Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Common misconceptions

xkcd #843, "Misconceptions"
Wikipedia's "List of common misconceptions" is full of delightful trivia, ranging from:
"Older elephants that are near death do not leave their herd and instinctively direct themselves toward a specific location known as an elephants' graveyard to die."
"Human blood in veins is not blue. In fact, blood is always red due to hemoglobin. Deoxygenated blood has a deep red color, and oxygenated blood has a light cherry-red color. The misconception probably arises for two reasons: 1) Veins below the skin appear blue. This is due to a variety of reasons only weakly dependent on the color of the blood, including light scattering through the skin, and human color perception. 2) From the way diagrams use colors to show the difference between veins (usually shown in blue) and arteries (usually shown in red)." 
The impulse to correct apparently true, apparently "scientific" beliefs belongs to a certain kind of disputatious mind. You must like truth more than peace. (I betray no bias at this juncture toward either virtue.) You must be skeptical and a little persnickety. You must be willing to call others' bluffs. In short, you must be a bit like the mid-17th-century English physician and writer Thomas Browne.

Thomas Browne. (From Wikipedia)
Joan Carlile. National Portrait Gallery.
Browne is not widely read outside the world of scholars of early modern literature nowadays; and even then, he has always attracted less attention than his rough contemporaries Thomas Hobbes and John Milton. But he was part of the English intellectual revolution in science and spirit that followed in the wake of the essayist and scientist Francis Bacon—and, even more notably, may have been the greatest English prose stylist in his generation. Virginia Woolf, who was a fan, summed him up thus:
He collected coins, kept maggots in boxes, dissected the lungs of frogs, braved the stench of the spermaceti whale, tolerated Jews, had a good word for the deformity of the toad, and combined a scientific and sceptical attitude towards most things with an unfortunate belief in witches... Whatever he writes is stamped with his own idiosyncrasy, and we first became conscious of impurities which hereafter stain literature with so many freakish colours that, however hard we try, make it difficult to be certain whether we are looking at a man or his writing. Now we are in the presence of sublime imagination; now rambling through one of the finest lumber rooms in the world — a chamber stuffed from floor to ceiling with ivory, old iron, broken pots, urns, unicorns' horns, and magic glasses full of emerald lights and blue mystery.
Lovers of Browne frequently turn to his confessional-autobiographical work Religio Medici ("A Doctor's Religion"), or to his long, lovely, strange essay Hydriotaphia; or, Urne-Buriall—a work whose mere title compelled Clive James to write an eight-page panegyric to its greatness. ("No sooner seen than memorised, even if you don't yet know quite what is meant," he writes.) NYRBooks has just put these two works back into print, at the urging of—and with an introduction from—Stephen Greenblatt and Ramie Targoff. But for my money, the most addictive, wonderful, and weird thing Browne ever wrote was a proto-encyclopedia called the Pseudodoxia Epidemica.

Pseudodoxia Epidemica is basically Greek for "Common Misconceptions" (more literally, "Epidemic False-Opinions"). In other words, it is essentially a 17th-century version of the Wikipedia "List of Common Misconceptions." But it has virtues that, alas, Wikipedia is sorely lacking. For one thing, the prose is delightful (and, let's face it, we more often read Wikipedia in spite of the quality of the writing rather than on account of it). For another, the idea that these misconceptions would have been widespread gives us a fascinating look at the folk wisdom of the 17th-century. And while at least some of the corrections to the misconceptions embed misconceptions within themselves, it is amazing how often Browne gets things right, at least at large. It should not be underestimated how much Browne can do for you. Browne on unicorns, in book 3, chapter 23, is absolutely enthralling, as he takes a kind of glee in transmuting the lofty unicorn into the humble beetle:
GREAT account and much profit is made of Unicorns horn, at least of that which beareth the name thereof; wherein notwithstanding, many I perceive suspect an Imposture, and some conceive there is no such Animal extant. Herein therefore to draw up our determinations; beside the several places of Scripture mentioning this Animal (which some may well contend to be only meant of the Rhinoceros) we are so far from denying there is any Unicorn at all, that we affirm there are many kinds thereof. In the number of Quadrupedes, we will concede no less then five; that is, the Indian Ox, the Indian Ass, the Rhinoceros, the Oryx, and that which is more eminently termed Monoceros, or Unicornis. Some in the list of fishes; as that described by Olaus, Albertus and others: and some Unicorns we will allow even among Insects; as those four kinds of nasicornous Beetles described by Muffetus.
From Browne we learn that coral was used as teething-rings for children:
Though Coral doth properly preserve and fasten the Teeth in men, yet is it used in Children to make an easier passage for them; and for that intent is worn about their necks. But whether this custom were not superstitiously founded, as presumed an amulet or defensative against fascination, is not beyond all doubt. For the same is delivered by Pliny. (5.23.5)
 Browne rails against the presumption that the apple was the fruit forbidden in Eden:
Again, There is no determination in the Text; wherein is only particulared that it was the fruit of a tree good for food, and pleasant unto the eye, in which regards many excell the Apple; and therefore learned men do wisely conceive it inexplicable; and Philo puts determination unto despair, when he affirmeth the same kind of fruit was never produced since. Surely were it not requisite to have been concealed, it had not passed unspecified; nor the tree revealed which concealed their nakedness, and that concealed which revealed it; for in the same chapter mention is made of fig-leaves. (7.1)
And he generally pokes holes in all kinds of unworthy, malicious, and silly superstitions—whether that Jews smell bad, or the left-handed are wicked,  or that we have separate organs for meat and for drink. Browne was one of the great precursors of the age of reason, bounded though he was by his belief in witches and the like, in his own way a hero for scientist and humanist alike—a reminder of all we wouldn't have without inquiring, skeptical, empirical minds, making up for what they lack in fancy with what they have in wit. (Book 2, Chapter 6 addresses, in a wry phrase, "sundry Tenents concerning Vegetables.") And when even he seems just a bit too credulous—as when he spends pages worrying about whether Adam had a navel, or how many Sibyls there were—we would do well to remember that maybe we wear similar blinders that it will take a century or two for posterity to spot, looking back on our best guesses and proudest answers, and giggling at our obliviousness.

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