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Truth relativism in culture wars

Falsifying history was, of course, one of the central themes of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and a primary tool of the Soviet Union. Are we seeing new, subtler attempts today?

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Eratosthenes: "Errr, isn't someone forgetting me?"
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Vincent Cooper
On 16 November 2012 17:56

In the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia, published in Moscow in 1952, there is an entry: “Jesus—the name of the mythical founder of Christianity.” That’s it; eight words, nothing more to be said on the matter. In Orwellian terms, Christianity was Oldspeak. The Great Soviet Encyclopaedia was Newspeak, and its purpose was to bring into being the “New Soviet Man”.

This New Soviet Man would have no more than eight words to say on Christianity, the religion that—whatever faults Western liberals may find with it—lies behind our whole Western culture, including our political values (much left-wing politics is secularised Christianity), our unique Western music, our art, and our universities.

This Soviet attempt at mass social engineering and re-orienting of the mind could be achieved, if at all, only with the young; but even there it failed. The reason, I imagine, was that the Soviet attempt at cultural reconstruction was way too crude. Even the new religion of Marxism could not uproot thousands of years of history in one generation. And of course it really is difficult to convince people that 2+2=5. The older people had long memories and could counter the Marxist propaganda of the Soviet schools. 

On November 9th, 1989, the attempt of the soviet Marxists to return Russia to the year zero collapsed.

But could such social engineering of the young happen in our liberal Western democracies of today? Could our Western culture, with its values of freedom of thought and expression and the encouragement of criticism—Kant’s sapere aude—accommodate some form of social engineering or reorienting of the mind whereby traditional truths in our understanding of ourselves and of our history are quietly replaced with falsehoods?

The Soviet attempt was crude, but there might be subtler ways.

In my local library recently I was glancing over the science and mathematics section when I came across a book: Introducing Mathematics by Ziauddin Sardar, Jerry Ravetz, and Borin Van Loon. It is a brief, illustrated introduction to the history of mathematics, aimed at maths students and the general reader. Having an interest in the history of mathematics and science, I sat down with this book, hoping to learn something new. I did indeed learn something new, but it wasn’t about mathematics.

One chapter of Introducing Mathematics was headed: The Discovery of Trigonometry. Now, I know—indeed anybody with any acquaintance with the history of mathematics knows—that trigonometry was discovered by the Greek mathematician Hipparchus.

Using trigonometry, Hipparchus measured the radius of the Earth and the distance of the Moon. He also worked out the precession of the equinoxes. This was a unique Greek achievement by a man referred to by the historian of Greek mathematics, Sir Thomas Heath, as “The greatest astronomer of antiquity.”

There is no dispute about Hipparchus and trigonometry, yet in Introducing Mathematics, Ziauddin Sardar et al. make the astonishing claim that trigonometry was discovered by Muslims. They don’t say who, exactly, or when—just the startlingly false claim that Muslim mathematicians were responsible for “the discovery of trigonometry”.

Now, I stress that that claim is not simply dubious, it is demonstrably false. The Greeks were using trigonometry almost a thousand years before Islam learned about it from translated Greek texts.

So, how does one explain such an anomaly in a modern maths text-book—if anomaly indeed is what it is? How could a mathematics book, distributed throughout the English speaking world and aimed at students make such a false claim? Indeed, how could a book on the history of maths not even mention the name of Hipparchus?

Well, reading the biographical details at the back of the book, I discovered that one of the authors, Ziauddin Sardar, is “a renowned writer, broadcaster, and cultural critic: ‘Britain’s own Muslim polymath’.”

What, I wondered, was a cultural critic doing writing a book on maths? Cultural critics, in my experience, often take a highly relativist view of facts. Could this maths book be an example of the post-modernist belief that truth is relative and that Western notions of its own achievements need to be revised?

I further discovered that Ziauddin Sardar is also the author of Why do People Hate America?

Hmm, I thought, this maths book certainly requires a thorough reading. Were there any more “anomalies” in Introducing Mathematics?

Well, yes there were. For example, the book claims that a mathematical device in spherical trigonometry, known as the Tusi couple—named after the Persian mathematician, Nasir al-Din al-Tusi—“enabled Nicolas Copernicus to represent all the irregular motions of the planets as compound circular motions.”

That’s a big claim—a very big claim, but is there any evidence for it? What is being claimed here, without any qualification, is that a Muslim mathematician was behind one of the greatest ideas in Western science: that the Earth orbits the Sun, the sun-centred solar system.

But the fact is that this claim is highly disputed. There is no contemporary mention of this Persian mathematician in anything to do with Copernicus. According to many historians of science, there is no evidence whatsoever that Copernicus was aware of Nasir al-Din’s work—but there is strong evidence that Copernicus could have been influenced by the Greek mathematician Proclus, who, hundreds of years before Nasir al-Din, had done the essential work on spherical triangles.

There was also the great French mathematician, Nicole Oresme, whose work in this field was known at the time. And of course there is no reason to believe that Copernicus didn’t hit upon the idea himself—he was, after all, a great mathematician and astronomer.

The fact is that there is no evidence whatsoever of Muslim influence on Copernicus; also, the mathematics required by the Copernican theory was already a part of the European heritage. To make an unqualified claim of Muslim influence in this area has more to do, I suspect, with Ziauddin Sardar’s Muslim cultural criticism of eurocentrism than to do with actual history.

Read more on: Eratosthenes, truth relativism, History of Mathematics, Andrew Marr's History of the World, Vincent Cooper, Andrew Marr, relativism, and mathematics
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