Why There Was No Visible Scientific Progress in the Middle Ages

Why There Was No Visible Scientific Progress in the Middle Ages

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.

KSPs

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!

ksps2
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.)

19 thoughts on “Why There Was No Visible Scientific Progress in the Middle Ages

  1. You rightly point out that the “knowledge science units” in the chart are imaginary, and this means the various charts out there are pretty bogus. On the other hand, this does not support the idea that there was significant technological progress before 1600. We just won’t know until we somehow define the “knowledge science unit.”

    Hey, I wonder what the charts would look like if we used GDP instead? Economics is much better defined than philosophy of science.

  2. In a critique of James Hannam’s book mentioned in the blogpost we can read the following statement:

    “Oddly, as we shall see, Hannam, the champion of medieval progress, hardly mentions the specific achievements of the Italian city-states from 1200 onwards.”

    (Source: http://rationalist.org.uk/articles/2416/why-gods-philosophers-did-not-deserve-to-be-shortlisted-for-the-royal-society-prize)

    The reference to the Italian city-states from 1200 onwards, to which the city-states in other parts of Western Europe may be added, could provide an indication of the cause of the Scientific Revolution. The political and economic elites of these city-states often consisted of merchants or artisans. Unlike the elites in ancient Greek and Roman societies, who valued practical labour little, they were engaged in such activities and may have been interested in improvements in this respect. So, these men’s practical-mindedness together with the Christian work ethic described in the article mentioned in my first comment may have provided a fertile ground for the Scientific Revolution.

    Looking at the economic life in medieval city-states as a possible precondition of the Scientific Revolution it is interesting that there were pioneers of modern science coming from such places: Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was from Pisa, Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) from Weil der Stadt and Evangelista Torricelli (1608-1647) from Faenza.

    Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) was from Brussels in Flanders. In the Wikipedia article about Flanders we can read:

    “During the late Middle Ages Flanders’ trading towns (notably Ghent, Bruges and Ypres) made it one of the richest and most urbanized parts of Europe, weaving the wool of neighbouring lands into cloth for both domestic use and export. As a consequence, a very sophisticated culture developed, with impressive achievements in the arts and architecture, rivaling those of Northern Italy.”

    Trade was also the central economic activity in the Hanseatic cities in Northern Europe. To these belonged the city of Thorn, where Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) came from. Maybe not accidentally he was the son of a merchant.

    Another Hanseatic city was Magdeburg. It was the hometown of another pioneer of modern science, Otto von Guericke (1602-1686).

    As mentioned above, city-states and Hanseatic cities seem to have played a major role with respect to the Scientific Revolution. In this respect it is interesting that the inventor of the telescope, Hans Lippershey (around 1570-1619), was born in the Hanseatic city of Wesel. It was also from Wesel that the family of Andreas Vesalius mentioned above originally had come from.

    The watch production in Switzerland pointed to in my second comment started in the city-state of Geneva. However, the invention of the pocket watch took place in another city-state, Nuremberg, where the master locksmith Peter Henlein in 1504 produced the first such object, called the “Nuremberg egg”.

    The cities in Western Europe that had a political or an economic elite consisting of merchants or artisans were also cradles of a number of Christian reneval movements, which shows that Christian values and viewpoints were deeply rooted there. Peter Waldo, the founder of the Waldensians in the second half of the 12th century, was a merchant in Lyon. The Waldensians were very successful in the city-states in Northern Italy. Christian renewal movements originating there were the Humiliati and the Franciscans. The “devotio moderna” goes back to Geert Groote (1340-1384) from the Hanseatic city of Deventer. City-states in the Holy Roman Empire, such as Zurich, Augsburg, Strasbourg, Nuremberg, or Geneva played a major role in the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.

  3. I have not read Hannan’s book but focussing on apparent Christian inspired science would be too narrow and attribute too much to Christianity. The Arabic Translation Movement in the Golden Age around 10AD for example was a massive burst in activity which gave us modern algebra pretty much as it is today, anatomy that took centuries for Europeans to improve upon, and the scientific method of observation, documentation and testing. The scientific and philosophical movement was essentially secular in that it was also very open minded and progressive, allowing the exchange of ideas between all religious groups that lived within the Islamic countries at that time (which encompassed about a third of the world’s population).

  4. I highly recommend The Beginnings of Western Science, by David C. Lindberg, which covers up to AD 1450. This is probably the best book around by a historian on the origins of science.

    The view that there was no scientific progress in the Middle Ages is pure ignorance.

  5. I don’t think anyone seriously thinks there was zero technological progress in the middle ages, but the question again is whether there was a significant acceleration in technological progress from around 1600.

    And again, until we define some kind of “knowledge science unit,” we’re just speculating. What about the idea of measuring economic growth as an approximation for technological growth?

  6. When I visited the seven churches of revelation in Turkey, I was surprized to see that the Byzantines and Romans clearly understood advanced engineering making hot water heating systems, pumping water via massive aqueducts uphill and building earthquake resistant structures using mixed materials. Certainly they had science and would have thought that their gains were recent.

  7. Graham,

    The problem with touting the Arabic contributions is that after that “massive burst if activity” very little, if any, real science happened. Their observations of the stars were applied to astrology not astronomy. Their “scientific method of observation, documentation and testing” was put to use in alchemy not chemistry. Their mathamatical advantage was not put to use in a productive way either.

    On the other hand, under auspices of the church in Christian Europe, universities were founded in the 11/1200’s that built on many technological and scientific advancements that existed in that time and place. Those universities were the foundation of the scientific dominance of Christian Europe and utterly dwarf anything that came from the Islamic nations. Further, virtually all of the early scientific lights from Copernicus to Newton were Christians, worked with the support/endorsement of the church and predate the “Enightenment”.

  8. GrahamH,

    “I have not read Hannan’s book but focussing on apparent Christian inspired science would be too narrow and attribute too much to Christianity.

    Have you read any books on the history of science?

    The Arabic Translation Movement in the Golden Age around 10AD

    What!– 10 AD? Where did you get that date from?

    The scientific and philosophical movement was essentially secular in that it was also very open minded and progressive, allowing the exchange of ideas between all religious groups that lived within the Islamic countries at that time…

    Do you have a reference for this assertion, or is it just your opinion?

  9. Others have pointed out problems with the ‘compound interest’ model, particularly when restricted to just Europe. I’ll point out just a couple other things. Science does progress and accumulate, but not in anything like a linear way. Observations about the world could almost be thought of as accumulating in a linear manner, but syntheses of those observations, the theories that account for them and suggest further observations move in a much more discontinuous, stepwise fashion. (C.f. Kuhn et. al.)

    Besides which, ‘science’ isn’t just ‘knowledge’ as such. There’s lots of knowledge that isn’t scientific – mathematical, medical, engineering, etc. As famous software developer Alan Cox put it, “Engineering does not require science. Science helps a lot but people built perfectly good brick walls long before they knew why cement works.” Science is a system for investigating, generating, and evaluating knowledge.

    I would say Francis Bacon’s formalization of the scientific method was the main transition in the 1600s. The formal idea of using hypotheses to generate predictions, and using observations to test them, and revising hypothesis in light of the results – the key feedback loop of what we call the ‘scientific method’ – marked a real shift from ‘natural philosophy’ to what we actually understand as ‘science’ today.

  10. You’re misunderstanding the purpose of this post. It’s not to explain what happened in the history of science. It is to propose one explanation, to be included among many others, for why it’s difficult for us today to recognize progress prior to the year 1600.

    Frankly, Ray, I think it’s rather silly the way you keep reminding us of the non-linear progress of science. In the OP I linked to this comment “for further context.” You’ve read that comment and (sort of) responded to it. You know it’s there.

    And another thing, Ray. To me, it’s almost offensive the way you keep reminding us of the glaringly obvious. I didn’t write this post in order to look stupid. I know that there are problems with the “compound interest” model, if it is taken as an actual picture of the actual progress of knowledge. I never suggested we should take it that way.

    Let me restate the purpose of this blog post in different terms than I did originally. I want people to look at this and say to themselves, “Hey, look! I always thought that the reason we couldn’t see any progress in science before 1600 is because there wasn’t any progress in science before 1600. But now I look at this, and I see that science could have been advancing at the same rate then as it is now, and from our perspective today, it would look as if science was at a standstill then. I see now there’s a possibility that I’ve come to some false conclusions. Maybe I need to find out the truth of the matter the right way: maybe I should actually look into the facts about the history of science.”

    So that was the purpose of the post, Ray, and if you want to take this discussion along a path of the actual history of science, then that’s perfectly fine with me. That was my intent from the beginning: to wake people up to the fact that they might need to do some study rather than continue blithely along under doubtful assumptions.

  11. Tom –

    Frankly, Ray, I think it’s rather silly the way you keep reminding us of the non-linear progress of science.

    You made a whole separate post out of that comment, repeating it in more prominent form. Why can’t I summarize my points against it here, too?

    Hey, look! I always thought that the reason we couldn’t see any progress in science before 1600 is because there wasn’t any progress in science before 1600.

    What’s odd is that you acknowledged that I didn’t say that, but you directed the original reply to me anyway. Indeed, I can’t see anyone else in that thread who said that either. Since that point wasn’t directed at me, who was it directed at?

    But actually, if this model says anything at all about the progress of science, I think you’d have to concede that it actually helps support my point a bit. You noted that a 2% rate of growth, versus 1.53%, would have led to us having about today’s level of scientific knowledge back in 1600.

    I did propose Jesus giving a small nudge to scientific progress. Maybe enough for half a percent faster growth?

  12. Why can’t you summarize your points here, too, you ask? You can. I never said otherwise. I just said it’s rather silly, and it still is, in view of the context you chopped out of your quoted material here.

    What’s odd in the second part of your response is that you completely misread the context there, too. I didn’t address this post to you, by the way.

    As for what Jesus should have done, that’s your opinion, and you’re steadfastly resisting every answer that’s been made to you so far. It was a reasonable question when it was first asked, given a certain lack of understanding what Jesus came to be and to do. Now, however, it’s just needling.

    Look at all that’s been said to you in response: There was considerable technical innovation in the Middle Ages. On the previous thread, much was said about the reasons Jesus came. Your attentive response to the answers that have already been offered to your question? Nothing. You’ve given us nothing to indicate you’ve noticed what we’ve said, other than misinterpretations like the ones I just pointed out, mostly caused by your ignoring context. You’ve just repeated your question in different words.

    Ray, you’re pretending to be involved in a discussion here, but all you’re doing is repeating yourself over and over again. That’s rude. It’s intellectually irresponsible.

    If you’re going to ask a question, please interact with the responses that you get. In context. Act (please!) as if at least one intention behind your question is to understand the other person’s position. Because that’s exactly how you haven’t been acting.

  13. BTW, not that it matters, but I did not note (as you say I did) that a 2% annual growth in scientific knowledge, instead of a 1.5335% rate, would have led to having today’s level of knowledge in 1600. You misread that, too.

    But there’s a related point that does matter. You’ve denied the whole context of uniform annual growth. So have I: I only used it (as I have said more than once) to illustrate a point concerning our perceptions of the past.

    It’s a position and a point neither you nor I accept, yet here you are trying to zing me with it. You’ll pick up any argument and throw it at me, even if it’s one you know neither of us accepts in any form. Why, Ray? Is it because what you love most online is throwing things?

  14. Tom –

    On the previous thread, much was said about the reasons Jesus came. Your attentive response to the answers that have already been offered to your question?

    I’ve responded some already, and just re-typed the elements of a comment that got eaten by one of the several server glitches yesterday. I apologize if I haven’t prioritized responses to your liking. There’s about four threads that people are conversing with me on here. (I’ve taken to saving my text before hitting ‘Post Comment’ now.)

    I did not note (as you say I did) that a 2% annual growth in scientific knowledge, instead of a 1.5335% rate, would have led to having today’s level of knowledge in 1600. You misread that, too.

    Rereading what I wrote, I agree that was badly phrased. What I should have said was that you noted that, over a 1500-year period, an ‘interest rate’ of 2% would lead to huge change in the scale of growth. (“If you don’t like my 1 trillion KSPs number for growth in the past year, just change the assumption to 2% growth per year. You’ll get 1 quadrillion — 10^15 — KSPs of growth this year. “)

    I turned that around, to make the point that – on this model, which you put forth as a “thought experiment” – a small change in the ‘interest rate’ leads to ‘accumulating’ a specific figure dramatically earlier. In other words, if the ‘growth rate’ had been less than half a percent more than what it actually was in real history, then we could have had the Internet and space probes in the 1600s. Again, according to the ‘thought experiment’ model.

    I actually agree with you that (to put it in terms of science fiction) L. Sprague DeCamp’s “Lest Darkness Fall” is pretty unlikely. For most time travellers, Poul Anderson’s “The Man Who Came Early” is more probable. On the other hand, ideas like the scientific method are demonstrably powerful, and if it had been introduced earlier, I truly do believe it would have changed things markedly.

  15. I turned that around, to make the point that – on this model, which you put forth as a “thought experiment” – a small change in the ‘interest rate’ leads to ‘accumulating’ a specific figure dramatically earlier. In other words, if the ‘growth rate’ had been less than half a percent more than what it actually was in real history, then we could have had the Internet and space probes in the 1600s. Again, according to the ‘thought experiment’ model.

    Again, demonstrating that you just like throwing things online.

    Please read again:

    But there’s a related point that does matter. You’ve denied the whole context of uniform annual growth. So have I: I only used it (as I have said more than once) to illustrate a point concerning our perceptions of the past.

    It’s a position and a point neither you nor I accept, yet here you are trying to zing me with it. You’ll pick up any argument and throw it at me, even if it’s one you know neither of us accepts in any form. Why, Ray? Is it because what you love most online is throwing things?

    Are you saying now that you do accept the uniform annual growth model? Because I don’t. And you said you didn’t. But twice now you’ve used it to fling things at me—even though I had explained to you why it wasn’t impressive the first time.

    Ray, let me ask this explicitly. It was implicit in my previous comments: have you given any thought whatsoever to the answers we’ve provided you on this question, both here and on the other thread? Do you think you understand our position? If you don’t, then you’re in no position to rebut it. You could only rebut a straw man version, a distorted version based on what you think you’re disagreeing with, rather than what we’re saying.

    Not to assume things though: if you understood our position, there is always the possibility you would agree rather than deciding to rebut.

    Again, though: are you trying to understand the answers we’ve given to the questions you’ve asked?

    Related to that: are you trying to understand the purpose for which I wrote this post, which I re-clarified in a recent comment?

    Really?

    If so, then please demonstrate it.

  16. Tom, I’m sorry, but (a) the ‘compound interest model’ was absolutely a response to me. That’s who you addressed it to. But (b) you say it was intended to help rebut the idea that there wasn’t any scientific progress before the 1600s, and yet (c) youalso admit that I never claimed that.

    And on top of that, (d) you admit that it’s a terrible model that doesn’t say anything realistic about science. So how could it actually say anything useful about how science actually progressed? As proof, the moment I try to apply the model you put forth to a illustrate a point of my own, you disown it entirely.

    So far as I can see, this entire line of response – initiated by you – is a giant rabbit trail. It attacks – badly – a claim I never made in the first place. If you wanted to just have a side discussion about how science progresses, you should have just made an entirely separate post, and not started out by putting it in a comment directly responding to me as if it were relevant to anything I said.

  17. I’m sorry, Ray, but the compound interest model, which was initially a response to you, went a different direction in this post. Did that possibility never even occur to you?

    And you didn’t get much else right in that comment, either.

    I’m done with this discussion with you.

Comments are closed.

Comments are closed.
%d bloggers like this: