Persecution nonsense

I will be teaching probability and statistics in the autumn. I've begun reviewing my textbook (Introduction to Probability, Freund), and in the introduction I find this claim:

"everything relating to chance was looked upon as divine intent... Thus, it was considered impious, or even sacrilegious, to try to analyze the 'mechanics' of the supernatural through mathematics; indeed, some of the mathematicians connected with the early study of probability theory were persecuted for this very reason."

The author does not cite a single source to back his claim that studying probability was considered "impious." He does not mention a single actual person who was ever persecuted by anyone for studying probability theory. I studied the history of science at the graduate level for a year at King's College in London, and our lecturer assured us that on any scientific topic that did not seem to directly impact the interpretation of scripture, the Catholic Church was wholly indifferent to what conclusions scientists might reach. (For instance, the Church showed no interest whatsoever in what theory of motion turned out to be most correct.) And in many years of reading in the history of science and mathematics since my graduate studies, I have never encountered a single instance of anyone anywhere ever having been persecuted for a mathematical idea, aside from the legends that the Pythagorean who discovered that the square root of two is not rational was killed for his finding.

But despite my extensive amateur study of this history, I am not a pro, so I thought perhaps I had missed something. Thus, I asked an actual pro in the history of mathematics about this, and he responded, "I've never come across anything remotely like that and I too think it is completely nonsense."

Can any of my readers come up with even a single case of someone having been "persecuted" for studying probability? I sure can't find any.

Nevertheless, a major publishing house (Dover) allowed their author to make this outlandish claim without asking him to supply the least bit of supporting evidence. And thus we find evidence of how strong is the unfounded belief that religion is the enemy of scientific and mathematical reason: a writer making a completely unsubstantiated claim that "religion" opposed some mathematical advance is not asked for the least bit of evidence to back his claim, since the editors at Dover no doubt already "knew" that if something was rational, "religion" would reject it.


  1. De Moivre was persecuted, but as a Huguenot, not mathematician.

  2. Presumably "some of the mathematicians connected with the early study of probability theory were persecuted for this very reason" refers to Cardano, who seems to have been arrested by the Inquisition, though surely not for studying probability.


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