Cartoons and Fables – How Cosmos Got the Story of Bruno Wrong

Giordano Bruno statueOriginally posted March 17, 2014

Tim O’Neill has one of the most complete and detailed takedowns of the extreme bad history in the Giordano Bruno segment of the recent Cosmos reboot:

Bruno is the poster boy of the Draper-White Thesis – the idea that science and religion have always been at war and an idea beloved by the New Atheist movement despite the fact it was rejected by actual historians of science about a century ago.  Try to engage in an attempt at intelligent discussion of the real and much more complex and nuanced interrelations between religion and what was to emerge as modern science in the medieval and early modern periods and Bruno is usually brandished as “proof” that the Church was the implacable and ignorant foe of early science.  After all, why else did they burn him for daring to say the earth wasn’t the centre of the universe and that the stars were other suns with planets?  For those who prefer simple slogans and caricatures to the hard work of actually analysing and understanding history, Bruno is a simple answer to a intricate question.  Nuance and complexity are the first casualties in a culture war.


Originally published March 12, 2014

Phrenology bust

I bought this phrenology bust, which now sits on a bookshelf in my living room, as a decoration for my wedding. It fit our theme — steampunk — and allowed everyone involved to make endless puns about the “head table.” All in all, not a bad deal.

Now, I can’t speak much to the origins of this particular head. I bought it at an antique shop… well, you could call it an antique shop; maybe more of a junk shop. Like many such heads, it credits L.N. Fowler.

What interests me most in this model is that there are three different spots which all amount to “you like to have sex”: conjugality sits somewhere behind your left ear; love of sex a little bit up and to the right, and below that, towards the curve of your skull, reproductive love.

So if we can get out our calipers and measure your skull to be even a bit larger than normal in one of three areas, and you like sex, clearly we’re getting at something!

Or, you know, you’re one of practically everybody who likes sex and has irregularities in skull shape.


Not to pick on the Victorians exclusively here, I see this all the time. Hey, sometimes I’m tired, irritable, or feel a little off… also, I’ve been known to, on occasion, eat bread! (or soy, milk, salt, MSG, “processed foods”). Not to make light of serious allergies, but the symptoms of serious allergies are not “sometimes I’m irritable.” That’s a symptom of being a person.

And, sure, if it makes you feel good… even placebos can have a positive effect. Reducing stress is a pretty powerful thing. But turning every little thing around us into poison is not reducing anybody’s stress! A forum of normally intelligent moms linked to a scare article about acetaminophen (tylenol), prompting a response from a scared mom saying she wasn’t going to use tylenol for her teething baby any more. Her replacement? Whiskey. “Because it’s natural.”

Sorry, 21st century, you’re not winning awards for logical thinking, either.

US History Education: Not Smart Enough to be Biased

Bald Eagle

Photo from US Fish and Wildlife Service, Northeast Region

Originally published March 6, 2014

A poster on reddit wanted to know if schools still taught US History from a nationalistic, great-man view of history. Looking back, I found this difficult to answer, because I can neither say “yes, their teaching had a clear institutional bias” nor “no, they did a great job teaching about the nuance of history”.

My high school history curriculum consisted solely of “what videos can we get from ISD,” so it’s hard to point to a specific bias there, apart from a bias in favor of Ken Burns style documentaries (i.e. really long ones).

To be fair, some of my teachers actually tried to teach, but for all their efforts, their results were not much better. It would be difficult to pinpoint any particular bias, that much is true, but mostly because the overall teachings represented little more than some form of flawed or outdated scholarship filtered through a massive game of telephone.

Typical history lessons from my K-12 educational career include such fine pieces of scholarship as:

  • Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt, was an African-American.
  • All conflicts between Christians and Muslims, or Jews and Muslims, are part of one long conflict that started with Isaac and Ishmael (no, this wasn’t a Christian school). The major example of the time was the Balkans conflict.
  • The United States won the Revolutionary War by using guerrilla tactics while the dumb British stood in lines and wore red. Once we became a country, we forgot how to guerrilla, and that’s why the Vietnam War was lost.
  • The Civil War was about taxes. Also something called a cotton gin, which may or may not be a cocktail.