Thursday, January 13, 2011

Badly-Written History

Sadly, lots of good history is ruined by bad history books. The more interesting the historical topic, the greater the chances that someone has written something rather ill-advised about it. A recent mathematics textbook offered the following sidebar:

Most people have heard of Galileo, a colorful Professor of Mathematics at the University of Pisa. The final part of his career centred on an epic battle with the Spanish Inquisition on the validity of the Copernican view of the solar system.

Read carefully, this paragraph offers a stunning paradox: Galileo, who lived in Italy and never set foot in Spain, could not have had any meaningful interaction with the Spanish Inquisition! The author clearly had some vague notion of a disagreement between Galileo and a religious institution, but failed to check for any real facts.

It is true that Galileo, despite his sincere belief in the Roman Catholic faith, did attack, not the faith, but rather the institution of the church. Despite his attacks on the church, however, Galileo was never jailed, never tortured, never executed. He never received any meaningful consequences for his actions.

The author of the math textbook ruined what could have been an interesting historical sidebar, and instead offers us a comedy of errors.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Parallel Cases of Unintended Consequences

Sometimes unanticipated consequences are beneficial, as in the case of the medieval policy of setting up large hunting reserves for the nobility, preserving green space, often as parks, throughout England and other places in Europe. Sometimes unforeseen consequences are harmful, such as the Islamic policy of exiling numerous philosophers, writers, and thinkers during the Middle Ages, which led to a decline in scientific and technological advancement in the Middle East regions. A third class of unexpected consequences create the very opposite of the hoped-for effect: policies of the Czarist government of Russia in the late 1800's were designed to prevent any type of rebellion or revolution against the Tsar, but the harshness of these policies in fact fueled the desire for such an uprising.

History is full of unintended consequences; two parallel cases involve efforts to reform an organization which led to the unintended founding of new and different organizations.

In 1517, Martin Luther did not intend to create a new church; rather, his intent was to reform the existing church - to correct some of its errors and problems. The resistance of the existing church led to the formation of what would become the Lutheran church.

Likewise, in 1775, the Founding Fathers of the United States did not begin with the intent to form a new nation; rather, they (George Washington, Ben Franklin, Samuel Adams, etc.) intended merely to procure their legal rights as Englishmen, and obtain their lawful representatives in Parliament and the rights granted to them by the Magna Carta. It was the resistance of the English government which ultimately caused the Americans to for a separate nation.

The events for which Martin Luther and George Washington became famous were, therefore, unintended consequences!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Teddy Roosevelt and the Coin Controversy

The United States Congress has legislated that the phrase "In God we trust" is the official motto of nation. After voting this into law, it has been re-approved every year, by both Democrats and Republicans. It has appeared on coins and paper money for over a century.

From time to time, various political groups - communists, libertarians, left-wingers, and atheists - have challenged the propriety of the motto, either in the press, or in court. Notice that atheists are here categorized as a political group: in such a circumstance, it is not philosophy which motivates, but public affairs.

Jews, Muslims, Christians, and others have been content with the motto because it is sufficiently generic.

Perhaps a more interesting challenge to the motto came, not from an atheist, but rather from religious Christian who happened also to be the President of the United States. Theodore Roosevelt had long felt that placing God's name on a coin was actually disrespectful to Him, and for two reasons: first, because a coin is the object of greed and materialism; second, because it had led to a number of jokes about politics, money, and banks.

Roosevelt, who had given several speeches urging the American public to read the Bible regularly, saw his opportunity in 1907, when a new coin was being designed. He directed the mint's artist to omit the motto, which had been on coins for over fifty years by that time. Public sentiment, the Congress, and eventually the Supreme Court would uphold the motto, which remains the official expression of the government to this day.