fumbling towards saying). And usually people who invoke Galileo do so because, they typically claim, they are concerned about the specifics. Galileo got it right, as the evidence we have today demonstrates. Those specifics usually matter.

But as West says, the specifics don’t matter to him. History, after all, is holding “us back as a race of beings:”[4]

I think people focus too much on the past and focus too much on regret. Even like when you deal with schools, you take like my slave idea. My my point is I’ve heard of history class. I’ve never heard of a class that breaks down how you, ya know, balance a checkbook or how you control your finances, which uh my father never taught me that, and I’ve never heard of a future class. So they keep us so focused on history that we start to believe that it actually repeats itself and we become overly traditional and we can’t advance as a race of beings. We get too caught up in the past and what everyone’s saying and what everyone’s tweeting ….

I have a different idea here, one I’m going to place out there even if everyone’s not thinking it: History does matter. And paying attention in history class, not just hearing “of history class” but listing in history class, matters.[5] And history classes are not the problem. Focusing on history doesn’t convince us that history “actually repeats itself” and prevents us from “advanc[ing] as a race of beings.” No, ignoring history, thinking history and historical facts are infinitely malleable or that the specifics don’t matter, that’s the danger that prevents us from “advanc[ing] as a race of beings.”[6] Such willful ignorance, such open rejection of history empowers factions in society to “become overly traditional,” because once you deny history, society can and will continually make up whatever tradition that suits its immediate needs. Winston’s dystopian future will become our present:

All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary.

History matters, as West instinctively realizes in his use (and abuse) of it to validate and justify his own position, because of the specifics. Once we lose the details, the historical facts and the evidence, then we’re just making stuff up.

If for some reason you want to watch more of the interview, this search should produce a link to the YouTube video.

  1. Unlike West’s response, Kimmel’s question about the president was anything but unexpected.  ↩

  2. West said he was going to answer the question Kimmel was going to ask but didn’t, the question about liking the president.  ↩

  3. I.e., West’s ideas and opinions about the president.  ↩

  4. The irony of his having just deployed one of the more famous episodes in Western history to support him and his position seems to have been lost on West.  ↩

  5. Yes, other classes matter too. And yes, West is right, classes on basic economics and finances are worthwhile (and offered in many schools and colleges).  ↩

  6. I need to point out that I have no idea what West means by “advance as a race of beings,” especially the retro–1950s, invaders from another planet “race of beings” bit.  ↩

Στοιχειωματικοὶ were casters of something

As progress continues on Ptolemy’s  Ὁ Καρπός I find myself confronting more and more questions that E. Boer’s critical edition does not and cannot answer.[1] Some of these questions are small and probably of interest only to a sliver of scholars. Other seem a bit broader, such as: How did the talented humanist, scholar, and bibliophile Johannes Sambucus make sense of aphorism 21 since one of his copies encouraged him to consider when the moon is in Cancer or Pisces and yet his other copy told him to consider when the moon is in Scorpio or Pisces (as we read in Boer’s edition)?[2] How did he decide which copy to trust, assuming he read and understood either?

Sambucus’s two versions of Aphorism 21
ÖNB Manuscript Greek English
Cod. Phil. gr. 37 τῆς «σελήνης» οὔσης ἐν τῷ «καρκινῳ» ἢ τοῖς «ἰχθύσι» καὶ τοῦ κυρίου τοῦ ὡροσκόπου συνάπτοντος ἀστέρι ὑπὸ γῆν ὄντι, … When the moon is in Cancer or Pisces and the lord of the ascendent is in conjunction with a star under the earth,…
Cod. Phil. gr. 49 Τῆσ «σελήνης» οὔσησ ἐν τῷ «Σκορπίῳ» ἢ τοῖσ «Ἰχθύσι» καὶ τοῦ κυρίου τοῦ ὡροσκόπου συνάπτοντοσ ἀστέρι ὑπὸ γῆν ὄντι, … When the moon is in Scorpio or Pisces and the lord of the ascendent is in conjunction with a star under the earth,…

Or, for another example, how should we proceed when Boer claims that all Greek copies lack aphorism 98 and so includes that aphorism from the Latin tradition (“hic aphorismus in omnibus codicibus Graecis nunc deest, supplevi ex Lat.”) and yet many Greek manuscripts do have an aphorism 98 (though not the one Boer supplies). Are we to assume that readers of these Greek copies somehow knew that they were missing aphorism 98 (despite having one in the 98th position)? I have yet to find any evidence that early readers thought their copy was missing aphorism 98 (and none that don’t have 100 aphorisms).[3]

At the same time I am confronting other questions about how to translate certain expressions and terms. Some of these translation issues I’ve recognized as I work through the aphorisms the first time (e.g., καταντήματοϲ). Other translation issues I’ve realized as I go back and polish my translation. Recently, when looking back over some early aphorisms, I encountered just such an issue with a particular term: στοιχειωματικοὶ.

At first glance, οἱ στοιχειωματικοὶ is not a problematic term. Liddell and Scott are clear: “persons who cast nativities from the signs of the Zodiac.” They even cite aphorism 9 of Ptolemy’s Ὁ Καρπός as an example. Good. Done. But then I came across an older article by C. Blum that seemed relevant: “The Meaning of στοιχεῖον and Its Derivatives in the Byzantine Age. A Study in Byzantine Magic.” Starting from an analysis of texts about Apollonius of Tyana (who was famous for making talismans) and moving from there to a number of related texts, Blum argues forcefully that “στοιχειοῦν was a technical term for the practices Apollonius, and that, accordingly, στοιχειωματικός was the professional name for such a man” (316). In other words, a στοιχειωματικός made talismans. Blum too refers to aphorism 9 of Ptolemy’s Ὁ Καρπός in the end, saying that with his definition of στοιχειωματικός

we are able to understand a disputed passage, viz. Pseudo-Ptolemæus Centiloquium, edition of 1553, p. 214: Τὰ ἐν τῇ γενέσει καὶ φθορᾷ εἴδη πάσχει ὑπὸ τῶν οὐρανίων εἰδῶν. διὰ τοῦτο χρῶνται τούτοις οἱ στοιχειωματικοὶ , τὰς ἐπεμβάσεις τῶν ἀστέρων σκοποῦντες ἐπ᾽αὐτά (324)

I find Blum’s argument powerful if not entirely persuasive. Στοιχειωματικοί is used only once in the Ὁ Καπρός, so there’s no easy way to compare its possible meanings across examples. I’ve not yet done enough work to see if it is always linked to magic and talismans, as Blum argues is the case. And simply because στοιχειωματικοὶ could describe a maker of talismans doesn’t demonstrate that it always and only identified such a person (to be clear, Blum argues for such a unique connection). Different versions of the Latin Centiloquium as well as many English translations accept that aphorism 9 is about people who “frame of images” (typically glossed as makers of talismans). The one Greek copy I have found with a Latin gloss does not clarify things much (BnF gr. 2180).

Accepting Blum’s authority (and the widespread conviction that aphorism 9 is about talismans), I have tentatively adjusted my translation to be:

Curent working translation of Aphorism 9
Aphorism Greek English
9 Τὰ ἐν τῇ γενέσει καὶ φθορᾷ εἴδη πάσχει ὑπὸ τῶν οὐρανίων εἰδῶν. καὶ διὰ τοῦτο χρῶνται οἱ στοιχειοματικοὶ τούτοισ, τὰϲ ἐπεμβάσεισ τῶν ἀστέρων ^σκοποῦντεσ ἐπ᾽αὐτήν ἐπ’αὐτά. In their generation and corruption [terrestrial] forms are affected by the celestial forms. And for this reason casters of nativities makers of talismans consult them by examining the ingresses of the stars into them.

I still need to do more work to convince myself that Blum’s translation applies here, so I reserve the right to revise and change my mind in the future. Stay tuned (if you’re a total nerd).

  1. This is not a criticism of Boer’s edition, which is excellent, but rather a concern about critical editions in general. Boer made a number of editorial choices that rendered the text homogenous and unproblematic. In the process, the text loses features and difficulties that earlier readers had to confront. The critical apparatus with its daunting and cumbersome (and therefore exclusionary) system of symbols and multiple footnote streams does little to restore those features if for no other reason than few people make the effort to use the critical apparatus to reconstruct variations in the manuscript. It’s too much of a pain. My concerns about critical editions are not new (and this footnote is not the place to rehearse and discuss them, but don’t be surprised if in the near future I spend considerable time and space thinking aloud about them), but I don’t think scholarship has yet taken those concerns seriously and tried to address them, whether in traditional print form or through dynamic digital publications.  ↩

  2. Sambucus’s contemporary Augerius von Busbeck also had a copy of Ptolemy’s Ὁ Καρπός that included the same wording. Busbeck purchased a fifteenth-century copy in sixteenth-century in Constantinople and brought back to Vienna.  ↩

  3. There’s a related issue in aphorism 100 in Boer’s edition. A number of the Greek copies divide Boer’s aphorism 100 into multiple aphorisms with no evidence that they thought these aphorisms should be combined into a single one.  ↩

Galilean Moon Crackers

Wandering through Trader Joe’s this morning, I stumbled across an excellent and under explored career for historians of science: marketing and advertising.

Picking up some snacks, I noticed the Cheddar Rocket Crackers. In typical Trader Joe’s fashion, the package combined a bit of a goofy aesthetic with retro images.

Trader Joe’s retro-History of Science style advertising on these Cheddar Rocket Crackers is great.

Brilliant! Why, I thought, not use other history of science related themes to sell products. I glanced in my basket and noticed a perfect candidate for some history of science. Trader Joe’s, you’ve totally missed an opportunity with your Half Moon Cookies.

Trader Joe’s Half Moon Cookies are good, but they could be so much better with a better name.

You should label them Galilean Moon Cookies. I’ve corrected your packaging to help you see what this should look like and so you understand that it is a better name for these cookies.

Trader Joe’s Galilean Moon Cookies are much, much better than those half moon knockoffs.

Feel free to contact me, Trader Joe’s, if you want me to explain how other products would benefit from a history of science makeover, e.g., your Electric Buzz Coffee Cups are crying out for some history of science attention.

More Ὁ Καρπός Fun

Here is the next group of ten aphorisms, 21–30, from the copy of Ptolemy’s Ὁ Καρπός in BNF gr. 2180. Idiosyncrasies continue to be the norm. As is common in this text, along with the orthographic tendency to reflect pronunciation, these aphorisms often lack words and include numerous errors (usually in grammatical case). Interestingly, the later reader who added the Latin gloss tended to add the correct case. Along with the Latin translations he adds, it seems like he was copying the Latin from another text rather than translating directly from the Greek.[1]

Folio 91v from BNF gr. 2180, aphorisms 18–34.

Here is an initial translation.

Translation of Aphorisms 21–30 from BNF 2180
Aphorism BNF gr. 2180 Translation
κα’ Τῆϲ [σελήνης] οὔσηϲ ἐν τῷ [Σκορπίῳ] ἢ ἐν [Ἰχθύσι] καὶ τοῦ κυρίου τοῦ ὡροσκόπου συνάπτοντοϲ ἀστέρει ὑπὸ γῆν ὄντι, ἀγαθὸν καθαρσίοισ χρᾶσθαι· εἰ δὲ συνάπτει ἀστέρι ὑπὲρ γῆν ὄντι, ἐμέσει τὸ καθάρσιον ὁ πιών. When the moon is in Scorpio or in Pisces and the lord of the ascendent is in conjunction with a star that is under the earth, the purge will work well; but if it is in conjunction with a star that is above the earth, he having drunk the purgative will vomit it up.
κβ’ Μὴ χρῶ μήτε μὴν κόψεισ ἱμάτιον τῆσ [σελήνης] οὔσηϲ ἐν τῷ λέοντι. εἰ δὲ κεκακομένη ἐστὶν, μεῖζον τὸ κακὸν, καὶ χείριστον τὸ ἐνεργουμενον. Do not use or above all cut clothes when the moon is in Leo. And if it becomes unpropitious, the ill effect is greater, and the work will be worse.
κγ’ Ὁ σχηματισμὸϲ τῆσ [σελήνης] πρὸσ τοὺϲ ἀστέραϲ εὐκίνητον τὸν γενώμενον ποίει, καὶ εἴ μὲν δυνατοὶ ὑπάρχουσιν οἱ ἀστέρεσ, δηλοῦσιν ἐπιτευτικὴν τὴν κίνησιν. εἰ δ᾽ ἀσθενεῖσ, ἄπρακτον. The configuration of the moon to the stars makes the Native easily moved [fickle? changeable?], and if the stars are powerful, they indicate a favorable change. But if weak, unfavorable.
κδ’ Ἡ ἔκλειψις τῶν φώτων ἐν τοῖϲ κέντροισ τοῖϲ γενεθληακοῖς γινωμένοιϲ ἢ τοῖϲ τῶν ἐναλαγῶν τῶν ἐτῶν ^βλαβερά λάμβανε δὲ τὸν τόπον ἐκ τῆϲ μεταξὺ διαστάσεωϲ τοῦ ὡροσκόπου καὶ τοῦ τόπου τῆϲ ἐκλείψεωϲ. καὶ ὥσπερ λαμβάνεισ τοὺϲ χρόνουϲ ἀπὸ τῆσ ὥραϲ τῆσ ἐκλείψεωσ, οὕτωϲ καὶ τοὺς μῆναϲ ἀπὸ τοῦ τόπου τῆϲ σεληνιακῆσ ἐκλείψεως. The eclipse of the luminaries occurring in cardinal points of the nativity or in those of the revolutions of the years is harmful. But take the place from the interval between the ascendent and the place of the eclipse. And just as you take the time from the hour of the eclipse, thus also the month from the place of the lunar eclipse.
κε’ Ποίει τὸν περίπατον τοῦ ἐπικρατήτοροϲ, ὅτε ἐστὶν ἐν τῷ μεσουρανήμα, διὰ τῶν ἀναφορῶν τῆϲ ὀρθῆϲ σφαίραϲ, ὅτε δέ ἐστιν ἐν τῷ ὡροσκόπῳ, διὰ τῶν ἀναφορῶν τοῦ κλίματοϲ. Make the progression of the ruling planet, when it is at the zenith, by the rising of the right sphere, when it is at the ascendent, by the rising of the clime.
κϛ’ Κρύπτηται πάλιν τὸ πρᾶγμα, ὅταν ὁ δηλὸν αὐτὸσ ἀστὴρ συνοδεύει τῷ ἡλίῳ ἢ ὑπὸ γῆν ἢ ἐν ἀνοικείῳ τόπῳ. φανερὸν δέ ἅρα τὸ πρᾶγμα, ὅταν δὲ ἐκ ταπεινώματοϲ ἀναφέρηται ἐπὶ τὸ ὕψωμα καὶ ὑπάρχει ἐν οἰκείῳ τόπῳ. The matter is again concealed, whenever the star signifying it is itself in conjunction with the sun either under the earth or not in its own domicile. But the matter is manifest, whenever it is brought back from its dejection to its exaltation and is in its own house.
κζ’ Ἡ Ἀφροδίτῃ περιποιεῖται τὸ γεννωμένῳ ἡδονὴν, οὗ κυριεύει τὸ ζῴδιον, ἐν ᾧ ὑπάρχει· τὸ δὲ αὐτὸ καὶ ἐπὶ τῶν λοιπῶν ἀστέρων νόει. Venus preserves for the Native pleasure [in that part of the body] that the sign in which it [Venus] is rules. And understand the same thing for the remaining stars.
κη’ Ὅτε οὐ δυνηθεῖς ποῖησαι συνοδεύειν τὴν [σελήνην] δυσίν ἄστροις, ποίησον ταύτην συνοδέβειν τινὶ ἀπλανὴ κρᾶσιν ἔχοντι τουτῶν. When you are not able make the moon conjoin with the two stars, make it conjoin with a fixed one having their disposition.
κθ’ Οἱ ἀπλανεῖϲ ἀστέρεσ παρέχουσιν εὐτυχίαϲ ἀλόγων καὶ παραδόξων, ἀλλ’ ὡϲ ἐπὶ τὸ πλεῖστον ἐπισφραγίζουσιν ταύταϲ δυϲτυχίαϲ εἰ μὴ καὶ οἱ πλανηται τη εὐτυχια συνοδευσιν. The fixed stars bestow unexpected and surprising successes, but for the most part they confirm these ill fortunes unless the planets conform to the success.
λ’ Ἰδὲ ἐν ταῖϲ ἀναγορεύσεσιν τῶν βασιλέων· εἰ συμφωνεῖ ὡ ὁρωσκόποϲ τῆσ γενήσεωϲ τοῦ παιδὸϲ τοῦ βασιλέως, γενήσηται ὁ τοιοῦτος διάδοχοϲ τῆϲ βασιλείαϲ. As for the proclamations of kings[2], if the ascendent of the king’s son’s birth is suitable, such a son will become the successor of the kingdom. [3]

Looking at aphorism 30, we can see how this copy is unique and lacking some helpful words, at least when compared to the edition.

Aphorism 30 from BNF gr. 2180 and the Critical Edition
BNF gr. 2180 Edition Translation
Ἰδὲ ἐν ταῖϲ ἀναγορεύσεσιν τῶν βασιλέων· εἰ συμφωνεῖ ὡ ὁρωσκόποϲ τῆσ γενήσεωϲ τοῦ παιδὸϲ τοῦ βασιλέως, γενήσηται ὁ τοιοῦτος διάδοχοϲ τῆϲ βασιλείαϲ. Ἰδὲ ἐν ταῖς ἀναγορεύσεσι τῶν βασιλέων· εἰ συμφωνεῖ ὁ ὡροσκόπος τῆς ἀναγορεύσεως τῷ ὡροσκόπῳ τῆς γεννήσεως τοῦ παιδὸς τοῦ βασιλέως, γενήσεται ὁ τοιοῦτος διάδοχος τῆς βασιλείας. As for the proclamations of the kings, if the ascendent of the time of the proclamation harmonizes with the ascendent of time of the birth of the emperor’s son, then such a son will become successor of the kingdom.

The version in the edition helps make sense of the aphorism. As it turns out, aphorism 30 varies quite a lot from copy to copy. A quick look at three other copies, two 15th-century copies and a 16th-century copy, all differ from each other in notable ways:

Variants of Aphorism 30 in Four Different Manuscripts
BNF gr. 2180 Harley MS 5597 BNF gr. 2027 BNF Coislin 338
Ἰδὲ ἐν ταῖϲ ἀναγορεύσεσιν τῶν βασιλέων· εἰ συμφωνεῖ ὡ ὁρωσκόποϲ τῆσ γενήσεωϲ τοῦ παιδὸϲ τοῦ βασιλέως, γενήσηται ὁ τοιοῦτος διάδοχοϲ τῆϲ βασιλείαϲ. Ἰδὲ ἐν ταῖϲ ἀναγορεύσεσι τῶν βασιλέων εἰ συμφωνεῖ ὁ ὁρωσκόπος τῆς ἀναγορεύσεως τῷ ὡροσκόπῳ τῆσ βασιλείας ἐκεὶνης. ἐιδὲ ἐν ταῖσ ἀπαρχαῖσ τοῦ γένουσ ἀναγορεύουσι τῶν βασιλέων καὶ εἰ συμφωνεῖ ὁ ὡροσκόπος τῆσ ἀναγορευσεως τῶ ὡροσκόπῳ τῆσ γεννήσεως τοῦ παιδόσ τοῦ βασιλέως, γενήσηται διάδοχοσ οὗτος τῆς βασιλείας. ἰδὲ ἐν ταῖσ ἀπαρχαῖσ ἀναγορεύσεσι τοῦ γένους τῶν βασιλέων, καὶ εἰ συμφωνεῖ ὁ ὡροσκόπος τῆσ ἀναγορευσεως τῶ ὡροσκόπῳ τῆσ γεννήσεως τοῦ παιδόσ τοῦ βασιλέως, γενήσηται ὁ τοιοῦτος διάδοχος τοῦ βασιλέως.

Such variations and the inferences needed to make sense of the aphorism raise questions about the authority and use of the edition. What goal does the edition hope to achieve? Many early readers encountered a text that was at times very different from the version in the critical edition. And watching our reader gloss BNF gr. 2180, at times those differences caused him to understand that aphorism in markedly different (if not incompatible) ways. What do we lose by relying on the edition? To be sure, we can only in lucky instances know which edition an early reader encountered (this is certainly true in the manuscript tradition and probably more common than we acknowledge during the early printed period). Such worries are not new. And I don’t have solutions to the problems those worries present. But I think it’s worth remembering that editions are problematic. I also think it’s worth remembering that we should not defer to editions merely because they are handy (and easy to read in modern type) or because by invoking the name of some erudite scholar and the imprimatur of an expensive press project some authority.

  1. At the moment this is no more than a hunch. Time and energy permitting, I’ll compare his Latin with typical printed copies to see if they correspond to each other. It is, of course, possible that he was copying from a manuscript copy, in which case finding it seems rather improbable.  ↩

  2. Here “ἀναγόρευσις/ἀναγορεύω” (i.e., “proclamation”) should probably be understood as the time when the king (or emperor) was officially named or crowned.  ↩

  3. This translates the aphorism as it is, which varies markedly from the version in the edition.  ↩

Flat Earth Belief ≠ Neo-Medievalism

Paula Simons has no patience for people who believe that the earth is flat, and she is particularly upset, it seems, that Edmonton is hosting the first Flat Earth International Conference: “No Getting Around the Absurdity of Edmonton’s Flat Earth Conference.” She dismisses “flat earthers” as delusional conspiracy theorists, reasonably benign if you don’t think too long on the broader consequences that generally accompany conspiracy theories, e.g. dogmatic rejection of evidence as evidence; unassailable, baroque,[1] labyrinthine theories (probably with minotaurs lurking in the center); rejection of expertise as nothing more than some state sponsored system of oppression seeking to silence free thinking and expression. Such conspiracy theories, she rightly worries, are facilitated by the dissemination of information (false and true) on the internet.

We need only to poke a few buttons on our portable phones to find the most reliable, credible scientific data, in real time…. Alongside all the “real” information?[sic] We have an equal mass of junk knowledge. Just as it’s never been easier to find the truth, it’s never been easier to spread a lie. Or a fairy tale.

Her observation is as true for “credible scientific data” as it is for credible historical information. And here is where Simons goes horribly off the rails. Aping uncritically a common “fairy tale” she claims that since 2015 “flat earthers” have been using the internet to promote “neo-medievalism.”

I’ve said this before, a bunch of times, but just to be clear here: the belief in a flat earth is NOT a medieval belief. And so the current beliefs about a flat earth are not “renaissance” or any other sort of revival of earlier beliefs.

People in the middle ages did not believe in a flat earth nor did they subscribe to uncritical, irrational conspiracy theories about the natural world. Moreover, they did not, during the Middle Ages, reject “science,” though their science certainly looked different from ours. I fail to see, then, how the flat earther conspiracy Simons worries about has anything in common with the middle ages. Like so many people before her who have relied on “junk knowledge,” Simons is “spread[ing] a lie” that has the quality of truthiness but not of truth. The flat earth conspiracy is not an example of neo-medievalism except insofar as people ignorant of the Middle Ages invoke the period as a slur to attack opinions they dislike (Simons claim that it’s a neo-medievalism tells us more about her prejudices and ignorance than it does about either the flat earthers or the middle ages).

If you are going to criticize people for not respecting expertise, for ignoring credible and real information, for spreading lies and fairy tales, then you have an obligation to respect expertise, to seek credible and real information, and not to spread lies and fairy tales. To be sure, Simons parroting of the medieval origins of a flat earth is “relatively benign,” but ultimately undermines her efforts to defend expertise and jeopardizes her attack on “flat earthers.” If she can’t get her facts right, why should anybody listen to her?


As a sort of postscript, I’m intrigued by her childhood experiences.

She opens by saying

So. When I was a kid, if you called someone a “flat earther” that meant that they were kind of, you know, deluded, silly. I mean, to call someone a “flat earther” was to suggest that they believe in the most impossible thing imaginable …

She must have grown up in a rough neighborhood, slinging insults like “flat earther” around. I’m imagining roving bands of hooligans with heliocentric tattoos, perhaps the Semmelweis and the Koch gangs embroiled in a biological turf war, while disaffected Mendelians lurked in doorways and alleys armed with peashooters. She probably also called kids Lamarckians and Tychonics and maybe even phlogistonists.

  1. Note, I intentionally did not use the adjective Byzantine, since that wrongly denigrates the Byzantine period/empire.  ↩