Thursday, April 21, 2011

Denialism and Shoddy Historical References

The book I'm currently reading during my commute back and forth to work on the Long Island Rail Road is Denialism by Michael Specter. The subtitle of the book is "How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives."

One of the laudatory blurbs on the back cover of Denialism is from David Baltimore, winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine, who praises Specter for describing "the increasing public willingness to deny the hard-won facts of science in favor of myths and shoddy investigation."

Earlier today, while reading the chapter in Denialism about the anti-vaccination movement, which for the most part was pretty good, I winced when Specter writes the following:

"In 1421, China was far ahead of the rest of the world in sophistication, in learning, and particularly in scientific knowledge. It was the least ignorant society on earth. Then the newly completed Forbidden City was struck by a lightning bolt just as it opened, and the emperor reacted with horror. He interpreted the lightning as a sign from the gods that the people of the Middle Kingdom had become too dependent on technology - and were not paying enough attention to tradition or to the deities." (Bold emphasis mine).

Specter then references 1421: The Year China Discovered America by the crackpot Gavin Menzies and states that "the Chinese burned every library, dismantled their fleets, stopped exploring the globe, and essentially shut themselves off from the outside world." While Specter might have seen it as a convenient historical reference to bolster he point he was trying to make, if he were to dig a little bit deeper, he would have seen that most of the claims peddled by Menzies are a load of nonsense, as per the website Talk about "shoddy investigation."

Specter baldly states that early 15th century China, as I highlighted above, "was the least ignorant society on earth." But what does he base this on? By virtue of its population, which included a large imperial bureaucracy drawn from men who passed civil service examinations, Ming China certainly did not suffer from a shortage of literate, educated people. Quantitatively though, I don't know how one can say that a Ming scholar or civil servant knew more about geography or the natural wold than a contemporary educated man in Europe or the Middle East.

While it is true that the Forbidden City was struck by a fire in 1421, the last of the great Ming Dynasty treasure fleets set out ten years later in 1431. The voyages came to an end not because of a palace fire, but for reasons that seemed entirely pragmatic to those who favored their termination.

For one thing, the treasure fleets were enormously expensive and offered little in return except for generating tribute missions from the kingdoms they visited. Second, and more important, the greatest threat to Ming China's security was a land based threat, the Mongols north of the Great Wall. In 1449, the Mongols even managed to capture a Ming emperor in battle. By way of comparison, 15th century Portugal, which had a more or less stable border with Spain on the Iberian Peninsula, and having no other alternatives for expansion, had the incentive and the means to devote its energies to exploration and overseas conquest.

The decline of the Chinese navy also had its roots in the conflict between the court eunuchs and the Confucian bureaucracy. Louise Levathes writes in When China Ruled the Seas, "Seafaring and overseas trade were the traditional domains of the eunuchs, and in striking down those enterprises the Confucians were eliminating a primary source of their rivals' power and income."

Levathes adds, "With the opening of the Grand Canal in 1415, there was no longer a need for oceangoing junks to carry southern grain supplies northward to feed the capital." Besides, while the Europeans wanted to sail to China and the Indies beause those places had things the Europeans badly wanted, Europe did not have anything that the Chinese wanted, or at the very least China evidently did not know enough about Europe to even consider whether it had anything to offer China.

Another thing that needs to be considered is that one of the factors that contributed to China falling behind may have been because it was one large state covering a territory that was greater in size than Western Europe and which was vastly more poweful than its immediate neighbors. If Chinese government policy shifted towards hostility to overseas trade and exploration, there was no alternative power base to turn to for patronage and support. Western Europe, on the other hand, consisted of numerous smaller kingdoms in competition with one another. So, in late 15th century Europe, a Genoese navigator named Christopher Columbus believes that he can reach China, Japan and the East Indies by sailing westward into the Atlantic. He can travel from one kingdom to another, pitching his idea to their respective monarchs, until at last Ferdinand and Isabela of Spain decide to support his venture. Then once it becomes apparent that vast, previously unknown lands have been found, just about every other European country with the means to build oceangoing ships wants to get in on the action.

Part of the problem in criticizing the Ming for turning inward in the 15th century is that it presupposes that the Ming should have had the foresight to see what is so clear to us today with the benefit of nearly 600 years of hindsight. Yes, they allowed their naval technology to decay at precisely the time when the seafaring kingdoms of Europe were beginning a series of voyages that would culminate in the first circumnavigation of the globe in 1522. But it would not be until the Opium War in 1839, a little over four hundred years after the last treasure fleet returned home, that the reality of their backwardness became apparent to the Chinese. You have to know you're in a race before you can realize that you've fallen behind.

But to circle back to the main point of this post, if Specter is going to rightly criticize people who base their beliefs on incorrect information or forgetting the past, then he shouldn't rely on the work of pseudo historians and lazy generalizations to make his point. It only serves to undermine his own credibility.

No comments: