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Harsh words for “history of science” as a discipline. But hardly fair ones

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From David Deming at RealClearScience:

After a grand beginning, the academic study of the history of science has largely degenerated into a caricature of itself. It is not that it is merely bad. No, it is far worse than that. The scholarship being produced by most historians of science today is not good enough to be bad. Consider a quote from a recent paper by two historians of chemistry. “We find that efforts to differentiate alchemy from chemistry prove to be anachronistic, arbitrary, or presentist.” In other words, there is no difference between alchemy and chemistry. This thesis would not only shock a modern chemist, it would be rejected by any intelligent person with no special knowledge of these subjects.

In fact there is a chasm between chemistry and alchemy. Alchemy contributed apparatus and procedures to chemistry, but it also mixed chemical technology with religion, philosophy, magic, metaphysics, and astrology. Naturalism is essential to science but alchemy incorporated supernaturalism. Alchemists sought to obscure their methods and knowledge whereas chemists seek to reveal and clarify. Robert Boyle and Antoine Lavoisier, men who struggled to free chemistry from metaphysics and define it as an exact science, would be outraged at the claim that chemistry and alchemy were indistinguishable. More.

alchemist never gives up, finally learns something

First, the history shows that alchemy shaded into what we now call chemistry by degrees. There was no sharp divide, nor any reason to expect one. People learned by doing; it was the only way.

See, for example: Mediaeval alchemists were real scientists, it turns out.


The fuss over Isaac Newton’s more eccentric beliefs says more about the fussers than about him

Second, Dr. Deming’s* assertion that naturalism is essential to science is tragically wrong. Naturalism, as a metaphysical project, is undermining science today.

It’s no better to make science a project for seeking support for naturalism (nature is all there is) than to make it a project for seeking support for Marxism or democracy or Noah’s Flood. When any such trend dominates without free discussion, inconvenient evidence becomes hostage to politics.

Naturalism, for example, sponsors the view that we did not evolve so as to grasp reality, that our brains were shaped for fitness, not for truth, and even that we evolved to need coercion.

All of these claims provide justifications for the enforcement of dogma over evidence, for expediency. Where they are widely held, we should not be surprised if chronic problems multiply over science claims that are not evidence-based but find their way into law and custom. And are hard to undo.

For that matter, the quest to make the fabled multiverse some kind of a science fact—without any evidence at all— exists principally to avoid honest discussions of evidence for fine-tuning of the universe. Down that route lies a return to something that will make alchemy look reasonable.

See also: Cosmic coincidences?: New Scientist says a multiverse is best explanation!

* David Deming ( is Professor of Arts & Sciences at the University of Oklahoma, and the author of Science and Technology in World History (McFarland, 2010, 2012, 2016), a history of science in four volumes.
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4 Replies to “Harsh words for “history of science” as a discipline. But hardly fair ones

  1. 1
    bornagain77 says:

    A few notes on the ‘supernatural’ implications of chemistry:

    “When with bold telescopes I survey the old and newly discovered stars and planets, when with excellent microscopes I discern the unimitable subtility of nature’s curious workmanship; and when, in a word, by the help of anatomical knives, and the light of chemical furnaces, I study the book of nature, I find myself often times reduced to exclaim with the Psalmist, ‘How manifold are Thy works, O Lord! In wisdom hast Thou made them all!’ ”
    (Robert Boyle, father of experimental chemistry, as cited in Woodall 1997, 32)

    Peering Into the Unseen—What Is Revealed?
    Excerpt: Mendeleyev left blank spaces (on the Periodic Table) for 16 new elements. When asked for proof for his predictions, he replied: “I have no need of proof. The laws of nature, unlike the laws of grammar, admit of no exception.” He added: “I suppose when my unknown elements are found, more people will pay us attention.”
    That is exactly what occurred!
    Clearly, as research chemist Elmer W. Maurer noted, “this beautiful arrangement (of the Periodic Table) is hardly a matter of chance.” Of the possibility that the harmonious order of the elements is a matter of chance, professor of chemistry John Cleveland Cothran observed: “The post-prediction discovery of all of the elements whose existence [Mendeleyev] predicted, and their possession of almost exactly the properties he predicted for them, effectively removed any such possibility. His great generalization is never called ‘The Periodic Chance.’ Instead, it is ‘The Periodic Law.’”

    The Role of Elements in Life Processes – Periodic Table – Interactive web page for each element

    As the preceding interactive table made clear, every class of elements that exists on the periodic table of elements is necessary for complex carbon-based life to exist on earth. The three most abundant elements in the human body, Oxygen, Carbon, Hydrogen, ‘just so happen’ to be the most abundant elements in the universe, save for helium which is inert. A truly amazing coincidence that strongly hints that ‘the universe had us in mind all along’.

    “Dr. Michael Denton on Evidence of Fine-Tuning in the Universe” (Remarkable balance, and ‘coincidences’, of various key elements for life) – podcast

    The Place of Life and Man in Nature: Defending the Anthropocentric Thesis – Michael J. Denton – February 25, 2013
    Summary (page 11)
    Many of the properties of the key members of Henderson’s vital ensemble —water, oxygen, CO2, HCO3 —are in several instances fit specifically for warm-blooded, air-breathing organisms such as ourselves. These include the thermal properties of water, its low viscosity, the gaseous nature of oxygen and CO2 at ambient temperatures, the inertness of oxygen at ambient temperatures, and the bicarbonate buffer, with its anomalous pKa value and the elegant means of acid-base regulation it provides for air-breathing organisms. Some of their properties are irrelevant to other classes of organisms or even maladaptive.
    It is very hard to believe there could be a similar suite of fitness for advanced carbon-based life forms. If carbon-based life is all there is, as seems likely, then the design of any active complex terrestrial being would have to closely resemble our own. Indeed the suite of properties of water, oxygen, and CO2 together impose such severe constraints on the design and functioning of the respiratory and cardiovascular systems that their design, even down to the details of capillary and alveolar structure can be inferred from first principles. For complex beings of high metabolic rate, the designs actualized in complex Terran forms are all that can be. There are no alternative physiological designs in the domain of carbon-based life that can achieve the high metabolic activity manifest in man and other higher organisms.

    Even uranium the last naturally occurring ‘stable’ element on the period table of elements is necessary for life. The heat generated by the decay of uranium is necessary to keep a molten core in the earth for an extended period of time, which is necessary for the magnetic field surrounding the earth, which in turn protects organic life from the harmful charged particles of the sun. As well, uranium decay provides the heat for tectonic activity and the turnover of the earth’s crustal rocks, which is necessary to keep a proper mixture of nutrients available on the surface of the earth, which is necessary for the long term survival of life on earth. (Denton; Nature’s Destiny).

    “Without Plate Tectonics Life on Earth Might Never Have Gained a Foothold” – May 7, 2014
    Excerpt: Plate tectonics -the movement of huge chunks, or plates, of a planet’s surface- are crucial to a planet’s habitability because they enable complex chemistry and recycle substances like carbon dioxide, which acts as a thermostat and keeps Earth balmy. Carbon dioxide that was locked into rocks is released when those rocks melt, returning to the atmosphere from volcanoes and oceanic ridges. “Recycling is important even on a planetary scale,”

    Moreover, low doses of background radiation are found to be beneficial for life, (not harmful for life as was originally believed):

    Is Radiation Necessary For Life? – Sep 23, 2015
    Excerpt: Three independent, replicated experiments were conducted to study the effects of these two radiation dose rates on cell growth and gene expression.,,,
    When placed in the extreme below-background levels of radiation, essentially zero radiation, growth was inhibited in both species. Both species also showed a measurable stress response, identifiable to specific genes in their DNA, when in the absence of radiation (see figures below).
    Amazingly, those responses reversed when the bacteria were transferred back and forth to the opposite environments. The experiment used reciprocal controls to verify that the physiological responses observed were due to the radiation treatment. By restoring background radiation levels to radiation-deprived cultures, the growth rate of both species increased and the culture cell density returned to that of the control after only 24 hours.
    So, two species of bacteria from disparate taxonomies sensed and exhibited a physiological response to the absence of radiation, indicating that these low levels of radiation are a significant environmental cue. And the lack of radiation produced the substantial stress, not the presence of radiation.

    Of supplemental note: It is interesting to note that many so called ‘historians of science’ quickly forget that modern science was uniquely born out of, and is still dependent on, the Christian worldview

    Science and Theism: Concord, not Conflict* – Robert C. Koons
    IV. The Dependency of Science Upon Theism (Page 21)
    Excerpt: Far from undermining the credibility of theism, the remarkable success of science in modern times is a remarkable confirmation of the truth of theism. It was from the perspective of Judeo-Christian theism—and from the perspective alone—that it was predictable that science would have succeeded as it has. Without the faith in the rational intelligibility of the world and the divine vocation of human beings to master it, modern science would never have been possible, and, even today, the continued rationality of the enterprise of science depends on convictions that can be reasonably grounded only in theistic metaphysics.

    The Threat to the Scientific Method that Explains the Spate of Fraudulent Science Publications – Calvin Beisner | Jul 23, 2014
    Excerpt: It is precisely because modern science has abandoned its foundations in the Biblical worldview (which holds, among other things, that a personal, rational God designed a rational universe to be understood and controlled by rational persons made in His image) and the Biblical ethic (which holds, among other things, that we are obligated to tell the truth even when it inconveniences us) that science is collapsing.
    As such diverse historians and philosophers of science as Alfred North Whitehead, Pierre Duhem, Loren Eiseley, Rodney Stark, and many others have observed,, science—not an occasional flash of insight here and there, but a systematic, programmatic, ongoing way of studying and controlling the world—arose only once in history, and only in one place: medieval Europe, once known as “Christendom,” where that Biblical worldview reigned supreme. That is no accident. Science could not have arisen without that worldview.
    Several other resources backing up this claim are available, such as Thomas Woods, Stanley Jaki, David Linberg, Edward Grant, J.L. Heilbron, and Christopher Dawson.

    The Return of the God Hypothesis – Stephen Meyer
    Abstract: Historian of science Frederic Burnham has stated that the God hypothesis is now a more respectable hypothesis than at any time in the last one hundred years. This essay explores recent evidence from cosmology, physics, and biology, which provides epistemological support, though not proof, for belief in God as conceived by a theistic worldview. It develops a notion of epistemological support based upon explanatory power, rather than just deductive entailment. It also evaluates the explanatory power of theism and its main metaphysical competitors with respect to several classes of scientific evidence. The conclusion follows that theism explains a wide ensemble of metaphysically-significant evidences more adequately and comprehensively than other major worldviews or metaphysical systems. Thus, unlike much recent scholarship that characterizes science as either conflicting with theistic belief or entirely neutral with respect to it, this essay concludes that scientific evidence actually supports such belief.


    “The vastness, beauty, orderliness, of the heavenly bodies, the excellent structure of animals and plants; and the other phenomena of nature justly induce an intelligent and unprejudiced observer to conclude a supremely powerful, just, and good author.”
    — Robert Boyle (1627 – 1691), father of experimental chemistry

  2. 2
    polistra says:

    Chemistry stands on the shoulders of alchemy, astronomy stands on the shoulders of astrology, medicine on shamanism, statistics on card-playing gamblers. Overall science stands on religion.

    Rejecting the shoulders of giants (acromegalacromiophobia?) is a good way to lose your bearings.

  3. 3
    Bob O'H says:

    polistra – no, probability theory stands on the shoulders of card-playing gamblers (it’s easier to see the other players’ cards that way). Statistics came out of areas like astronomy and (later) the social sciences.

    Sorry, it just bugs me, as a statistician, that people confuse statistics with probability theory.

  4. 4
    kairosfocus says:


    I would suggest that insofar as Statistics rests on Probability, it is indeed tied to the games being played a few centuries back. As, a statistical distribution is indeed a probability distribution, per the scatter and bias found by astronomers and surveyors.

    As for Deming:

    Naturalism is essential to science

    Does he not see how he has loaded his thoughts ideologically, philosophically and with a substantial equivalent to a religion, warping his conclusions through an unexamined, uncritically accepted metaphysics-driven agenda?

    Worse, does he not see that he has opened the door to self refuting evolutionary materialistic scientism?

    As in; Haldane spoke tellingly to the point, long since:

    “It seems to me immensely unlikely that mind is a mere by-product of matter. For if my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true. They may be sound chemically, but that does not make them sound logically. And hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms. In order to escape from this necessity of sawing away the branch on which I am sitting, so to speak, I am compelled to believe that mind is not wholly conditioned by matter.” [“When I am dead,” in Possible Worlds: And Other Essays [1927], Chatto and Windus: London, 1932, reprint, p.209. Cf. here on (and esp here) on the self-refutation by self-falsifying self referential incoherence and on linked amorality.]

    To simply be able to think per logic and facts, we must be sufficiently responsibly and rationally free. Reduction of mind — and wider reality — to matter-energy in space-time comes at a price of turning reasoned reflection into GIGO-limited blindly mechanical computation further influenced by blind chance.


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