Making Up the History of Mathematics

At about 1:37 in the video below, Professor Roger Bowley begins to recount the "history" of the number zero:

The problem with Bowley's account is that, like with so many scientists, he apparently thinks it is A-OK just to make up history as you go along. First of all, he can't even get the little facts right: the Muslim author he wants to cite was "al-Khwarizmi," not "al-Khwazimi," and he was a Persian living in the Middle East, not North Africa.

But the heart of that passage is how the Catholic Church fought against Fibonacc's introduction of Arabic numerals, since it was the time of the Crusades, they were Muslim, the "work of the devil," as a result they were banned in Florence, etc.

This seemed like typical invented-from-whole-cloth anti-Catholicism, and so I immediately wrote Thony (an actual historian of mathematics), who responded:

"No, I have never come across anything like that in all that I have read about the history of the Hindu-Arabic numerals and like you I think it is almost certainly bullshit.

"When they were first introduced into Italy a couple of the North Italian cities did ban their use in business transactions because it was claimed that they were easier to falsify but the bans didn't hold for long."

So the bans that existed were based entirely on a secular concern: fraud!

Thony added:

"The first use of Hindu-Arabic numerals in Europe was in the medieval universities, Catholic Church institutions, [and] in the computos, the calculation of the correct date to celebrate Easter, hardly the work of the devil!"

In fact, the man who first pushed their use in Europe was... Pope Sylvester II!

So, far from fighting the adoption of Arabic numerals in Europe, the Catholic Church was the first adopter and a leading promoter of their use.

Hey, but what do facts matter to a man of science, when there is an opportunity to dump on the Catholics?


  1. Completely off topic, but I wanted to let you know that I've recently come back to reading your blog after many years away. I'm a recovering libertarian who has realized my commitment to Catholicism doesn't allow me to be a liberal. I enjoyed your 2017 paper with Alex Salter and hope to extend it in the near future with some ideas of my own. I am an economics professor who, after my PhD, slowly began to question the Austrian ideas so popular among the Ron-Paul-revolution young folks like me.

    Thanks for providing an economically-informed, orthodox Catholic blog for the interwebz.

  2. Is the history of the Inquisitions made up too ?


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