Sonja Brentjes has taken great offense to the post I made back in October about an article she and Taner Edis wrote in Skeptical Inquirer about the shortcomings in the 1001 Inventions traveling exhibit on the Golden Age of Islamic science. After Aaron Adair wrote a thoughtful discussion of the degree to which Arab science was dependent upon the Greeks and Romans that preceded them, Brentjes weighed in last week with additional criticism of me.
In the interest of (finally) putting this issue to rest, I’m going to review Brentjes’s criticism. I will explain the points where she is correct about mistakes I made, and I will explain again where she is misrepresenting what I wrote.
Here’s her criticism, which begins by suggesting I am incompetent:
Rather than pretend I’m writing an objective analysis, let me cut out the middle man and address Brentjes personally. Since she feels she’s on a first name basis with, I’ll do the same with her.
Gee, thanks, Sonja. I’m glad you continue think I’m incompetent for pointing out that the text used to support the exhibit’s claims does not say either what the exhibit says it says or what you in your later comments to me said it says. (As I have pointed out, I’m relying on the English translation; if the original Arabic is different, please let me know.)
You described the exhibit’s version of Ibn Firnas’ flight thusly in your article: “And yet, this claim of successful powered flight—with wings made out of eagle feathers no less—is mainly based on a few sentences in a Moroccan chronicle from seven hundred years later.” My point is that the text you cite here didn’t say anything about eagle feathers on the wings, and, in stating that the exhibit’s description was based on the text (which was not written in Morocco or by a Moroccan) you implied the text supported the claim, which you rejected on the grounds of physics, not textual criticism. This doesn’t confuse your beliefs for the exhibit’s assertions; it simply records a fact about how your written paragraph reads and what it implies to readers without specialist knowledge of Arabic texts.
This is why I said “Edis and Brentjes are wrong on the details” when mentioning “powered flight” and “eagle feathers” because you let stand false facts as though they were supported by the text. The error you described the exhibit making, though, was one of physics, which made it sound to me like you agreed that the exhibit fairly represented the content of the Arabic source. This, though, I admit was unclear and wrongly implied that you were asserting what the exhibit did. I should have said “the exhibit” was wrong and that you failed to disagree with the presentation of that information. I compressed too much, and I’m sorry. I’ve even gone back and corrected the blog post to make sure that this is clear.
The place where I specifically criticized you—and not the exhibit—was when you said “flight with muscle-powered wings is physically impossible. And yet, 1001 Inventions not only endorses notoriously unreliable accounts but indulges in lengthy and purely fictional elaborations.” My criticism was that the text you said lay behind the exhibit says nothing about muscle-powered wings, and you provided no information from the exhibit for or against this notion. The text, as written, was consistent with the glider scenario. In later comments you argued that gliders are also impossible, and this is wrong. So, the disagreement here is that you feel I unfairly criticized you for asserting (correctly) that the exhibit’s depiction of Ibn Firnas’ flight was impossible when I felt I was evaluating the underlying medieval text, the presumed source for the claims.
This, I believe, addresses your first complaint, about factual accuracy.
I’m not really sure what else you’re looking for me to say. I’ve told you several times now that we are almost entirely in agreement on the general thrust of your 1001 Inventions critique, but that I don’t agree that the role of the skeptic is to criticize the polemical or ideological purpose of a claim but rather its factual foundation—and I said you were right about the lack of factual foundation! I just don’t see how I can quite agree with you much more, given the facts.
But beyond this, you are mischaracterizing my description of your work, which meets all your criteria as listed in your above comment. I evaluated you thusly: “Their article makes plain that they believe that it is intellectual fraud to recognize the intellectual achievements of the medieval Muslim world as ‘science’ or to suggest that these achievements helped develop modern (read: Western) science.” I believe that is identical to your specifically stated claim refuting the notion “that medieval Muslim achievements in the sciences and the realm of technology had a direct impact on today’s sciences and technologies and without those medieval achievements our scientific knowledge and our technologies would not exist.” Especially this true given that I was using ‘science’ in context to refer to the modern, secular version following methodological naturalism, etc. However, if you want to expand “science” to refer to natural philosophy or any pre-modern experimental inquiry, then the first half of my sentence would no longer apply, though the second half would. This is a problem with using words without defining terms, something that is rather challenging to do in a blog post or a short review article. However, given that Edis wrote in The Illusion of Harmony that “they [Muslims] did not do science in the modern sense” I assumed that “science” had a meaning that you may not have meant to imply. That said, I never accused you of denying the Muslim role in medieval science. You’re putting words in my mouth.
My specific criticism, which was a brief paragraph in a thousand-something word blog post, was to take issue with your summary of the exhibit’s message as “Muslims need only to reinstate medieval conceptions of nature and medieval habits of thought in order to become creatively engaged in cutting-edge science and technology.” I did not feel that your article made a good enough case that celebrating Golden Age Muslim accomplishments (which is a different question from whether specific accomplishments actually happened at all) was the same thing as advocating a return to “medieval habits of thought.” Were this the case, nearly any historical presentation could be accused of advocating a return to the negative aspects of that era—though I am showing my own bias in reading “medieval” as the antithesis of the modern (or ancient) and the good. But, specifically, my criticism was limited to stating that I “also cannot get from the exhibit the notion the authors read into it,” about advocating medieval thought. Again, this refers to the fact that I felt your article contained too little to support that judgment, which I saw as being derived largely from Edis' extremely similar argument in his book The Illusion of Harmony. This is an opinion, not a fact.
Now, insofar as I can see, there are still two separate questions: Are the facts correct, and how shall we interpret them? As far as I am concerned (and here I am in the minority in a field dominated by an iron triangle of secular humanists-cum-atheists-cum-skeptics) the role of the skeptic ends with establishing whether facts are correct and employed fairly. Whether they are used to celebrate or denigrate policies or philosophies is a political, not a scientific, question. My entire criticism amounted to me saying I didn’t see how the facts you presented led to the conclusion you reached about advocating a “return” to medieval values. You may feel that you established your conclusion beyond doubt, and I may feel that there was room for doubt, and this is a difference of opinion, not of fact.
But really, none of this is what upset you, Sonja. It was my one-sentence first-paragraph line that said that your article included “what seems very much like a politically-motivated philosophical disagreement with the existence of Islam.” That’s really the heart of the issue, right?
Would it help if I agreed that this is wrong, and I should have specified that this was limited only to “in the realm of science” and was referring to the role of religion in society? Perhaps “presence of Islam in the realm of science” would have been a better way to phrase it, but I’m not perfect. Sometimes the words don’t come out flawlessly. Since I write a blog on science (more or less), most of my readers would have assumed the context was scientific rather than general. This was made clear in my very next sentence, which said “Edis, a Turkish-American physicist, has taken political positions against Islamism and wrote a book called The Illusion of Harmony which examined the tension in Islamic societies between science and religion.” Edis specifically wrote in Illusion that science and Islamic literalism are mutually incompatible, and, valuing science, explained why he supported secularism over Islamism, at least for himself:
Secular liberalism is essential for science, in Edis’s view, and therefore is incompatible with Islam as currently practiced, as he outlined in his book at great length. (Note: We don’t disagree on this either.) Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is a value judgment, one that Edis admits that he is not (nor am I) qualified to make. I trust you can see how I made the inference that offended you: (a) Scientific rationality is the best way to live, and (b) Islam as currently practiced is incompatible with scientific rationality; therefore, (c) you (as coauthors) are philosophically opposed to Islam in science. I wasn’t just making things up, though I compressed the syllogism too much. I’ve gone back and amended this, too.
Can we finally move on now?
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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