A good scientist, in other words, does not merely ignore conventional wisdom, but makes a special effort to break it. Scientists go looking for trouble.
— Paul Graham, What You Can’t Say
Staying on the subject of Dark Age myths: what about all those scientists burned at the stake for their discoveries?
Historical consensus declares this a myth invented by New Atheists. The Church was a great patron of science, no one believed in a flat earth, Galileo had it coming, et cetera. Unam Sanctam Catholicam presents some of these stories and explains why they’re less of a science-vs-religion slam dunk than generally supposed. Among my favorites:
Roger Bacon was a thirteenth century friar who made discoveries in mathematics, optics, and astronomy, and who was the first Westerner to research gunpowder. It seems (though records are unclear) that he was accused of heresy and died under house arrest. But this may have been because of his interest in weird prophecies, not because of his scientific researches.
Michael Servetus was a sixteenth-century anatomist who made some early discoveries about the circulatory and nervous system. He was arrested by Catholic authorities in France and fled to Geneva, where he was arrested by Protestant authorities, and burnt at the stake “atop a pyre of his own books”. But this was because of his heretical opinions on the Trinity, and not for any of his anatomical discoveries.
Lucilio Vanini was a philosopher/scientist/hermeticist/early heliocentrism proponent who was most notable as the first person recorded to have claimed that humans evolved from apes – though his theories and arguments were kind of confused and he probably got it right mostly by chance. City authorities arrested him for blasphemy, cut out his tongue, strangled him, and burned his body at the stake. But nobody cared about his views on evolution at the time; the exact charges are unclear but he was known to make claims like “all religious things are false”.
Pietro d’Abano was a fourteenth century philosopher and doctor who helped introduce Arabic medicine to the West. He was arrested by the Inquisition and accused of consorting with the Devil. He died before a verdict was reached, but the Inquisition finished the trial, found him guilty, and ordered his corpse burnt at the stake. But he wasn’t accused of consorting with the Devil because he was researching Arabic medicine. He was accused of consorting with the Devil because he was kind of consorting with the Devil – pretty much everyone including modern historians agree that he was super into occultism and wrote a bunch of grimoires and magical texts.
Giordano Bruno was a contemporary of Galileo’s. He also believed in heliocentrism, and promoted (originated?) the idea that the stars were other suns that might have other planets and other life-forms. He was arrested, tortured, and burned at the stake. But although his “innumerable worlds” thing was probably a strike against him, the church’s main gripe was his denial of Christ’s divinity.
I’m not a historian and I don’t want to debate any of these accounts. Let’s say they’re all true, let’s accept every excuse we’re given and accept the Church never burned anybody just for researching science. Scientists got in trouble for controversial views on non-scientific subjects like prophecies or the Trinity, or for political missteps.
Scott Aaronson writes about the the Kolmogorov option (suggested alternate title: “Kolmogorov complicity”). Mathematician Andrey Kolmogorov lived in the Soviet Union at a time when true freedom of thought was impossible. He reacted by saying whatever the Soviets wanted him to say about politics, while honorably pursuing truth in everything else. As a result, he not only made great discoveries, but gained enough status to protect other scientists, and to make occasional very careful forays into defending people who needed defending. He used his power to build an academic bubble where science could be done right and where minorities persecuted by the communist authorities (like Jews) could do their work in peace.
It’s tempting to imagine a world where Servetus, Bacon, and Bruno followed Aaronson’s advice. They pursued their work in optics, astronomy, anatomy, or whatever other subject, but were smart enough never to go near questions of religion. Maybe they would give beautiful speeches on how they had seen the grandeur of the heavens, but the true grandeur belonged to God and His faithful servant the Pope who was incidentally right about everything and extremely handsome. Maybe they would have ended up running great universities, funding other thinkers, and dying at a ripe old age.
Armed with this picture, one might tell Servetus and Bruno to lay off the challenges. Catholicism doesn’t seem quite true, but it’s not doing too much harm, really, and it helps keep the peace, and lots of people like it. Just ignore this one good prosocial falsehood that’s not bothering anybody, and then you can do whatever it is you want.
But Kolmogorov represents an extreme: the politically savvy, emotionally mature scientist able to strategically manipulate tough situations. For the opposite extreme, consider Leonid Kantorovich.
Kantorovich was another Russian mathematician. He was studying linear optmization problems when he realized one of his results had important implications for running planned economies. He wrote the government a nice letter telling them that they were doing the economy all wrong and he could show them how to do it better. The government at this point happened to be Stalin during his “kill anybody who disagrees with me in any way” phase. Historians are completely flabbergasted that Kantorovich survived, and conjecture that maybe some mid-level bureaucrat felt sorry for him and erased all evidence the letter had ever existed. He was only in his 20s at the time, and it seems like later on he got more sophisticated and was able to weather Soviet politics about as well as anybody.
How could such a smart guy make such a stupid mistake? My guess: the Soviet government didn’t officially say “We will kill anyone who criticizes us”. They officially said “Comrade Stalin loves freedom and welcomes criticism from his fellow citizens”, and you had to have some basic level of cynicism and social competence to figure out that wasn’t true.
Even if the Soviet government had been more honest and admitted they were paranoid psychopaths, the exact implications aren’t clear. Kantorovich was a professor, he was writing about a very abstract level of economics close to his area of expertise, and he expressed his concerns privately to the government. Was that really the same as some random hooligan shouting “I hate Stalin!” on a street corner? Surely there were some highly-placed professors of unquestionable loyalty who had discussed economics with government officials before. Even a savvier version of Kantorovich would have to consider complicated questions of social status, connections, privileges, et cetera. The real version of Kantorovich showed no signs of knowing any of those issues even existed.
If you think it’s impossible to be that oblivious, you’re wrong. Every couple of weeks, I have friends ask me “Hey, do you know if I could get in trouble for saying [THING THAT THEY WILL DEFINITELY GET IN TROUBLE FOR SAYING]?” When I stare at them open-mouthed, they follow with “Well, what if I start by specifying that I’m not a bad person and I just honestly think it might be true?” I am half-tempted to hire babysitters for these people to make sure they’re not sending disapproving letters to Stalin in their spare time.
The average person who grows up in a censored society may not even realize for a while that the censorship exists, let alone know its exact limits, let alone understand that the censors are not their friends and aren’t interested in proofs that the orthodoxy is wrong. Given enough time, such a person can become a savvy Kolmogorov who sees the censorship clearly, knows its limits, and understands how to skirt them. If they’re really lucky, they may even get something-like-common-knowledge that there are other Kolmogorovs out there who know this stuff, and that it’s not their job to be a lone voice crying in the wilderness. But they’re going to have a really cringeworthy edgelord period until they reach that level.
All of this would be fine except that, as Graham says in the quote above, scientists go looking for trouble. The first virtue is curiosity. I don’t know how the internal experience of curiosity works for other people, but to me it’s a sort of itch I get when the pieces don’t fit together and I need to pick at them until they do. I’ve talked to some actual scientists who have this way stronger than I do. An intellectually curious person is a heat-seeking missile programmed to seek out failures in existing epistemic paradigms. God help them if they find one before they get enough political sophistication to determine which targets are safe.
Did Giordano Bruno die for his astronomical discoveries or his atheism? False dichotomy: you can’t have a mind that questions the stars but never thinks to question the Bible. The best you can do is have a Bruno who questions both, but is savvy enough to know which questions he can get away with saying out loud. And the real Bruno wasn’t that savvy.
So imagine the most irrelevant orthodoxy you can think of. Let’s say tomorrow, the government chooses “lightning comes after thunder” as their hill to die on. They come up with some BS justification like how atmospheric moisture in a thunderstorm slows the speed of light. If you think you see lightning before thunder, you’re confused – there’s lots of lightning and thunder during storms, maybe you grouped them together wrong. Word comes down from the UN, the White House, the Kremlin, Zhongnanhai, the Vatican, etc – everyone must believe this. Senior professors and funding agencies are all on board. From a scientific-truth point of view it’s kind of a disaster. But who cares? Nothing at all depends on this. Even the meteorologists don’t really care. What’s the worst-case scenario?
The problem is, nobody can say “Lightning comes before thunder, but our social norm is to pretend otherwise”. They have to say “We love objective truth-seeking, and we’ve discovered that lightning does not come before thunder”. And so the Kantoroviches of the world will believe that’s what they really think, and try to write polite letters correcting them.
The more curiosity someone has about the world, and the more they feel deep in their gut that Nature ought to fit together – the more likely the lightning thing will bother them. Somebody’s going to check how light works and realize that rain can’t possibly slow it down that much. Someone else will see claims about lightning preceding thunder in old books, and realize how strange it was for the ancients to get something so simple so wrong so consistently. Someone else will just be an obsessive observer of the natural world, and be very sure they weren’t counting thunderclaps and lightning bolts in the wrong order. And the more perceptive and truth-seeking these people are, the more likely they’ll speak, say “Hey, I think we’ve got the lightning thing wrong” and not shut up about it, and society will have to destroy them.
And the better a school or professor is, the better they train their students to question everything and really try to understand the natural world, the more likely their students will speak up about the lightning issue. The government will make demands – close down the offending schools, fire the offending academics. Good teachers will be systematically removed from the teaching profession; bad teachers will be systematically promoted. Any educational method that successfully instills curiosity and the scientific spirit will become too dangerous to touch; any that encourage rote repetition of approved truths will get the stamp of approval.
Some other beliefs will be found to correlate heavily with lightning-heresy. Maybe atheists are more often lightning-heretics; maybe believers in global warming are too. The enemies of these groups will have a new cudgel to beat them with, “If you believers in global warming are so smart and scientific, how come so many of you believe in lightning, huh?” Even the savvy Kolmogorovs within the global warming community will be forced to admit that their theory just seems to attract uniquely crappy people. It won’t be very convincing. Any position correlated with being truth-seeking and intelligent will be always on the retreat, having to forever apologize that so many members of their movement screw up the lightning question so badly.
Some people in the know will try to warn their friends and students – “Look, just between you and me, lightning obviously comes before thunder, but for the love of God don’t say that in public“. Just as long as they’re sure that student will never want to blackmail them later. And won’t be able to gain anything by ratting them out. And that nobody will hack their private email ten years later, then get them fired or imprisoned or burned at the stake or whatever the appropriate punishment for lightning-heresy is. It will become well-known that certain academic fields like physics and mathematics are full of crypto-lightning-heretics. Everyone will agree that the intelligentsia are useless eggheads who are probably good at some specific problems, but so blind to the context of important real-world issues that they can’t be trusted on anything less abstruse than e equalling mc squared. Dishonest careerists willing to go in front of the camera and say “I can reassure everyone, as a physicist that physics proves sound can travel faster than light, and any scientists saying otherwise are just liars and traitors” will get all the department chairs and positions of power.
But the biggest threat is to epistemology. The idea that everything in the world fits together, that all knowledge is worth having and should be pursued to the bitter end, that if you tell one lie the truth is forever after your enemy – all of this is incompatible with even as stupid a mistruth as switching around thunder and lightning. People trying to make sense of the world will smash their head against the glaring inconsistency where the speed of light must be calculated one way in thunderstorms and another way everywhere else. Try to start a truth-seeking community, and some well-meaning idiot will ask “Hey, if we’re about pursuing truth, maybe one fun place to pursue truth would be this whole lightning thing that has everyone all worked up, what does everybody think about this?” They will do this in perfect innocence, because they don’t know that everyone else has already thought about it and agreed to pretend it’s true. And you can’t just tell them that, because then you’re admitting you don’t really think it’s true. And why should they even believe you if you tell them? Would you present your evidence? Would you dare?
The Kolmogorov option is only costless when it’s common knowledge that the orthodoxies are lies, that everyone knows the orthodoxies are lies, that everyone knows everyone knows the orthodoxies are lies, etc. But this is never common knowledge – that’s what it means to say the orthodoxies are still orthodox. Kolmogorov’s curse is to watch slowly from his bubble as everyone less savvy than he is gets destroyed. The smartest and most honest will be destroyed first. Then any institution that reliably produces intellect or honesty. Then any philosophy that allows such institutions. It will all be totally pointless, done for the sake of something as stupid as lightning preceding thunder. But it will happen anyway. Then he and all the other savvy people can try to pick up the pieces as best they can, mourn their comrades, and watch the same thing happen all over again in the next generation.
The Church didn’t lift a finger against science. It just accidentally created a honeytrap that attracted and destroyed scientifically curious people. And any insistence on a false idea, no matter how harmless and well-intentioned, risks doing the same.
I’m not against the Kolmogorov Option. It’s nothing more than a band-aid on the problems that even a harmless orthodoxy will cause – but if there’s no way to get rid of the orthodoxy, the band-aid is better than nothing. But politically-savvy Kolmogorov types can’t just build a bubble. They have to build a whisper network.
They have to build a system that reliably communicates the state of society. “Stalin claims that he welcomes advice from everyone, but actually he will kill you if you try to give it.” Or “God probably doesn’t exist, but lots of us know this, and we all just go to Mass and mouth the right words anyway.”
This is harder than it sounds. A medieval monk being told God doesn’t exist probably has a lot of questions. He’s likely to go kind of crazy for a while, crave the worldview-shards that he needs to rebuild his fractured philosophy. “What about Heaven? Does that exist? Where do we go when we die?” (“Psssst, Epicurus has some good arguments for why the soul doesn’t survive death, you can get a copy of his books from the monastery library.”) You might even have to prevent overcorrection: “Is there even such a place as Jerusalem?” (“Yes, now you’re just being silly, Brother Michael went there on Crusade and says it’s very nice.”)
(when a heretical belief turns out to really be completely wrong – maybe occultism would be a good example here – a whisper network might be the only place where you could get high-enough-quality debate to be sure.)
They have to serve as psychological support. People who disagree with an orthodoxy can start hating themselves – the classic example is the atheist raised religious who worries they’re an evil person or bound for Hell – and the faster they can be connected with other people, the more likely they are to get through.
They have to help people get through their edgelord phase as quickly as possible. “No, you’re not allowed to say this. Yes, it could be true. No, you’re not allowed to say this one either. Yes, that one also could be true as best we can tell. This thing here you actually are allowed to say still, and it’s pretty useful, so do try to push back on that and maybe we can defend some of the space we’ve still got left.”
They have to find at-risk thinkers who had started to identify holes in the orthodoxy, communicate that they might be right but that it could be dangerous to go public, fill in whatever gaps are necessary to make their worldview consistent again, prevent overcorrection, and communicate some intuitions about exactly which areas to avoid. For this purpose, they might occasionally let themselves be seen associating with slightly heretical positions, so that they stand out to proto-heretics as a good source of information. They might very occasionally make calculated strikes against orthodox overreach in order to relieve some of their own burdens. The rest of the time, they would just stay quiet and do good work in their own fields.
Such a whisper network would be in the best interests of the orthodox authorities. Instead of having to waste their good scientists, they could let the good scientists could join the whisper network, learn which topics to avoid, and do good science without stepping on orthodox toes. But the authorities couldn’t just say this. Maybe they wouldn’t even think of it, and nobody (except maybe Kantorovich) would be dumb enough to try to tell them. Individual secret policemen are always going to see the written law – “arrest heretics” – and consider the whisper network a legitimate target. Kolmogorov is doing the Lord’s work, but that won’t give him a pass from the Inquisition.
His reward will be that people with a drive to make the world make sense – to have everything fit together seamlessly and beautifully – will be able to quietly collect all the orthodox and all the heretical pieces, satisfy themselves, and then move on to doing good work in math or physics or whatever harmless field doesn’t affect Christianity or Marxism or lightning or whatever. Academies other than the worst and most curiosity-crushing have a little better chance to endure; academic bureaucrats other than the most slavish have a little more chance to remain in their position.
But also: maybe this is how common knowledge spreads. Maybe some atheists survive, go into science, become vaguely aware of each other’s existence, feel like they have safety in numbers, get a little bolder, and maybe the Church decides it’s not worth killing all of them. Maybe everyone stays quiet until Mao dies, and then Deng and Zhao look at each other and say “So, just between you and me, all of that was totally insane, right?” I don’t know how often this happens. But the chances seem better than for open defiance followed by certain retribution.