We Filter and Warp the Thought of Others

With the APWH exam around the corner, my class is currently studying Period 6 (1900 to Present). Over the next few weeks we dig into the scientific developments of the 20th Century – Einstein, atomic bombs, immunizations, birth control, etc… Obviously, there is a lot going on right now to make these topics fascinating. Philip Ball’s Atlantic story, “Stop Calling the Babylonians Scientists“, provides an excellent entry point to the study of science in history class and “what” we define as science:

Historians call this tendency to scrutinize and judge the past according to the perspective of the present “Whig history,” a term coined in 1931 by the historian Herbert Butterfield, who criticized the practice for ignoring what people in the past were actually interested in doing. According to Butterfield, by engaging in Whig history we filter and warp the thought of others to make it fit our own—as though the aim of the past was to create the present. Weinberg’s book, along with a re-analysis of the “scientific revolution” of the seventeenth century by historian David Wootton (The Invention of Science; 2015), has reignited the arguments about Whiggishness in the history of science. Is it right to seek presentiments of modern science in the works of the ancients, or should we judge their “science” on its own terms?

Ball makes a clear distinction between the study of the heavens in ancient Mesopotamia with our more modern definitions of science as reflected in the works of the Greeks through the “scientific revolution”:

Reading these [astrological] signs was complicated and subjective. Certain features were omens, considered to presage particular events. One document, for example, suggests that if the moon is still visible on the 30th day of the lunar cycle then destruction of Babylonia is on the cards, but if the moon is seen on the first day of the cycle then good luck will follow. Mars, meanwhile, was a harbinger of evil, whereas Jupiter brought peace and plenty. With all the different possible parameters, it was never easy to read the gods’ code. That was the diviners’ job, and it more closely resembles a legal process of weighing up precedents than a scientist’s aim of finding an objective truth that “explains” the observations.

I will likely use this article for a seminar as we launch our study of 20th century scientific developments. My only  addition to the article would be some reference to the mathematic and scientific contributions of the Islamic world, South Asia, or East Asia to his world history comparison of civilizations.


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