Posts Tagged ‘Copernicus’

History Debunked Refutes Ethnomathematics/Rehumanizing Mathematics

September 8, 2020

This is another video from History Debunked. In it, youtuber and author Simon Webb attacks Ethnomatics, sometimes also called Rehumanizing Mathematics. This is a piece of modern pseudo-scholarship designed to help Black children tackle Maths. The idea is that Blacks perform poorly compared at Maths compared to other ethnic groups. This is held to be because Maths is the creation of White men, and this puts Blacks off studying and mastering it.

The solution has been to scrutinise African societies for their indigenous Maths, especially the Dogon of Mali. They have been chosen as the chief model for all this, as they possessed extremely advanced astronomical and mathematical knowledge. In the 1970s there was a book, The Sirius Mystery by Robert K.G. Temple, which claimed that they owed this advance knowledge to contact with space aliens. Apparently this claim was subsequently dropped 10 – 15 years later, and the claim made instead that they were just superlative astronomers and mathematicians themselves. But Dogon Maths is held to be different from White, western Maths because it’s spiritual. History Debunked then goes on to demonstrate the type of pseudo-scientific nonsense this has lead to by providing a link to an Ethnomathematics paper and reading out its conclusion. It’s the kind of pretentious verbiage the late, great Jazzman, Duke Ellington, said stunk up the place. It’s the kind of postmodern twaddle that Sokal and Bricmont exposed in their Intellectual Impostures. It’s deliberately designed to sound impressive without actually meaning anything. There’s a lot of talk about expanding cognitive horizons and possibilities, but History Debunked himself says he doesn’t understand a word of it. And neither, I guess, will most people. Because it doesn’t really mean anything. It’s just there to sound impressive and bamboozle the reader into thinking that somehow they’re thick because they don’t, while the fault is entirely the writers.

I think History Debunked is a man of the right, and certainly his commenters are Conservatives, some with extremely right-wing views. He’s produced a series of videos attacking the pseudo-history being pushed as Black History, and apparently Seattle in America is particularly involved in promoting this nonsense. But he expects it to come over here in a few years. Given the way Black History month has jumped the Atlantic, I think he’s right.

There’s been a particular emphasis on find ancient Black maths and science for some time I know. For a brief while I got on well with a Black studies group when I was a volunteer at the slavery archives in the former Empire and Commonwealth Museum. That was before I read their magazine and got so annoyed with it and its attitude to Whites that I sent them a whole load of material arguing to the contrary, and pointing out that in places like the Sudan, Blacks were being enslaved and oppressed not by White Europeans, but by the Arabs. I also sent them material about the poor Whites of South Africa, who also lived in grinding poverty thanks to Apartheid. This was stuff they really didn’t want to hear, and I was told that if I wanted to talk to them further, I should do so through someone else. They were also interested in finding examples of Black maths and science. I sent them photocopies and notes I’d made of various medieval Muslim mathematicians. These were Arabs and Persians, like al-Khwarizmi, who gave his name to the word algorithm, Omar Khayyam, best known in the west for his Rubayyat, but who was also a brilliant mathematician, al-Haytham, who invented the camera obscura in the 12th century and others, rather than Black. But they were grateful for what I sent them nonetheless, and I thanked me. This was before I blotted my copybook with them.

I’m reposting this piece because, although it comes from the political, it is correct. And you don’t have to be right-wing to recognise and attack this kind of postmodern rubbish. Sokal and Bricmont, the authors of the book I mentioned early attacking postmodernism, were both men of the left. Sokal was a physicist, who taught maths in Nicaragua under the left-wing Sandinista government. They wrote the book because they took seriously George Orwell’s dictum that writing about politics means writing clearly in language everyone can understand. And even if you believe that Black people do need particular help with maths because of issues of race and ethnicity, Ethnomathematics as it stands really doesn’t appear to be it. It just seems to be filling children’s heads with voguish nonsense, rather than real knowledge.

I also remember the wild claims made about the Dogon and their supposed contact with space aliens. Part of it came from the Dogon possessing astronomical knowledge well beyond their level of technology. They knew, for example, that Sirius has a companion star, invisible to the naked eye, Sirius B. They also knew that our solar system had nine planets, although that’s now been subsequently altered. According to the International Astronomical Association or Union or whatever, the solar system has eight planets. Pluto, previously a planet, has been downgraded to dwarf planet, because it’s the same size as some of the planetoids in the Kuiper Belt. Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince discuss this in one their books,The Stargate Conspiracy (London: Little, Brown & Company 1999), which claimed that the American intelligence agencies were secretly preparing a fake UFO landing in order to convince everyone that the space gods really had arrived, and set up a one-world dictatorship. This hasn’t happened, and I’ve seen the Fortean Times and other weird magazines trying to explain their book as a high-level hoax which people took too seriously. I don’t believe this, as they seemed very serious at the time. The Dogon believe that the first human ancestors, and some of their gods, came from the sky. Hence Temple’s claim that they were contacted by space aliens. Picknett and Prince, however, sided with sceptics like Carl Sagan. They argued instead ithat the Dogon owed it to a French priest, anthropologist or colonial administrator, I’ve forgotten which, who visited them in the 1920s and who was extremely interested in astronomy. This seems to me to be far more likely than that they either got it from space aliens or that they far better mathematicians and astronomers than they could have been at their level of development.

The Dogon are fascinating as their homes and villages are laid out to be microcosms of the male and female human body and the universe. The book African Mythology by Geoffrey Parrinder, London: Hamlyn 1967, describes the layout of a Dogon house thus:

The shape of the Dogon house is symbolical. The floor is like the earth and the flat roof like heaven. The vestibule is a man and the central room woman, with store rooms at her sides as arms. The hear at the end is her head. The four posts are the man and woman entwined in union. So the family house represents the unity of man and woman and God and the Earth. This is accompanied by the elevation and ground plan of a typical Dogon house. (p. 49).

There’s also this diagram of an idealised Dogon village:

The caption for the diagrame reads:

Like the house, the Dogon village represents human beings. The smithy is at the head like a hearth in a house. The family houses in the centre and millstones and village represent the sexes. Other altars are the feet. (p. 51).

Truly, a fascinating people and I have no problem anybody wanting to study them. But it should be in anthropology, ethnography or comparative religion, not maths.

But it struck me that if teachers and educators want to enthuse and inspire young minds with what maths Africans were studying, they could start with ancient Egypt and the great Muslim civilisations of the Sahara and north Africa, like Mali. Aminatta Forna in one of her programmes on these civilisations was shown an ancient astronomical text from the medieval library of one of these towns, which she was told showed that Muslims knew the Earth orbited the sun before Copernicus and Galileo. I doubt that very much. It looks like a form of a combined helio-and geocentric system, first proposed by the ancient Greeks, and then taken up by some medieval astronomers not just in Islam, but also in Christian Europe. In this system, all the other planets when round the Sun, which orbited the Earth. Close to the modern system, but not quite. But it showed that the Black citizens of that civilisation were in contact with the great currents of Muslim science, and that they would have had learnt and taught the same kind of Maths that was being investigated and researcher right across the Muslim world, from India to Morocco and further south to Mali. One of the Black educationalists would like to translate one of these books from Arabic, the learned language of Muslim civilisation, and use it as an example of the kind of maths that was also taught in Black Africa.

Or you could go right back to ancient Egypt. Mathematical texts from the Land of the Nile have also survived in the Moscow and Rhind mathematical papyri. These have various maths problems and their solution. For example, problem No. 7 of the Moscow papyrus is about various calculations for a triangle. This runs

Example of calculating a triangle.

If you are told: A triangle of 2 thousands-of-land, the bank of 2 of 2 1/2;

You are to double the area: result 40 (arurae). Take (it) 2 1/2 times; result [100. Take its square root, namely] 10. Evoke 1 from 2 1/2; what results is 2/5. Apply this to 10; result 4. It is 10 (khet) in length by 4 (khet) in breadth. From Henrietta Midonick, The Treasury of Mathematics: 1 (Harmondsworth: Pelican 1965) p. 71.

It’s amazing to think that the boys at the scribal school were being taught all this millennia ago. It gives you a real sense of connection with the ancient schoolkids reading it. You can imagine them, hunched over with their pen and ink, busily cudgeling their brains while the teacher prowls about them. The Babylonians were also renowned as the pioneers of early mathematics. They even uncovered a school when they excavated Ur of the Chaldees in the 1920s, complete with the maths and other texts the schoolboys – female education didn’t exist back then, but I’m willing to be corrected – were required to learn. As a schoolboy character in the Fast Show used to say: ‘Brilliant!’ You don’t need to burden modern African societies like the Dogon with spurious pseudo-history and pseudo-science, when the real historic achievements of ancient Egypt and medieval Africa are so impressive.

It struck me that even if you don’t use the original Egyptian maths texts to teach maths – which would be difficult, as their maths was slightly different. Their method of calculating the area of a field of four unequal sides yields far too high a figure, for example – you could nevertheless inspire children with similar problems. Perhaps you could do it with assistance of a child or two from the class. You could bring them out in front of everyone, give them and ancient Egyptian headdress, and then arranged the lesson so that they helped the teacher, acting as pharaoh, to solve it. Or else pharaoh showed them, his scribes, and thus the class. This is certainly the kind of thing that was done when I was a kid by the awesome Johnny Ball on the children’s maths and science programme, Think of a Number. And every week, as well as showing you a bit of maths and science, he also showed you a trick, which you could find out how to do by dropping him a line. It was the kind of children’s programme that the Beeb did very, very well. It’s a real pity that there no longer is an audience for children’s programmes and their funding has subsequently been cut.

Here’s History Debunked’s video attacking Ethnomathematics. He also attacks a piece of ancient baboon bone carved with notches, which he states has been claimed is an ancient prehistoric African calendar. He provides no evidence in this video to show that it wasn’t, and says its the subject of a later video. If this is the one I’m thinking of, then that is a claim that has been accepted by mainstream archaeologists and historians. See Ivor Grattan-Guinness, The Fontana History of the Mathematical Sciences (London: Fontana Press 1998) p. 24.

If you want to know more about ancient and medieval maths, and that of the world’s many indigenous cultures, see the book Astronomy before the Telescope, edited by Christopher Walker with an introduction by the man of the crumpled suit and monocle himself, Patrick Moore (London: British Museum Press 1998).

This has chapters on astronomy in Europe from prehistory to the Renaissance, but also on astronomy in ancient Egypt, Babylonia, India, Islam, China, Korea and Japan, North and South America, traditional astronomical knowledge in Africa and among Aboriginal Australians, Polynesia and the Maori. It can be a difficult read, as it explores some very technical aspects, but it is a brilliant work by experts in their respective fields.

The Nazis and the Contemporary Far Right in Eastern Europe

March 6, 2016

This is another topic on which I could say much, much more. It isn’t just in America that Fascism appears to be rearing its ugly head. It’s also on the rise in eastern Europe. A few weeks ago Hope Not Hate covered mass demonstrations against Islam which were expected to be held one weekend in Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. They also reported that Nick Griffin, having received the heave-ho from British voters and his own party, the BNP, has gone to dine out at other’s expense in Poland.

It’s chilling. A friend of mine, who very definitely isn’t anti-Polish – he’s British, but also goes to get some of the delicacies on sale at his local Polish shop – caught sight of the Polish Far Right hold a demonstration in the street a few months ago when he visited the country of Copernicus and Chopin’s father. As well as many of the Free Polish pilots, who did so much to keep this country free of the Nazi threat during the Battle of Britain in World War II.

He can’t speak Polish, but there was a group standing in the street, making speeches to a watching crowd. They seemed to be ranting about Communists and inevitably, the Jews. When he got back, he asked one of the Polish people at work if they were the extreme Right. His co-worker confirmed it. He noticed that the people in the crowd weren’t what you’d expect. They were well-dressed, young, with families. Not the same type as the grizzled skinhead hard men you tend to get over this side of the Baltic.

And you can find similar scenes right across eastern Europe. The current nationalist government in the Ukraine includes neo-Nazi storm troopers, and neo-Nazis have also resurfaced in Russia since the 1980s.

The anti-Communist resentment is understandable. This was a dictatorship imposed on the Poles and other peoples by Stalin, and backed by military force from the Soviet Union. In Russia, the Bolsheviks took power through a coup, rather than popular revolution. Under Stalin, they killed millions. As for the hatred of the Jews, some of this comes from traditional eastern European anti-Semitism, the same anti-Semitism that saw vicious pogroms in the 1890s, and which led members of the conquered eastern European nations to collaborate with the Nazis in the Holocaust. In Poland, some of it also might come from the way Stalin, himself a vicious anti-Semite, used Jews in his secret police as he felt that they would have little sympathy for the gentile population.

The anti-Semitism is vile enough, but the outright support for the Nazis shows a profound ignorance of the nature of the Third Reich and their racism. They weren’t just anti-Semitic. They also considered the speakers of Slavonic languages, such as Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Belorussians, Russians and Ukrainians, to be racially inferior. After these areas were conquered and the Jews exterminated, the indigenous inhabitants of these areas were to be worked to death as slaves. In Poland, the Nazis compounded the horrors through a deliberate programme of resettlement and ethnic cleansing similar to that inflicted on the Jews. They also scoured its people looking for ‘Aryan’ bloodlines. Blonde Polish children and babies were held to have ‘Germany’ ‘Aryan’ ancestry, and so were taken from their parents to be raised in German families.

Hitler made no secret of these policies. His intention to conquer eastern Europe is laid out in Mein Kampf:

And so we National Socialists consciously draw a line beneath the foreign policy tendency of our pre-War period. We take up where we broke off six hundred years ago. We stop the endless German movement to the south and west, and turn our gaze towards the land in the east. At long last we break off the colonial and commercial policy of the pre-War period and shift to the soil policy of the future. If we speak of soil in Europe, we can primarily have in mind only Russia and her vassal border states.

– cited in D.G. Williamson, The Third Reich (Harlow: Longman 1982) 88.

Between 1941 and 1942 two million Russian prisoners of war died of starvation and maltreatment in Nazi concentration camps. Here is a description of such atrocities at the POW camp at Blizin in Poland, by an eye witness.

The camp consists of four huts, situated in the fields near the village, so that everything that happens there can be observed by the neighbours. Train-Loads of prisoners which arrived here had taken over a fortnight to reach the new camp and were without food or water. Each wagon when opened contained scores of dead bodies. The sick who could not move were thrown out. They were ordered to sit down on the ground near the camp and were shot by the S.S.-men before the eyes of the rest. the cam contains about 2,500 prisoners. The average daily death rate is about 50. The dead bodies are thrown out onto the fields and sprinkled with lime, often lying some days after that unburied … The prisoners received 1/4 kg of bread made of horse-chestnut flour and potato-skins, and soup made of rotten cabbage.

in Williamson, above, p. 92.

Williamson also includes the entry from Goebbels’ diary on resettlement policies in Poland.

Zoerner has resigned as governor of Lublin. He called on me to give the reasons for his resignation. He had succeeded on the whole in squeezing an unusual amount of food out of the Lublin district. Understandably so, for this district is the most fertile in the entire General Government. Suddenly, however, he received orders for resettlement that had a very bad effect upon morale. Some 50,000 Pole were to be evacuated to begin with. Our police were able to grab only 25,000, the other 25,000 joined the partisans. It isn’t hard to imagine what consequences that had for the whole area. Now he was to evacuate about 190,000 more Poles. This he refused to do, and in my opinion he was right. His district will now be governed from Warsaw by Governor Dr Fischer. Although Dr Frank, the Governor General, agreed with Zoerner’s views he hasn’t the authority to put his foot down on the encroachments of the police and the S.S. it makes you want to tear out your hair when you encounter such appalling political ineptitude. At home we are waging total war with all its consequences and are subordinating all philosophical and ideological aims to the supreme aim of final victory: in the occupied areas, however, things are done as though we were living in profound peace….

Williamson, p. 93.

No self-respecting person from eastern Europe should ever join one of these Nazi parties. Ever.

ISIS’ Destruction of Muslim Cultural Treasures in Timbuktu

March 17, 2015

Yesterday I put up a number of pieces on ISIS’ destruction of irreplaceable cultural treasures, seen in the smashing of ancient Assyrian artefacts in a museum in Mosul and the destruction of an Islamic shrine of Adam’s son Seth, revered in Islam as the prophet Sheth. The Islamist terror group hasn’t confined its destruction of items and monuments of immense cultural heritage to Iraq.

This is a report from Euronews from 29th January 2013, reporting how, when they were expelled from Timbuktu, they smashed one of the important local graves, and set fire to the local library, in the hope of destroying the priceless books and manuscripts within.

ISIS’ Attack on the Graves of the Sufi Saints

This was a calculated attempted to destroy Mali’s peculiar Islamic culture, and its rich intellectual heritage that is only just beginning to be discovered and truly appreciated by Western scholars. And it shows clearly what ISIS would like to do to other Muslim nations and their cultures, including those in the West, simply for not following what they consider to be the correct interpretation of Islam.

The desecration of the ancient grave looks to me like an attempt to destroy an aspect of Sufi worship, which is strongly rejected in Wahhabi Islam. Sufism is a form of Islamic mysticism, in which the practitioner attempts to achieve union with the Almighty through a series of spiritual exercises. These can include singing and dancing. There are a number of different Sufi orders, some of whom may differ widely from orthodox Islam. The famous whirling dervishes of Turkey are one Sufi order. These orders are under the guidance of a sheikh, the term given to their spiritual head. The orders’ founders are revered as saints, their graves are frequently the sites of veneration and special ceremonies.

I was taught at College that most Muslims in fact belong to a Sufi order. Sufi mysticism was practised not only in the Near East, but also amongst European Muslim communities in the former Ottoman Empire. Many of these communities were converted to Islam through their preaching, and in particular that of the Bektashi order, who served as the chaplains to the Ottoman forces. Unfortunately, this aspect of the traditional Islamic heritage of the Balkan nations has been under attack, not only from Non-Muslim nationalists, but also from Islamic fundamentalists from elsewhere in the Dar al-Islam. I can remember reading years ago in the Independent how graves in Muslim cemeteries in some of the Balkan countries had been destroyed as part of a fundamentalist attack on monuments and practices they considered non-Muslim.

There are British Muslims, who perform religious rites to venerate the graves of religious leaders in this country. If ISIS had their way, the worshippers and mystics at these shrines, who follow the traditions of their orders, would find their beliefs and practices banned and suppressed. Just as ISIS would kill and maim their non-Muslim friends and fellow citizens.

Timbuktu’s Ancient Heritage of Learning

As for the destruction of the library, Timbuktu was one of the richest towns in West Africa during the Middle Ages because of its position on the major gold trading route. So rich was the country, that when the ruler of Mali went on the pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj, in the 12th century, he took so much gold with him that it sent Egypt into recession.

Mali was not only rich, but cultured. Timbuktu was a university town, where the Islamic texts and doctrines were studied and copied. Not only that, but its scholars were also interest in the secular sciences that were pursued by Muslim scientists during the Middle Ages. One of the books shown to the Beeb’s Aminatta Forna in her programme on Timbuktu’s lost library was a scientific text arguing for a heliocentric model of the solar system. That’s the same model as proposed independently in Europe by Copernicus, in which the Earth goes round the Sun, rather than the usual medieval notion of the Sun and the planets going round the Earth.

Forna’s programme was a fascinating documentary on the sheer wealth of the city’s and Mali’s medieval culture and learning. It’s also on Youtube. Here it is below. It’s nearly an hour, so not short, but well worth watching.

The modern Arabic word for literature is adabiyyat, which I understand is derived from adab, meaning manners, but also ‘culture’. ISIS in their destruction of the world’s cultural heritage and learning have shown themselves to be its enemies, both those of Muslims and non-Muslims. And if they continue, the world will be a much poorer place.

Girolamo Fracastoro: The Christian Father of Modern Pathology

May 15, 2013

Until the 19th century the favoured explanation for the origin and spread of disease was the miasma theory. This followed the ancient authors, who believed that disease was caused by bad smells. It’s the reason malaria has its name – mala aria, bad air. The germ theory of disease only became dominant in the 19th century, when medical science was able to confirm that disease was spread by micro-organisms. It is nevertheless a surprising fact that some physicians from the 16th century onwards came very close to a germ theory of disease. One of these was the classical Humanist and polymath Girolamo Fracastoro.

Fracastoro became a student at the University of Padua in 1501, the same year as Copernicus also enrolled at the university. He was interested in a wide range of scientific subjects, pursuing research and writing on medicine, pathology, physics, geology and astronomy. He also had good relations with the Church. In his long poem De Contagione et Contagiosis Morbis (Concerning the Contagion and Contagious Disease), published in 1546, Fracastoro advanced a modern theory of the spread of epidemics. He believed they were spread by little particles or seeds, and identified three different types of illness.

The first were those spread by person to person contact, such as leprosy, scabies and respiratory tuberculosis. The second were spread by utensils, beclothes and other items, with which infected people had come into contact. These were the vectors – the causes of transmission – of some of the fevers. The third type were diseases such as smallpox, that could travel great distances.

A similar explanation for the spread of disease was later advanced in the 18th century by the French Academy of Science to explain outbreaks of plague. These later physicians considered that it was spread by small spores. In this instance Fracastoro was clearly far ahead of his time.

Apart from his medical writing, he was the first to recognise and describe the magnetic poles, and one of the first to propose the modern origin of fossil beds. He can thus be considered a true Renaissance Christian man of science.