Category: Historical Expertise

These posts highlight the ways people deny historical expertise and the problems that result.

“Nothing New” is “Really Bad”

In their impressive compilation of Assyrian and Babylonian medical fragments JoAnn Scurlock and Burton R. Andersen remark about the āšipu: “like intellectuals everywhere, it was not possible for him to approach a medical problem without bringing to it a bit of preconceived theory.”[1] Their observation holds true for modern intellectuals (in this case, a psychologist and a psychiatrist) just as it did for the magico-medical āšipu, as the recent “Nothing New under the Sun: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders in the Ancient World” demonstrates. When I tweeted about this article a few days ago, I assumed it was another attempt to foist our comfortable diagnostic categories onto the past.

My skeptical tweet about this article.
My skeptical tweet about this article.

Although efforts to retrodiagnose diseases have a long pedigree, they remain fraught with difficulties.[2] Historians of medicine have argued that such efforts are fundamentally flawed, mistaking ontological categories and distorting evidence for modern purposes.[3] Along with such theoretical challenges, attempts to identify in past descriptions of symptoms our modern diseases run into the problem of evidence: the historical record is often too fragmentary and ambiguous and imprecise to justify such identification. Or rather, any number of diagnoses are plausible given the vague and patchy descriptions of illnesses in the past. These difficulties, however, seem to be no impediment for the determined “scissors-and-paste” researcher armed with a pair of sharp Metzenbaums and ready to excise choice quotations in an effort to demonstrate the timeless truths of our current knowledge.

In some ways, “Nothing New Under the Sun” confirmed my suspicions; in other ways it surpassed my wildest fears. The authors brought their preconceived theory to bear on six Assyrian medical fragments and discovered exactly what they sought: PTSD.[4] Where the article broke new ground, however, was its scholarship: the deeply problematic footnotes and the misleading interpretation of what other scholars had written. I checked the two sources readily available to me—A. Leo Oppenheim’s Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization (Chicago, 1977) and JoAnn Scurlock and Burton R. Andersen, Diagnoses in Assyrian and Babylonian Medicine (Urbana, 2005)—and found a number of problems. I appreciate that these are significant charges, so I offer below a catalog of the issues I consider problematic. If my interpretation of these examples is wrong, please correct me.[5]

On page 551, the authors stake their claim that “Mesopotamian sources mention earlier cases of Post-Traumatic Stress” and refer to the cuneiform texts:

Almost half a million cuneiform tablets written by the ancient Iraqis from that time until the birth of Christ have been discovered to date.[footnote 9: Jean Bottéro, Everyday Life in Ancient Mesopotamia (Edinburgh, 2001), 90] Several hundred of these tablets comprise medical texts, mainly consisting of handbooks and collections of prescriptions.[footnote 10: A. Leo Oppenheim’s Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization (Chicago, 1977), 294]

Page 294 Oppenheim’s Ancient Mesopotamia makes no reference to cuneiform texts, per se.

Page 294 of Oppenheim doesn’t say anything about cuneiform texts or how many might deal with medicine.
Page 294 of Oppenheim doesn’t say anything about cuneiform texts or how many might deal with medicine.

The last part of the paragraph, highlighted above, however, is a quotation from page 289 in Oppenheim’s book, though the authors never cite 289. There Oppenheim refers to the types of medical texts but not the number:

Our knowledge of the nature and the extent of Mesopotamian medicine is based on medical texts, consisting of handbooks and collections of prescriptions, supplemented by letters, references in the law codes, and allusions in literary texts.

Back to “Nothing New,” on page 552 we read:

The Ancient Mesopotamians believed that many diseases were punishments from the God(s) because of the patients’ sins or shortcomings.[footnote 13 here adds some information about Mesopotamian dynasties, not the claim just made.[6]] Leo Oppenheim suggested that the Gods, in their turn, allowed demons or ghosts of dead people to attack the sick person. The treatment of disease was holistic and usually involved a combination of religious-magical and pharmacological treatments. The cuneiform tablets discovered from the era suggest the presence of the two different professions that were necessary in order to perform diagnosis and treatment.[footnote 14: Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia, 294]

While it is unclear to me where or if Oppenheim supports any of these claims, it is clear that page 294 does not corroborate them.

On page 554, the authors assert that trauma was commonplace in Mesopotamia, and that most of our medical texts on trauma concern war wounds:

More specifically, trauma was also commonplace in Iraq’s ancient civilizations. This involved not only traumata associated with daily life, industry and farming, but also traumata associated with warfare. Ašipu seemed to be working with armies, particularly in the Assyrian period (between 1300–609 BC). The majority of cuneiform medical texts on trauma were concerned with war wounds.[footnote 29: Scurlock and Andersen, Diagnoses, 345.]

Their source here, Scurlock and Andersen, do mention trauma and warfare on page 345 of their book, where they say: “The armies of Assyrian kings contemporary with the bulk of the surviving medical texts were protected by shields, ….” In other words, most of our medical texts come from a period when armies had shields, helmets, and suits of armor. It seems a rather significant misreading to say “the majority of cuneiform medical texts on trauma were concerned with war wounds.” Maybe there is another source that backs up the claim made in “Nothing New,” but the page cited in Scurlock and Andersen doesn’t.

Page 345 in Scurlock and Andersen doesn’t seem to say what “Nothing New” thinks it does.
Page 345 in Scurlock and Andersen doesn’t seem to say what “Nothing New” thinks it does.

Further down the same page, “Nothing New” refers to the frequency of wars during the Assyrian period:

However, because of the frequent wars during the Assyrian period, the male population of the kingdom was exposed to significant trauma associated with the battles being fought in every third year during their military service. It was this engagement in regular fighting (which the military would describe nowadays as being high “op-tempo”[footnote 33: C.A. Castro and A.B. Adler, “OPTEMPO: Effects on Soldier and Unit Readiness,” Parameters (Autumn 1999), 86–95.]) that was probably the main cause of post-traumatic stress disorders.[footnote 34: Scurlock and Andersen, Diagnoses, 438]

The causal, “because of the frequent wars during the Assyrian period,” is again a rather significant misreading (over interpretation grounded in a preconceived theory?) of Scurlock and Andersen, who qualify their interpretation in two ways, saying: “in periods when [my emphasis] wars were frequent, a significant portion of the male population was subjected to the stress of battle in one campaign season out of every three” and “…it is likely that a portion of these draftees [my emphasis] experienced battle fatigue (post-traumatic stress syndrome)” (438).

Turning now to the evidence itself, the authors of “Nothing New” write:

Scurlock and Andersen mention three cases which they found in the series of diagnostic and prognostics.[footnote 35: Ibid. [Scurlock and Andersen, Diagnoses], 351. See René Labat, Traité akkadien de diagnostics et prognostics médicaux (Leiden, 1951).] They describe post-traumatic stress disorders as mental health manifestations of severe mental and/or physical (traumatic) stress that does not usually cause the death of the patient:[footnote 36: Scurlock and Andersen, Diagnoses, 351.]
14.34 “If his words are unintelligible for three days […][footnote 37: Square brackets denote broken entries or texts (Scurlock and Andersen, Diagnoses,
576).] his mouth [F…] and he experiences wandering about for three days in a row F…1.”
14.35 “He experiences wandering about (for three) consecutive (days)”; this means: “he experiences alteration of mentation (for three) consecu- tive (days).”
14.36 “If his words are unintelligible and depression keeps falling on him at regular intervals (and he has been sick) for three days F…]”

The text cited in footnote 36, Scurlock and Andersen, Diagnoses, 351, does discuss post-traumatic stress syndrome, but qualifies it saying the “quotes below may [my emphasis] be describing this syndrome [PTSD].” The careful qualification has been lost in “Nothing New.” Further, the highlighted section above is a word-for-word quotation without quotation marks.

Note 37 is wrong. The explanation of square brackets on page 576 refers to the tables that follow, not the translations of the texts. Square brackets and ellipsis in the translations are explained on page xvi: “An ellipsis in square brackets indicates a missing section of text whose restoration is uncertain” (Scurlock and Andersen, Diagnoses, xvi). These unrestored parts of the translation further highlight the fragmentary nature of the texts.[7]

Moving on, “Nothing New” asserts:

They furthermore list the following symptoms associated particularly with post- traumatic stress disorders as a result of military operations (military casualties):[footnote 38: Ibid. [Scurlock and Andersen, Diagnoses], 429–430.]
19.32 “If in the evening, he sees either a living person or a dead person or someone known to him or someone not known to him or anybody or anything and becomes afraid; he turns around but, like one who has [been hexed with?] rancid oil, his mouth is seized so that he is unable to cry out to one who sleeps next to him, ‘hand’ of ghost (var. hand of […]).”[footnote 39: Hands of Gods or hand of ghosts are seen by the Mesopotamians as a cause of illness; see Pangas, “La mano.”]
19.33 “[If ] his mentation is altered so that he is not in full possession of his faculties, ‘hand’ of a roving ghost; he will die.”
19.34 “If his mentation is altered, forgetfulness(?) (and) his words hinder each other in his mouth, a roaming ghost afflicts him. (If) […], he will get well.”

Pages 429–430 cited in note 38 say nothing about PTSD or military operations. Instead, there is a rich discussion about ancient efforts to name disease patterns. The reference in note 39 may or may not be accurate, but it does not apply to the quotation, which is on Scurlock and Andersen, Diagnoses, 438. The other two quotations, which receive no reference, are from Scurlock and Andersen, Diagnoses, 439. In their zeal to find PTSD, the authors of “Nothing New” seem to over interpret these quotations. Scurlock and Andersen group these three quotations in a section on ghosts, though they do say that some of these symptoms “are compatible with this stress syndrome [PTSD].” When Scurlock and Andersen offer a modern diagnosis, however, they are more cautious: attributing 19.32 to “nightmare,” 19.33 to “mental status change,” and offering no diagnosis for 19.34.[8] When the authors of “Nothing New” gesture to ghosts, their citation is again wrong:

It looks as if, in the case of military casualties, the responsible ghosts were usually assumed by the treating ašipu to be the ghosts of the enemies whom the patient had killed during military operations.[footnote 41: Scurlock and Andersen, Diagnoses, 429.]

Page 429 of Scurlock and Andersen’s Diagnoses mentions ghosts among gods, goddesses, demons, demonesses, and demonic forces, e.g., curses and sorcery, but nothing about the ghosts of killed enemies. In fact, warfare and enemies are absent from that page, and the following one.

After checking a third of the notes in “Nothing New,” I am suffering from Post-Traumatic Article Disorder, which prevents me from finding the other scholarship cited and checking the references to it. Of the sixteen notes I was able to check, nine are wrong or problematic (another three or four are worrisome, but not egregious). I don’t want to impute malfeasance to the authors of “Nothing New.” I will, however, deplore the scholarship that doesn’t rise to the level I would demand of an undergraduate. If my reading of this article and its notes is accurate, I cannot understand how or why a history of science journal accepted and published it.


  1. JoAnn Scurlock and Burton R. Andersen, Diagnoses in Assyrian and Babylonian Medicine (2005), 429.  ↩

  2. I have worried about those difficulties in the past, see Retro-Diagnosing Fictional Plagues and Paleopathology and Retrodiagnosis. To be fair, some efforts to analyze past diseases are really interesting and produce interesting information, whether or not it helps us understand the past or deal with the present.  ↩

  3. See, for example, Charles Rosenberg “Disease in History: Frame and Frames” in C. Rosenberg and J. Golden, Framing Disease (1989), 1–16 or Andrew Cunningham’s “Transforming Plague: The Laboratory and the Identity of Infectious Disease” in A. Cunningham and P. Williams, The Laboratory Revolution in Medicine (Cambridge, 1992), 209–44 or Roger French et al., The Great Pox<Yale, 1997>.  ↩

  4. The title is, I suspect unintentionally, funny. In addition to its claim that PTSD is “Nothing New,” “Nothing New” also describes the contents of the article, which extracts from Scurlock and Andersen’s volume the three fragments that they, Scurlock and Andersen, already group under the heading “Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome” and suggest “may be describing this syndrome” (351).  ↩

  5. The authors bear the bulk of the responsibility for the sloppy scholarship. It worries me that nobody else bothered checking the notes more carefully.  ↩

  6. The author’s claims about disease being punishments for sins seems to be at odds with what JoAnn Scurlock argued in Magico-Medical Means of Treating Ghost-Induced Illness in Ancient Mesopotamia (Leiden, 2005), at least according to Scott Noegel’s review of that book in Journal of Hebrew Scriptures, where he writes:

    Perhaps the most important contribution of these volumes is that they offer a healthy corrective to many long-held assumptions concerning the Mesopotamian medical profession. For example, they illustrate that disease was only rarely viewed as a punishment for personal action (A, pp. 73–74)—indeed, “sin” (especially in the Christian sense), is a concept that would have been wholly foreign to ancient Mesopotamians.  ↩

  7. The authors of “Nothing New” are probably not responsible for the wonky formatting in these quotations, e.g., [F…] and F…1, but they should have checked the page proofs more carefully. They are, however, probably responsible for the missing half brackets ( and )19.32 and 19.33  ↩

  8. The latter portion of the book includes tables relating ancient diagnoses to modern for the many quotations. For 19.32 see Scurlock and Andersen, Diagnoses, 643, #83–85; for 19.33 see Scurlock and Andersen, Diagnoses, 651, #47a; for 19.34 see Scurlock and Andersen, Diagnoses, 651, #53–54.  ↩

At least get the facts right…

Dr. David L. Katz has no patience for “New-Age nutrition” and its apparent assault on the calorie. See, for example, last October’s The Race to Redefine Calories: Iconoclasts, Start Your Engines! and his more recent Newtonian Nutrition. Unfortunately, while taking people to task for getting the science and facts wrong, Katz gets a rather basic fact wrong, a fact that stands at the center of both his posts.

Katz and his fellow scientists should expend as much energy confirming facts and evidence outside their fields of expertise as they expend policing the facts and evidence within their domains of expertise (or they could consult with experts in those fields or stop thinking their scientific expertise gave them license to speak about any topic).

New-Age nutrition has, it seems, mounted a two-pronged attack on the calorie, one the one hand, denying the basic definition of the calorie and, on the other, doubting whether or not all calories count (at least count the same). Katz’s position seems to be: while there are junk calories and high-quality calories, in the end a calorie is a calorie is a calorie. When it comes to weight (and obesity), what matters, quite simply, is the number of calories. As he says in his earlier post, The Race to Redefine Calories:

The evidence that the quantity of calories counts, along with the quality, is incontrovertible-beginning with the laws of thermodynamics first established by Sir Isaac Newton. There is a fixed relationship between matter and energy, bound by the laws of physics. Biological variation is important, but physics is the bedrock on which other sciences, including biology, must stand.

Katz rephrases this point in his more recent Newtonian Nutrition:[1]

The Huffington Post added this nice image of Newton to its version of Katz’s post.
The Huffington Post added this nice image of Newton to its version of Katz’s post.

Newton’s First Law of Thermodynamics asserts, essentially, that energy can neither be created nor destroyed in any closed system—it has to go from somewhere, to somewhere else. Energy and matter can be interconverted—as is the case when the energy represented by calories is converted to the smaller (glycogen) or the larger (fat) of the body’s energy reserve depots.

In other words, according to the “laws of thermodynamics first established by Sir Isaac Newton,” or more precisely, “Newton’s First Law of Thermodynamics,” unused calories become mass.

Okay, except Isaac Newton had nothing to do with the laws of thermodynamics. Newton died in 1727. The laws of thermodynamics were worked out over a century later, in the mid-19th century. Katz’s argument contains a serious factual error.

While Katz’s error has nothing to do with the First Law of Thermodynamics, per se, his mistake weakens his position. First, it undermines his argument in The Race to Redefine Calories where, in the end, he resorted to an argument from authority, saying:

The race to redefine the calorie has a vociferous group of iconoclasts revving their engines. If you are genuinely convinced that any of these characters is smarter than Sir Isaac Newton, and/or has probed to levels of understanding beneath the bedrock of physics, by all means, wave the checkered flag.

If you are going to present an argument from authority, you should at least get your authority correct.[2] Second and more broadly, Katz’s blunder—and that’s what it is, a blunder—detracts from his point by calling into question his general commitment to facts and evidence. It was not a “short-cut,” as he asserted in a tweet.[3]

David Katz dismisses his error as a “short-cut” (link).
David Katz dismisses his error as a “short-cut” (link).

It was and, since he hasn’t corrected his post, remains a mistake that suggests a casual disregard for facts. Or maybe he doesn’t think all facts are the same. Maybe some facts count more than others. Scientific facts—a calorie, for example—are a high-quality facts while historical facts are junk facts. Maybe this is some form of pop culture, New-Age history that questions the basic merit of “the fact.” Unfortunately, there is something of a cottage industry in this particular brand of history.[4] Katz is not alone in his gratuitous and careless use of historical facts. But just like his scientific colleagues, Katz didn’t need to invoke history, didn’t need to appeal to Newton in his criticism of “New-Age nutrition.” Once he did, however, he still has a scholarly and methodological (and an ethical and moral) obligation to get the scientific and historical facts correct.

Katz should care about getting all the facts correct. Anything less subverts his argument and squanders an opportunity for real change.


  1. The Huffington Post reposted Katz’s post unchanged and unchecked, complete with the egregious error: “Newtonian Nutrition” (I cannot bring myself to link to this version of Katz’s post). It is unfortunate that a media outlet as influential as the Huffington Post disseminates misinformation like this. The Huffington Post complete lack of editorial oversight and intervention in so much of the material it reposts is good reason to avoid it.  ↩

  2. Scientists are rightly suspicious of and condemn such arguments in their professional writing and in the writing of their opponents. This unvarnished argument from authority is, consequently, all the more jarring. Katz also flirts with an argument from authority in his more recent post, where he says: “Arguments against the fundamental utility of the calorie to human energy balance, and weight control, really do devolve to arguments against Newton and this basic law.” Goodness knows we are not as smart as Newton, who was, after all, a genius. If he said it was so, it must be so. Oh wait, he didn’t say it was so.  ↩

  3. There is an odd attempt to dodge responsibility in Katz’s tweet: “FL of T appears to have passed through many hands. to whom do you attribute?” Katz seems to try to dismiss his error as understandable and forgivable because the history is complicated. He’s right: history is complicated and difficult. Historians spend years developing the skills and expertise to do history. But this is not a question of interpretation or source criticism or esoteric knowledge. This is a factual question that can be resolved pretty easily: what we call the First Law of Thermodynamics was developed more than 100 years after Newton died. The laws of physics make it impossible for the First Law of Thermodynamics to have “passed through” Newton’s hands. [There is another problem in his tweet: Katz seems to be searching for the father of the First Law of Thermodynamics (on the problems with the search for the “father of” something, see Thony C’s many posts, e.g., this one or this one).]  ↩

  4. These last two sentences paraphrase and repurpose the first two sentences of Katz’s “Newtonian Nutrition” post—see the screen shot from the Huffington Post above.  ↩

A Call for Historical Accuracy

If we inveigh against people who distort science and ignore facts to prove their point and we label them dogmatic knuckleheads, we should at least guard against committing the same missteps in our criticisms of them.

Phil Plait recently drew attention to and rightly criticized a pseudo-documentary promoting geocentrism.[1] The same day, Lawrence Krauss—a theoretical physicist and cosmologist, and one of the experts who appears in the movie—proposes plausible ways he ended up, apparently, a spokesman for geocentricism. Yesterday, Graham Slaughter, staff reporter for The Toronto Star, reported on the pseudo-documentary and the various experts and former Star Trek actor who appear in the film: “Why do prominent scientists and a Star Trek star appear in unscientific ‘documentary’?

I have no doubt that this latest piece of quasi-scientific[2] claptrap is rubbish, but getting the history wrong—or, to put it more bluntly, ignoring facts and evidence[3]—mars both Krauss’s and Slaughter’s critiques (to be clear: Plait does not get the history wrong in his post).

In lamenting the persistence of old and false ideas, Krauss propagates an old and false idea.
In lamenting the persistence of old and false ideas, Krauss propagates an old and false idea.

Krauss repeats the flat earth myth. Lamenting his celebrity status, Krauss says

I get bombarded regularly by all sorts of claims, and have become painfully aware that ideas as old as the notion that the Earth is flat never seem to die out completely.

Krauss dredges up once again that past when the benighted humans roamed an earth they believed was flat. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that such a past ever existed.

The evidence offers up just three people, three, who claimed the earth was flat (or at least not a sphere): Lactantius—an early Christian author and advisor to Emperor Constantine I, Severian—a fourth-century Bishop of Gabala, and Cosmas Indicopleustes—a sixth-century Byzantine monk.[4] And there is no evidence that their opinions were widely accepted. Instead, the overwhelming vast majority of evidence reveals that people—Christians and pagans alike—believed the earth was a sphere. Most of this evidence provides reasonable philosophical and sometimes empirical arguments for the sphericity of the earth—more than two millennia ago Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth, which circumference scholars continued to cite for the next 1700 years.[5]

The evidence does not support the inference that people believed the earth was flat. To be sure, we cannot infer what the uneducated “person on the street” might have believed—that person might have believed the earth was a potato chip—but we can say the evidence supports the conclusion that people argued for a globe-shaped earth. If the evidence reflects contemporary beliefs, then the overwhelming vast majority of people throughout history have believed the earth was a sphere.

Yet this flat earth myth persists. While I might forgive President Obama when he invokes it, it’s harder to forgive purportedly fact-based science journalism for propagating the flat earth story. I find it more regrettable when Krauss repeats it. He rightly lambasts people who propound a geocentric model of the cosmos for ignoring evidence and facts. I would like to see him apply the same standard to his own claims about the past the believed in a flat earth. In both cases evidence and facts demonstrate that these claims—the geocentric model of the cosmos and the flat earth past—are wrong.[6]

Krauss didn’t need to invoke history to make his point. But since he did, he should strive to get his facts right. I suppose that’s what bothers me most. Krauss is an expert in cosmology and theoretical physics. His domain of expertise does not extend to history. Just as people invoking cosmology or theoretical physics should consult an expert about about their statements, so too should Krauss consult an expert—in this case, a historian of science—when he invokes history.

Slaughter hits all the high points of the Copernican Revolution myth in his attack on a pseudo-documentary.
Slaughter hits all the high points of the Copernican Revolution myth in his attack on a pseudo-documentary.

Graham Slaughter too should consult some historians of science. Slaughter opens his article by saying:

In the 16th century, Nicolaus Copernicus turned the scientific world on its head when he presented a controversial theory: the sun, not the earth, is the centre of our solar system.
The church was scandalized. How could God’s greatest creation be under the orbital control of a giant, burning star? Many Protestant scholars blasted Copernicus, saying his writings flew in the face of the Bible.

Here we have all the set pieces of the Copernican revolution myth: we see the hero, the revolution, and the villain.

As historians of science have long noted and widely discussed (and Thony C. has colorfully pointed out in various posts), the “scientific world” of the 16th century largely ignored or was ignorant of Copernicus’s “controversial theory.”[7] Moreover, the church was not scandalized. Late in the game, the Catholic Church placed Copernicus’s book on the Index, but that was in the 17th century after Galileo and Paolo Foscarini antagonized the Church by challenging its authority (again, see Thony’s post). And the Protestants were some of the earliest supporters of Copernicus’s theory.[8]

Slaughter didn’t need to appeal to Copernicus in his criticism of the pseudo-documentary. But since he did, he should get the history right. Alas, the history is once again wrong, and wrong in all the same ways that the pseudo-documentary is wrong: both ignore evidence and disregard facts.

I am not defending the producers of this latest quasi-scientific, geocentric dross or the film itself. I am, instead, calling for greater attention to facts and evidence in our criticisms of such dreck, especially if we are going to assume the moral, factual, and evidential high ground. We can do better.


  1. Plait provides the title, so click through if you want to know. I, like Lawrence Krauss, would rather not provide additional coverage for the film.  ↩

  2. It might not even rise to the level of “quasi-scientific.”  ↩

  3. Or distorting them or not doing the work to check them.  ↩

  4. Polemical writings accuse two other authors of denying the sphericity of the earth, but this is indirect and problematic evidence that cannot be taken at face value.  ↩

  5. Sometimes scribal errors corrupted the value reported for this circumference, as was the case in the sources Columbus was using. He argued for a much smaller number than was commonly accepted. He and his detractors argued over the how big around the earth was, not whether the earth was round.  ↩

  6. Accessible, and short, scholarly articles are readily available, e.g., Lesley Cormack’s “That the Medieval Christians Taught That the Earth Was Flat” in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (Chicago, 2009), as are popular books on the subject, e.g., Christine Garwood, Flat Earth. The History of an Infamous Idea (New York, 2008) or Jeffrey Russell, Inventing the Flat Earth (New York, 1991). A quick Google search will turn up both the wikipedia page and my various rantings about it.  ↩

  7. Historians of science typically claim there were 10 Copernicans in the 16th century. Owen Gingerich has argued that more 16th-century scholars than previously thought might have encountered Copernicus’s De revolutionibus through the teachings of a small group of university masters, but this is indirect and inconclusive evidence. See Gingerich’s The Book Nobody Read.  ↩

  8. Robert Westman pointed this nearly 40 years ago in “The Melanchthon Circle, Rheticus, and the Wittemberg Interpretation of the Copernican Theory,” Isis 66(1975): 165–93. For a considerably more thorough analysis of the so-called Copernican revolution, see Westman’s The Copernican Question (Berkeley, 2011)  ↩

Enlisting Copernicus in Your Own Monetary Revolution

In “Nicolas Copernicus Was Far More Than A Scientific Icon” Jonathan Decker enlists Copernicus in support of his own economic/political cause: a return to a gold standard. Decker’s Op-Ed at Forbes.com is a gushing review of a recent edition and translation of Copernicus’s Essay on Money.[1]

Between 1517 and 1526 Copernicus wrote three different versions of a treatise on reforming Prussian coinage. Leszek Zygner at Nicolaus Copernicus University offers an introduction to these treatises and Copernicus’s views on economics.[2] Conveniently, all three versions of Copernicus’s treatise are available along with short introductions and translations: Meditata (1517); Modus cudendi monetam (1519–1522); Monete cudende ratio (1526).[3]

Copernicus wrote his treatises in the context of monetary chaos: inflation, depreciated coinage, and a minting free-for-all—the Polish crown, Royal Prussia, Prussia of the Teutonic Order, as well as many cities had the right to mint coinage. In Monete cudende ratio Copernicus reflects on the accepted value of coinage (the value of the metal plus the expense of minting), the importance of centralized minting (Copernicus argues for two mints), and the difficulties in reforming coinage (how debased coinage needed to be removed as soon as better coinage was introduced).[4]

Decker’s invocation of Copernicus, however, has nothing to do with understanding history. Rather, he and Benko (with whom he collaborates) seek to establish an intellectual pedigree for their ideas about a return to a gold standard. Decker, quoting Benko, hopes:

‘the gold standard has unrivaled intellectual pedigree’ and, with Copernicus’s contribution to monetary policy now translated and readily available, ‘the elegance of the provenance of the gold standard hereby is restored to its deserved level.’

Alas, whatever monetary and political problems Copernicus might have been addressing in Monete cudende ratio, whatever he might have meant in writing it, he and his work have been co-opted in today’s politico-economic argument about monetary policy. Once again history is just fodder for today’s battles. And so it goes.


  1. Laissez-Faire Books sells an epub edition for $9, which edition includes various introductions by gold standard proponents.  ↩

  2. Ralph J. Benko, one of the editors of the Laissez-Faire Books edition and contributor to The Gold Standard Now, borrows portions of Leszek Zygner’s post: cf. Benko’s Copernicus: The Debasement of Money and the Fall of a State and Benko’s earlier post.
    UPDATE (2013-12-17): Initially I did not see the links to the Leszek Zygner’s original post. Both are easily missed because they not clearly marked either by placement or style (one appears to be a title of an image, the other is the last word of a sentence). Unfortunately, lack of attention to usability prompted me to suggest that Benko did not give credit to his sources. I now think that unhelpful design decisions confuse and mislead readers. Such design decisions could be innocent—poorly considered choices—or could be deceitful—attempts to disguise sources or dissuade readers from clicking through to a different site. Whatever the case, a little transparency and consistency (links appear differently across the site) would be helpful for readers. I cannot know. I am not accusing Benko of malfeasance.  ↩

  3. In “Money and Value in the Sixteenth Century: The Monete cudende ratio of Nicholas Copernicus” (behind JSTOR’s paywall) Timothy J. Reiss and Roger H. Hinderliter analyze how Copernicus’s ideas about money and its value varied from Nicole Oresme’s.  ↩

  4. Copernicus is often cited as a precursor to Gresham’s Law.  ↩

Resigning from the Enlightenment Project

In his response, Dr. Rundvist restates his original claim and enlists me in the project: history of science ([deleted because I over stated the case]) must show how past scientific debates have been resolved the in present, thereby contributing to an overall increase in human knowledge.

Dr. Rundkvist characterizes knowledge in a way that I reject. He asserts an “Enlightenment project” characterized by progress—we are gaining not only more knowledge but better and more accurate knowledge. In such a project, only those activities that contribute to this progress are worthwhile. The way to assess progress, quality, and accuracy of knowledge is to assume that the relevant categories of any scientific debate, the evidence used to evaluate and assess those categories, the arguments used to justify those assessments, and the motivations for engaging in the debate, are timeless and unproblematic. Importantly, those categories, the evidence, assessment, arguments, and motivations are defined by scientists in the present who are engaged in the activity they think is a continuation of the historical debates. History, insofar as it plays any role in this model, merely lists the names of dead people who, present scientists think, contributed to the current debate.

But this is precisely what I don’t accept. The categories, the evidence, the criteria, the arguments, and the motivations are not transcendent. To use Dr. Rundkvist’s example: What Newton was doing in the 1680s, how he divided up the world, what he considered relevant evidence, how he judged that evidence, why he bothered investigating the natural world (how he even identified the “natural world”) share little with what scientists were doing in the 1930s. As Andrew Cunningham has argued convincingly, Newton was engaged in a project called “natural philosophy,” which included a wide range of activities that we might call, inter alia, alchemy, astrology, astronomy, Biblical exegesis, chronology, history, mathematics, optics, and theology.[1] The goal of this project was to understand God by investigating of His creation. Newton signaled his intentions in the title of his most famous work: Philosophiæ naturalis principia mathematica. However modern and familiar this text might look to scientists today (though I suspect many have not even read it), it answered the questions Newton was asking in the late 17th century. God was at the center of those questions. I doubt many scientists in the 1930s were investigating God’s creation.

To excise God from Newton’s work requires ignoring considerable evidence to the contrary. The resulting account misunderstands and misrepresents what Newton was doing, and what his work meant to him and to his contemporaries. In other words, to sanitize Newton’s Philosophiæ naturalis principia mathematica of the unfamiliar and uncomfortable bits is to stop doing history.

For scholars who search through the archives, lauding those who got it “right” and condemning those who got it “wrong”—Butterfield’s Whig historians—the historical record becomes fodder for their teleological narratives. Evidence that doesn’t serve their goals is ignored or explained away. Kepler’s interest in astrology, for example, is dismissed as “how he paid the bills.”

Such an approach is antithetical to what I am trying to do with my own research. Consequently, I feel like sending a telegram, paraphrasing Groucho: “Please accept my resignation. I don’t want to belong to any Enlightenment Project club that will accept people like me as a member.”

Telegram resigning from Enlightenment Project
The telegram I would send resigning from the Enlightenment Project.

I cannot see how the princes and astrologers I study have any relevance to today’s scientific debates. Scientists are no longer engaged in debates about astrology. Today’s astronomers no longer consider the astrological implications of their work. And while Ronald Reagan (who as early as the 1960s relied on the astrologer Ralph Kraum) and François Mitterrand purportedly consulted astrologers, most rulers today rely on other systems of knowledge.

Far from trying to illustrate how scientific knowledge is timeless, I hope to show how knowledge is inextricably tangled up with the context that calls that knowledge into existence. I neither praise historical actors for getting it right nor rebuke them for getting it wrong. Finally, while I would like people to read and learn from my research, I am unwilling to violate the standards and norms that guide my work and make it identifiable as history just to attract and perhaps appease a wider audience.


  1. Andrew Cunningham, “How the Principia got its name; or, taking natural philosophy seriously,” History of Science 24 (1991): 377–392. Cunningham’s earlier article is also relevant here: Andrew Cunningham, “Getting the game right: some plain words on the identity and invention of science,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 19 (1988): 365–89.  ↩