About that Damned Graph
Commentary by Jim Walker
Several years ago I wrote a commentary called, "The Myth of Christianity Founding Modern Science and Medicine" that included the graph above. Some people thought it was interesting and decided to spread it on the internet, by itself, without referencing the article where it explains it (for an example, click here). Unfortunately, the graph without explanation has caused a controversy. There have been many negative comments about the graph. Unfortunately some people criticize the graph for what it doesn't show rather than what it does show. I will attempt to explain why these negative comments are not relative to the purpose of the graph.
"There are no quantified and verifiable measurements on the vertical axis."
Of course I did not put numbers there because I have no information on the actual number of scientific advancements. This is because the graph represents a relational graph showing the relationship between the scientific advancements from different times. How can one show relationships without numbers? Easy. By estimating.
For example look at the three trees below:
I have no idea how high tall these tree are but I can come up with a conclusion: The trees are different in heights and it can be graphed:
This is how relational graphs work. By comparing things in the world against other things. It does not even matter, at this point, on the relative scale between them (the vertical chart does not even specify linear or exponential scale). Perhaps tree 2 should be lower or higher than pictured, but because I have no information on this I can only graph the relationship (tree 2 must be shorter than tree 1 and tree 3). Relational graphs like this use natural Bayesian logic and are common in scientific, historical, and engineering where the numbers are not important to convey an idea. Here are a few other examples of graphs and charts without numbers:
So if you're criticizing my graph because there are no quantified vertical numbers, you just don't understand.
"There's no way to truly quantify "scientific advance"
That's nonsense. Scientists and historians quantify by sampling all the time and without requiring exact numbers. For example historians cannot say with certainty how many scientific advancements the pagan Romans had, but they can quantify by examining the known historical examples and compare them to the relative small examples of scientific advances done during the Dark Ages (if there are any). Moreover, there are several ways one might sample the data. For example, looking at unique engineering artifacts that depend on scientific understanding (cranes, pumps, levers, buildings, ships, bridges, aqueducts, etc.), or scientific papers that explain nature such as Ptolemy's treatises on astronomy, Galen's medical discoveries, Aristarchus' argument for heliocentrism, Euclid's Elements, etc., etc., etc. I challenge anyone to provide Dark Age scientific examples that exceed the number, quality, or importance of scientific examples by pagan Romans before them.
I have yet to discover any valid historical claims that Dark Age Christians were better at science than the pagan Romans before them or that they exceeded the Romans in inventions or scientific discoveries.
"The term "Dark Ages" is incorrect."
Says who? The term is used by many historians, film documentaries, philosophers, etc. (you only need to look though Amazon book titles, the internet, and historical documentaries to see that the term is commonly used today). Although there are historians who do not use the term because they don't want to confuse their audience by associating the Dark Ages with "little studied," they have no authority to prevent its use or to claim that it is incorrect. Moreover, I specifically use the term to mean scientific Dark Ages and I put the dates slightly different than that of the traditional Dark Ages. I use the dates between the death of Hypatia in 415 CE to the beginning of the Renaissance. (This is a simplification because there were some scientific advances a few years before the Renaissance, but nothing important and only a few).
"The chart is pretty bogus, the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans (while not knocking their value of education and invention,) weren't very good at Science."
You're comparing good science by today's standard and of course the graph does show that (look at the red area for "Modern Science"). However, by comparison to the Christian Dark ages, the science done by the Greeks and Romans were far better at science. Far better, and that's the point of the commentary and the graph.
"It is also wildly Eurocentric."
Of course it's Eurocentric because Christianity during the Dark Ages was Eurocentric. I mean, really!
"If you follow the dotted line, you get the impression that we would have reached the current level of scientific advancement (internet, space travel, particle physics) before 1000CE if the dark ages had not existed. Saying that the graph "represents an approximate graph of the advancement of science through time" isn't even close to the truth. It's completely made up."
What you call "made up" I call a hypothesis, and how in the world would you know how close it comes to the truth? I submit that if the Dark Ages were absent of supernatural religion, then I think it would have been easily possible for space travel, particle physics before 1000CE. There's nothing impossible about that at all. After all, it took less than 600 years from the beginning of the Renaissance, or less than 300 years from the beginning of the Enlightenment to develop particle physics and space travel! And that's the truth!
"The 'Christians' 'inherited' an empire that was already in decline."
My article nor the graph puts the blame on Christians for the fall of the empire. However, for centuries Christians did little to repair the decline or provide an environment for scientific advancement. Science developed in Europe much later in spite of Christianity by opposing supernatural religion. If you think this is not so, then please provide a single example of a discovery about nature that requires a tenant of Christianity or a supernatural belief of any kind.
Can the graph be made better? Of course. Unfortunately I do not have the complete database of historical scientific advances but historians could certainly compile the known scientific advances and even come up with estimated numbers and plug them into a graph. I suspect the scientific Dark Ages will become even more apparent and dark. In this respect I encourage the debates and controversies even if you still think the graph sucks. As long as people argue over this, I expect historians in the future will get to work on this. (Hint: this might make a great thesis for an upcoming student in ancient history). In my commentary I challenged people to make a better graph. It has been seven years since I first wrote it and I'm still waiting. It is no excuse to claim that such a graph cannot be made, (that's just lazy thinking). Information of any kind can be graphed even if the information is incomplete.