What Did the Romans Know? An Inquiry into Science and Worldmaking (II)

I finished the book.

I did not have a lot of nice things to say about the second half of it on goodreads. I felt it was a bad idea to blog the book right after I’d finished it (I occasionally do this) because I was actually feeling angry at the author at that point, and I hope that after having now distanced myself a bit from it perhaps I’m now better able to evaluate the book.

The author is a classics professor writing about science. I must say that at this point I have now had some bad experiences with reading authors with backgrounds in the humanities writing about science and scientific history – reading this book at one point reminded me of the experience I had reading the Engelhardt & Jensen book. It also reminded me of this comic – I briefly had a ‘hmmmmm…. – Is the reason why I have a hard time following some of this stuff the simple one that the author is a fool who doesn’t know what he’s talking about?‘-experience. It’s probably not fair to judge the book as harshly as I did in my goodreads review (or to link to that comic), and this guy is a hell of a lot smarter than Engelhardt and Jensen are (which should not surprise you – classicists are smart), but I frankly felt during the second half of this work that the author was wasting my time and I get angry when people do that. He spends inordinate amounts of time discussing trivial points which to me seem only marginally related to the topic at hand – he’d argue they’re not ‘marginally related’ of course, but I’d argue that that’s at least in part because he’s picked the wrong title for his book (see also the review to which I linked in the previous post). There’s a lot of stuff in the second half about things like historiography and ontology, discussions about the proper truth concept to apply in this setting and things like that. Somewhat technical stuff, but certainly readable. I feel he’s spending lots of words and time on trivial and irrelevant points, and there are a couple of chapters where I’ve basically engaged in extensive fisking in the margin of the book. I don’t really want to cover all that stuff here.

I’ve added some observations from the second half of the book below, as well as some critical remarks. I’ve tried in this post to limit my coverage to the reasonably good stuff in there; if you get a good impression of the book based on the material included in this post I have to caution you that I did not think the book was very good. If you want to read the book because you’re curious to know more about ‘the wisdom of the ancients’, I’ll remind you that on the topic of science at least there simply is no such thing:

“Science is special because there is no ancient wisdom. The ancients were fools, by and large. I mean no disrespect, but if you wish to design a rifle by Aristotelian principles, or treat an illness via the Galenic system, you are a fool, following foolishness.”

Lehoux would, I am sure, disagree somewhat with that assessment (that the ancients were fools), in that he argues throughout the book that the ancients actually often could be argued to be reasonably justified in believing many of the things that they did. I’m not sure to which extent I agree with that assessment, but the argument he makes is not without some merit.

“That magnets attract because of sympathy had long been, and would long continue to be, the standard explanation for their efficacy. That they can be impeded by garlic is brought in to complete the pairing of forces, since strongly sympathetic things are generally also strongly antipathetic with respect to other objects. […] in both Plutarch and Ptolemy, garlic-magnets are being invoked as a familiar example to fill out the range of the powers of the two forces. Sympathy and antipathy, the author is saying, are common — just look at all the examples […] goat’s blood as an active substance is another trope of the sympathy-antipathy argument. […] washing the magnet in goat’s blood, a substance antipathetic to the kind of thing that robs magnets of their power, negates the original antipathetic power of the garlic, and so restores the magnets.[15] […] we should remember that — even for the eccentric empiricist — the test only becomes necessary under the artificial conditions I have created in this chapter.[36] We know the falsity of garlic-magnets so immediately that no test [feels necessary] […] We know exactly where the disproof lies — in experience — and we know that so powerfully as to simply leave it at that. The proof that it is false is empirical. It may be a strange kind of empirical argument that never needs to come to the lab, but it is still empirical for all that. On careful analysis we can argue that this empiricism is indirect […] Our experiences of magnets, and our experiences of garlic, are quietly but very firmly mediated by our understanding of magnets and our understanding of garlic, just as Plutarch’s experiences of those things were mediated by his own understandings. But this is exactly where we hit the big epistemological snag: our argument against the garlic-magnet antipathy is no stronger, and more importantly no more or less empirical, than Plutarch’s argument for it. […]

None of the experience claims in this chapter are disingenuous. Neither we nor Plutarch are avoiding a crucial test out of fear, credulity, or duplicity. We simply don’t need to get our hands dirty. This is in part because the idea of the test becomes problematized only when we realize that there are conflicting claims resting on identical evidential bases — only then does a crucial test even suggest itself. Otherwise, we simply have an epistemological blind spot. At the same time, we recognize (as Plutarch did) how useful and reliable our classification systems are, and so even as the challenge is raised, we remain pretty confident, deep down, about what would happen to the magnet in our kitchen. The generalized appeal to experience has a lot of force, and it still has the power to trick us into thinking that the so-called “empirically obvious” is more properly empirical than it is just obvious. […]

An important part of the point of this chapter is methodological. I have taken as my starting point a question put best by Bas van Fraassen: “Is there any rational way I could come to entertain, seriously, the belief that things are some way that I now classify as absurd?”[45] I have then tried to frame a way of understanding how we can deal with the many apparently — or even transparently — ridiculous claims of premodern science, and it is this: We should take them seriously at face value (within their own contexts). Indeed, they have the exact same epistemological foundations as many of our own beliefs about how the world works (within our own context).”

“On the ancient understanding, astrology covers a lot more ground than a modern newspaper horoscope does. It can account for everything from an individual’s personality quirks and dispositions to large-scale political and social events, to racial characteristics, crop yields, plagues, storms, and earthquakes. Its predictive and explanatory ranges include some of what is covered by the modern disciplines of psychology, economics, sociology, medicine, meteorology, biology, epidemiology, seismology, and more. […] Ancient astrology […] aspires to be […] personal, precise, and specific. It often claims that it can tell someone exactly what they are going to do, when they are going to do it, and why. It is a very powerful tool indeed. So powerful, in fact, that astrology may not leave people much room to make what they would see as their own decisions. On a strong reading of the power of the stars over human affairs, it may be the case that individuals do not have what could be considered to be free will. Accordingly, a strict determinism seems to have been associated quite commonly with astrology in antiquity.”

“Seneca […] cites the multiplicity of astrological causes as leading to uncertainty about the future and inaccuracy of prediction.[41] Where opponents of astrology were fond of parading famous mistaken predictions, Seneca preempts that move by admitting that mistakes not only can be made, but must sometimes be made. However, these are mistakes of interpretation only, and this raises an important point: we may not have complete predictive command of all the myriad effects of the stars and their combinations, but the effects are there nonetheless. Where in Ptolemy and Pliny the effects were moderated by external (i.e., nonastrological) causes, Seneca is saying that the internal effects are all-important, but impossible to control exhaustively. […] Astrology is, in the ancient discourses, both highly rational and eminently empirical. It is surprising how much evidence there was for it, and how well it sustained itself in the face of objections […] Defenders of astrology often wielded formidable arguments that need to be taken very seriously if we are to fully understand the roles of astrology in the worlds in which it operates. The fact is that most ancient thinkers who talk about it seem to think that astrology really did work, and this for very good reasons.” [Lehoux goes into a lot of detail about this stuff, but I decided against covering it in too much detail here.]

I did not have a lot of problems with the stuff covered so far, but this point in the coverage is where I start getting annoyed at the author, so I won’t cover much more of it. Here’s an example of the kind of stuff he covers in the later chapters:

“The pessimistic induction has many minor variants in its exact wording, but all accounts are agreed on the basic argument: if you look at the history of the sciences, you find many instances of successful theories that turn out to have been completely wrong. This means that the success of our current scientific theories is no grounds for supposing that those theories are right. […]

In induction, examples are collected to prove a general point, and in this case we conclude, from the fact that wrong theories have often been successful in the past, that our own successful theories may well be wrong too.”

He talks a lot about this kind of stuff in the book. Stuff like this as well. Not much in those parts about what the Romans knew, aside from reiteration and contextualization of stuff covered earlier on. A problem he’s concerned with and presumably one of the factors which motivated him to writing the book is how we might convince ourselves that our models of the world are better than those of the ancients, who also thought they had a pretty good idea about what was going on in the world – he argues this is very difficult. He also talks about Kuhn and stuff like that. As mentioned I don’t want to cover the stuff from the book I don’t like in too much detail here, and I added the quotes in the two paragraphs above mostly because they marginally relate to a point (a few points?) that I felt compelled to include here in the coverage because this stuff is important to me to underscore, on account at least in part of the fact that the author seems to be completely oblivious about it:

Science should in my opinion be full of people making mistakes and getting things wrong. This is not a condition to be avoided, this is a desirable state of affairs.

This is because scientists should be proven wrong when they are wrong. And it is because scientists should risk being proven wrong. Looking for errors, problems, mistakes – this is part of the job description.

The fact that scientists are proven wrong is not a problem, it is a consequence of the fact that scientific discovery is taking place. When scientists find out that they’ve been wrong about something, this is good news. It means we’ve learned something we didn’t know.

This line of thinking seems from my reading of Lehoux to be unfamiliar to him – the desirability of discovering the ways we’re wrong doesn’t really seem to enter the picture. Somehow Lehoux seems to think that the fact that scientists may be proven wrong later on is an argument which should make us feel less secure about our models of the world. I think this is a very wrongheaded way to think about these things, and I’d actually if anything argue the opposite – precisely because our theories might be proven wrong we have reason to feel secure in our convictions, because theories which can be proven wrong contain more relevant information about the world (‘are better’) than theories which can’t, and because theories which might in principle be proven wrong but have not yet been proven wrong despite our best attempts should be placed pretty high up there in the hierarchy of beliefs. We should feel far less secure in our convictions if there were no risk they might be proven wrong.

Without errors being continually identified and mistakes corrected we’re not learning anything new, and science is all about learning new things about the world. Science shouldn’t be thought of as being about building some big fancy building and protecting it against attacks at all costs, walking around hoping we got everything just right and that there’ll be no problems with water in the basement. Philosophers of science and historians of science in my limited experience seem often to subscribe to a model like that, implicitly, presumably in part due to the methodological differences between philosophy and science – they often seem to want to talk about the risk of getting water in the basement. I think it’s much better to not worry too much about that and instead think about science in terms of unsophisticated cavemen walking around with big clubs or hammers, smashing them repeatedly into the walls of the buildings and observing which parts remain standing, in order to figure out which building materials manage the continual assaults best.

Lastly just to reiterate: Despite being occasionally interesting this book is not worth your time.

March 28, 2014 - Posted by | Books, History, Philosophy, Science


  1. Given the vast amount of good books in the world and our limited time, wouldn’t it be in one’s interest to discard a book as soon as one can predict that it will land below 2.5 goodreads-stars?

    Or at least at that point begin to read fast and superficially enough that finishing the book won’t affect one’s peace of mind?

    Comment by Stefan | March 28, 2014 | Reply

    • I take the rating description on goodreads seriously – 2 stars is ‘okay’, and at three stars I’m already having an enjoyable time (‘like it’). I’ve learned a lot of stuff from the books I’ve given 2 stars.

      An important point to make is that if you insist on only reading awesome books you’ll end up reading (potentially much) fewer books because it takes time and effort figuring out which books (/not) to read. Search costs aren’t trivial, at least not to me – I’d much rather read books than reviews of books, and I probably if anything dislike looking for reviews and stuff like that. Selecting which books to read and not to read takes time and effort, and I like this part of the process much less than I do the actual ‘reading books’ part. So I’ll often read along because even if the book isn’t that great it’s still more interesting than is spending time and effort figuring out what else to read instead, especially if you’ve already invested a bit of time and effort figuring out what the topic is about.

      On a related note I think my standards are rather high, in terms of the ratings I hand out – especially when it comes to non-fiction. My rating average for all rated books is 3.18, but only four out of the first 20 books on my list of books with a five star rating are non-fiction books. My impression is that I rarely give non-fiction books higher than average ratings, and that I often give them lower than average ratings. I don’t think that’s necessarily because I enjoy the books less than other people do; I just use/interpret the scale differently.

      I often do start reading a bit faster and less carefully once I’ve established that a specific part of the book I’m reading isn’t all that great – I much prefer doing this to giving up on the book altogether, although I have become slightly better at doing that over time as well. In the specific case here however I felt it was important for me to at least spend a bit of time trying to figure out why I didn’t like his coverage because my confusion might plausibly be due to me not understanding the arguments presented, which would be unfortunate. I don’t like reading stuff I don’t understand. Part of what I got annoyed about was that even after spending a bit of time figuring out what he was getting at, his language was still too unclear for me to figure out what he’s actually arguing, and arguing against, and in some of the cases where it was clear he didn’t actually seem to make much of a point. You might think of the time I spent understanding the material in the last part as an investment that didn’t pay off. Sometimes such investments are justified – understanding a complex argument can feel quite rewarding.

      Comment by US | March 28, 2014 | Reply

  2. I was thinking “why does he punish himself with all these below average books”, but if 2 stars equals ‘okay’ then it makes sense now. Thanks.

    Comment by Stefan | March 28, 2014 | Reply

    • Ah, I see. I can understand why you were confused – if you were thinking of two-star books as ‘below-average’ then I can see why my behaviour may have seemed puzzling to you.

      2 stars is where I draw the line in terms of which books I find worth reading, and 2 stars is a quite broad rating. Books I’d give one star are usually books you don’t hear about because I only read enough to establish that the book is not worth reading – I often don’t even rate these on goodreads, because I don’t like the idea of having a lot of one-star partially read books where I’ve really only read enough pages of the book to establish that I don’t want to read the book in the first place. I don’t think I’ve read a one-star book in full more than once or twice, at least not recently, and in those cases it was probably due to a combination of the books being short and me only really realizing that they were actually that bad after having given it a bit of thought after I’d completed reading them. I’m not a masochist – books I don’t to some extent enjoy reading I (generally) do not read. (At least not unless I really can’t face the choice of deciding which other book to read instead and don’t know how else to spend my time (sometimes I have a hard time figuring out how to spend my time) – I was in this situation a short while ago and I was actually contemplating at that point continuing reading a rather crappy book instead of throwing it away. Fortunately a brief conversation with a friend made me aware of what I was doing and so I gave up on the book).

      Incidentally in terms of your original comment and the ‘as soon as one can predict that it will land below 2.5 goodreads-stars’-comment, I’d note that the cut-off I use is 1.5, which in terms of goodreads ratings is in the border area between disliking the book and thinking it’s okay. If the book is hovering around that level for any extended period of time I incidentally most likely will not finish it, because if it’s not better than that then just one small unfortunate remark may easily be enough for me to lose patience, write ugly stuff about the author in the margin, and give up on the book.

      Comment by US | March 28, 2014 | Reply

      • An aspect somewhat related to the stuff I talked about in the previous comments is perhaps worth noting here as well, now that we’re having this discussion: It may often be somewhat problematic for people to compare the ratings across publishers/book types, for reasons which may be obvious.

        I use publishers extensively as a selection mechanism used to figure out which books to read. Reviews are nice, but in most cases a review will mean less to me than will the name of the publisher, in part because I often read books most other people don’t (it’s not that rare for me to read books which have not been reviewed online). I know that Springer and other science publishing houses publish science books of a generally high quality, and that most university press publications also can usually be expected to be of a higher quality than a book from some random publishing house.

        This also means that I undoubtedly have some implicit double standards which are at work when I’m rating different types of books. I’ll most likely compare Springer publications with other Springer publications (or Karger publications, or …). And the performance of any rating-scale will depend upon the variation available in the data. So I’ll punish a Springer publication harshly for poor editing or spelling errors because I can’t punish the authors of those books for not sourcing the claims – you don’t get published there unless that stuff’s in order. Weights given to various aspects will differ across publishers and types of publications, making what might be thought of as cross-genre comparisons difficult. Some of these dynamics are expectations-related; I know roughly what to expect when I’m reading a publication from one of the major science publishers, and that will be very different from what I expect from a popular science book. In that context there’s probably an argument to be made that there’s a lot more scope for the popular science book to surprise me in a positive way than there is for the science book, which probably means that I’m more likely to hand out high ratings of such books. On the other hand other dynamics may work in the opposite direction; if I’m in the habit of reading science publications and then at some point pick up a book published by some people who don’t feel that sourcing claims is that important, I may feel a desire to write very bad things about the author on account of his ‘sloppy writing’ (which I might not actually have judged all that harshly, if I had had ‘reasonable expectations’).

        Another potentially important factor related to interpreting my ratings of various books is that when I’m not completely sure which rating to give, which is often the case, I have observed that I much prefer giving the book a potentially lower rating than it deserves than giving it a higher rating than it deserves. It would probably make sense for me to actually address that one as there may be some unhealthy thinking in the background motivating this, but until I do address it that’s at least something to keep in mind. Of course if I do address that one it’ll just add one more component to the comparison problem, because the time variable will then become highly relevant (‘was the book rated before or after he addressed this issue?’).

        Comment by US | March 28, 2014

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