Why There Was No Visible Scientific Progress in the Middle Ages

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There was no scientific progress in the middles ages. Science made gained no ground at all until the end of the age of unreason. Right? So we’re told, anyway.

Here’s one way to represent it: a simplified picture of the progress of science since the year 500. It looks believable enough, doesn’t it? The curve assumes that in 500 there were about only 100 imaginary “knowledge science units” in the whole world. With that as a baseline, it’s easy to suppose that today there might be about a trillion.

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This illustrates graphically what most of us take to be the true story. Pretty much nothing happened, scientifically, until the 1600s. Nothing. Then things finally began to tick upward, and at last science began to make progress. Now it’s climbing like a rocket. It must have had something to do with flinging off medieval superstition, right?

Very believable.

But what if I were to tell you instead that this curve represents absolutely steady, unchanging, 1.5335% growth every single year from 500 until 2014? That’s exactly what it is. (I chose that percentage growth rate so that it would land near 1 trillion this year. No other reason.)

Here’s the point. If we look back and see nothing happening in science before 1600, it might be because we don’t know how to see what’s there.

Suppose (as is too often the case, sadly!) someone knows nothing about the actual science that preceded the scientific “revolution.” Suppose they think there was nothing happening before then. This graphic shows how easily that could be a mere artifact of perception. If scientific knowledge were actually increasing at a perfectly steady pace, year after year after year, it would be very difficult today to see anything that happened before 1600.

If you know some algebra, though, you know that if you cut the chart off at the year 1600 instead of 2014, and if you adjust the y-scale appropriately, the curve looks almost the same. People in 1600 could have looked back and seen progress leading up to their day!

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This is very far from the whole story. There’s lots more to be said from real history. Lots. I recommend Hannam’s Genesis of Science. There really was visible scientific progress in the Middle Ages, and plenty of it. This helps us understand why it might be hard for us to see from our vantage point today.

(Adapted from a comment earlier today. See also the further context here. I am fully aware that these are idealized curves.)