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Anti-Pseudoscience Advocate Anne Borden King Has Cancer, and Now Her Facebook Feed Is Full of Pseudoscience Cancer ‘Alternative Care’ Ads

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Anne Borden King, writing at The New York Times:

Last week, I posted about my breast cancer diagnosis on Facebook. Since then, my Facebook feed has featured ads for “alternative cancer care.” The ads, which were new to my timeline, promote everything from cumin seeds to colloidal silver as cancer treatments. Some ads promise luxury clinics — or even “nontoxic cancer therapies” on a beach in Mexico.

There’s a reason I’ll never fall for these ads: I’m an advocate against pseudoscience. As a consultant for the watchdog group Bad Science Watch and the founder of the Campaign Against Phony Autism Cures, I’ve learned to recognize the hallmarks of pseudoscience marketing: unproven and sometimes dangerous treatments, promising simplistic solutions and support. Things like “bleach cures” that promise to treat everything from Covid-19 to autism.

When I saw the ads, I knew that Facebook had probably tagged me to receive them. Interestingly, I haven’t seen any legitimate cancer care ads in my newsfeed, just pseudoscience. This may be because pseudoscience companies rely on social media in a way that other forms of health care don’t.

“May be” is too kind, as is “social media” in general as opposed to Facebook in particular. Scammers and fraudsters of all sorts, from alternative “medicine” quackery to financial investment grifters have found a welcome home advertising and promoting their rackets on Facebook.

They don’t advertise on legitimate media because legitimate media won’t have them, and because Facebook makes it affordable by doing all the hard work of targeting for them. Facebook is a criminal enterprise fully and knowingly complicit in all of this — from the spread of bigotry to the spread of pseudoscience.

Conversely, legitimate advertisers are abandoning Facebook because they want nothing to do with any of this. To remain on Facebook is to be complicit by association.

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28 days ago
CDA Section 230 is the liability protection Facebook relies on. Without Section 230, Facebook (and NewsBlur for that matter) couldn't thrive as it would be liable for the content posted on it by third-parties, *including ads*.

I cover this in a COVIDCURES hypothetical on my side project WTF is CDA: https://cda.wtf (it's a short quiz to see where you stand on the law. Find out if you agree with it or want it reformed.)
Cambridge, Massachusetts
28 days ago
I feel like there’s an interesting area between taking things down and labeling them - especially with politicians and other public figures it can be useful to have a public record even if something is flagged as false or abusive. I’m not sure it would make enough of a difference.
28 days ago
This particular hypothetical seems the most cut and dried to me of all of them: In this case Facebook isn't an "open platform" for communication, it is a paid publisher that should be culpable for the ad revenue it generates, and for the most part existing Truth in Advertising laws should apply pretty heavily with little to no modification needed. You cannot "disintermediate" advertising, and given the existing paid relationship that should be self-evident that Facebook is directly publishing such posts not as a "general platform" but as an advertising magazine. Otherwise you are whitewashing advertising as "regular content" and while that is clearly Facebook's MO in this case, that leads to even more critical and obvious violations of existing Truth in Advertising laws (disguising paid content as editorial or news content!). It's a cake that Facebook should not be allowed to have and to eat.
28 days ago
I don’t see a problem here: she consumes free service from Facebook in exchange for seeing ads. Sometimes these ads are going to be annoying and tasteless. And if these ads are illegal, there is an established framework for dealing with such ads.
20 days ago
Athens, Greece
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26 days ago
"Conversely, legitimate advertisers are abandoning Facebook because they want nothing to do with any of this. To remain on Facebook is to be complicit by association." Legitimate content producers/users are also abandoning it because it increasingly only reaches an audience of racist, delusional people trying to sell each other on the pyramid schemes.

Perverse Incentives Created Our Terrible Criminal Justice System

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Jason Brennan and Chris W. Surprenant

The U.S. criminal justice system is worse than you think. Horrific incidents like the recent video of a Minneapolis police office kneeling on the neck of George Floyd happen more often than most people believe. Almost daily, we see police officers beating or shooting subdued citizens, judges or prosecutors imposing unreasonable punishments, or county sheriffs seizing cash and goods from people doing nothing more than driving on the interstate. You can watch cops play murderous games of Simon Says with civilians. Police are rarely punished for excessive force. Prisoners who serve their time return to society as second-class citizens who often cannot vote and have little hope of securing good long-term employment.

The so-called Land of the Free is the Land of the Imprisoned. In 2018, the U.S. imprisoned approximately 2.3 million people, about 1 in 100 adults. The United States has 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s known prison population. 27% of all people incarcerated in the United States, including 60% of all females incarcerated, have not been convicted of a crime. An additional 4.6 million people—2% of the population—are under state control through probation or parole. Over 7 million people, or nearly 2.5% of the population of the United States, are under some form of “carceral supervision”—that is, incarcerated, on parole, or on probation.[1] Only 11 U.S. states incarcerate citizens at a lower rate than the Russian Federation.[2] 35 U.S. states, including overwhelmingly white states like Wyoming and Montana, put people in prison at a higher rate than repressive, authoritarian Cuba.[3]

It wasn’t always like this. As late as 1971, the U.S. incarceration rate was only about 150 per 100,000 people—higher than other OECD countries, but within the same cluster. Since then, it’s exploded to over 700 per 100,000. It’s hard to find reliable data on police violence over time, but what data we do have suggests they are far more violent than before. For instance, in 1981, for example, SWAT teams were deployed about 5,000 times across the United States, mostly to respond to violent crime. By 2015, no-knock SWAT teams were deployed about 100 times per day; 93% were for non-violent drug arrests and searches.[4]

How did we get here? What do we do about it?

Three Incomplete/Mistaken Theories

People of different background ideologies come ready to give the same answers they give everywhere else. Progressives want to blame racism and poverty. Conservatives want to blame family and social collapse and the (resulting?) crime. Libertarians want to blame government overreach, especially the drug war. They are each only partly right, and their stories don’t quite work.

Progressives are right that the U.S. criminal justice is systematically racist. Police officers act more violently toward blacks in ways that cannot be explained away by differences in crime rates. Black Americans are disproportionately and excessively fined by police,[5] are arrested at disproportionately higher rates for non-violent offenses like marijuana possession,[6] and black men receive longer sentences than white men for the same crimes.[7]

Nevertheless, the trends go the wrong way. Neither poverty nor racism have disappeared, of course, but they went on a strong downward trend while the criminal justice system’s degree of harshness and punitiveness went on a strong upward trend. Further, racism does not easily explain why the U.S. system became unusually punitive and harsh toward the white majority.

The conservative story faces similar problems. Conservatives are correct that violent criminals tend to come from one-parent households. The breakdown of families partly explains the rise in crime.[8] Yes, crime rose in the United States (for reasons no one quite knows), and so we might expect increased incarceration.

But the conservative story does not quite work either. Yes, crime rose, but then, starting around 1994, it fell. Yet the punitiveness of the system continued to rise steadily the entire time. Single-parent household rates have been generally stable since 1994, but the criminal justice system has become harsher. U.S. imprisonment rates are not proportional to our higher crimes, and the United States gives far longer sentences than other countries do for equivalent crimes. There is little evidence that adding extra length to sentences does much to deter criminals.[9] In fact, some empirical work finds that increased sentences promote recidivism; the longer a prisoner is in jail, the more he becomes institutionalized and the weaker his ties to his community become.[10]

Libertarians want to blame the War on Drugs, and they are partly right. But if jails released all the prisoners convicted or accused only of drug offenses, the United States would still have far more prisoners than any other country, would still incarcerate at a higher rate than almost any other country, and would still impose longer sentences and harsher punishments.[11] Only about 1 in 5 U.S. prisoners are there only for drug crimes.[12] Some of crimes result from conditions created by the Drug War—just as alcohol prohibition lead to increased gang violence in the 1920s—but eliminating the Drug War wouldn’t solve the problem on its own. There are too many other crimes not connected, even indirectly, to conditions created by the Drug War.

Perverse Incentives: Follow the Money

In Injustice for All, we argue that the United States is unusually dysfunctional because the key players in the system—from voters to politicians, town aldermen to state legislatures, local police to prison guards, prosecutors to district attorneys to public defenders—face unusually dysfunctional incentives.

Cash-strapped municipalities can make money by demanding fines for every small infraction—and by expanding what counts as infractions. Local jurisdictions can save money by hiring fewer police and sending more people to state prisons.

Electing prosecutors, DAs, and judges is largely unique to the United States. Thanks to the problem of rational ignorance, voters are systematically misinformed about crime statistics (they persistently believed crime has been increasing though it actually has been falling) and have no incentive to research more effective criminal justice methods. Prosecutors, district attorneys, and politicians win elections by showing they are “tough on crime” and on criminals, not by defending more humane—or more effective—approaches to criminal justice. They are in an arms race to push for more convictions and ever longer sentences.

State legislators have every incentive to keep jails and prisons open in their home districts. Prisons systems have become a workfare and fiscal stimulus program for impoverished rural areas. Prison guard unions, prison supplies, and poor towns lobby for more prisons.

The U.S. Census counts incarcerated persons as residents of town where they are imprisoned, not the town they lived in before incarceration. In Connecticut, this is responsible for creating nine (majority white) state representative districts that would not meet minimum population requirements but for their prison populations.

In 1981, the Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement Act authorized the military to cooperate with domestic law enforcement agencies. The military began training police in military tactics—the kinds of home invasion techniques SWAT teams use come from the army’s playbook. The 1990 National Defense Authorization Act authorized the military to donate “excess” military equipment to local law enforcement.[13] As of 2005, 80% of towns with populations between 25,000 and 50,000 people had a SWAT team.[14] Thanks to this and other measures, the federal government has inadvertently—or perhaps on purpose—incentivized and subsidized training local U.S. police to deploy military-style suppression tactics during routine calls—except that police face fewer restrictions on violent force than U.S. soldiers.

Public defender offices are poorly funded, while prosecutors work hand-in-hand with police. Prosecutors threaten to throw dozens of charges at suspects for one crime, and then scare suspects into accepting plea bargains. Pre-trial incarceration is common: Citizens who cannot afford cash bail rot in jail while awaiting their trail, and thus lose their jobs, their homes, and often their families.

These and dozens of other unusual perverse incentives explain why the U.S. system is an outlier. It’s true that external shocks made a difference. Rising crime in the 1970s and the moral panic of the Drug War led to an overreaction (to put it charitably), but the overreaction has continued even as crime dropped away.

The key players have a monetary and power-based stake in keeping things going as is. The benefits of bad behaviors are concentrated among the few while the costs are diffused among the many.

Fixing the Incentives

If we want to fix the problems, we need to fix the incentives.

In some cases, that means admitting we can’t really fix the incentives, and so we should instead strip government of some of its power. In general, something should be a crime only if it causes a wrongful harm to a victim, only if criminalization works (by reducing rather than increasing overall crime), only if there are no superior alternatives to criminalization for reducing the problem, only if enforcement passes cost-benefit analysis, and only if government agencies show they are competent to handle the problem.

The drug war fails each part of this test. The U.S. government has proven itself incompetent and highly corrupt in how it fights the drug war. It blights our cities by incentivizing cartels to run violent black markets. The drug war has become a cash cow for both governments and cartel. Reform is unlikely. We should end the war on drugs.

Similar remarks apply to SWAT teams. They are rarely used for their proper purpose. We should at least eliminate them in any town smaller than 100,000 people.

Further, rather than merely asking how to reform prisons, we should look for alternatives to imprisonment. We tend to assume incarceration is the normal, natural way to punish criminals. But historically speaking, it’s unusual and recent. Prison should generally be reserved for convicted violent offenders who represent a continuing safety threat to others, and only if there is no better way to contain them.

We could instead require the guilty to pay restitution to their victims—perhaps with exemplary damages in some cases. We could expand house arrest. We could even substitute caning/public flogging for imprisonment. While we do not endorse this as the best punishment, in the book, we argue that caning is both more effective and more humane than imprisonment. Even our own criminal code agrees: If we beat you with a cane, we might receive a 3-month jail sentence, but if we kidnapped you and forced you to live in horrible, prison-like conditions for 3 months, we’d receive a far longer sentence.

Beyond that, here are other reforms, some we should clearly implement, and others more speculative:

  1. Towns may no longer keep monetary fines. Police may not keep confiscated goods or cash. All fines collected go to restitution funds to make victims of crime whole.
  2. End career prosecutors. Instead, government lawyers will alternate between serving as public defenders and prosecutors, and they will be judged by factors other than their win rates.
  3. End the election of judges and district attorneys. Have them appointed, as in most of Europe. Voters have proven themselves incompetent to judge this matter.
  4. Remove laws immunizing police and others from bad behavior. Make it easier to sue them. Have damages paid not from general taxes, but from salary pools, merit raise pools, and even from retirement funds. Incentivize the police to police each other rather than to look the other way.
  5. Eliminate cash bail. There’s almost no evidence showing that assigning cash bail makes it more likely for defendants to appear for their court dates. New Jersey passed sweeping bail reform measures in 2014,[15] implementing them in 2017. Since these measures were implemented violent crime is down by more than 30%,[16] pretrial detention is down by 44% or about 6,000 people at any given time,[17] and there was a statistically insignificant percentage change in the number of defendants who failed to appear for their court dates.[18]
  6. Eliminate plea bargaining. In practice, prosecutors threaten suspects with multiple charges to incentivize them to plead guilty, even when they are innocent.
  7. Bring back mens rea and test for fair notice. Require prosecutors to prove to grand juries that a person could reasonably have known something was a crime before they committed it. Before even hearing the case, jurors are given the law, and then given a wide range of behaviors, including not only the behaviors attorneys are thinking of prosecuting as crimes, but a range of other related behaviors. Unless a supermajority of the jurors agrees the behavior in question is clearly a violation of that law and that a reasonable citizen would know this ahead of time, then the charges are automatically dropped.
  8. Change who pays for prison: Make cities pay the full cost of any prisoners they send to state or county prisons.
  9. Adopt the ancient Athenian model for punishments: After a conviction, both the prosecution and the defense propose a punishment. If the jury does not unanimously accept the prosecutor’s punishment by private vote, the suspect receives the defense’s proposed punishment instead

The system is broken from top to bottom. There is no singular law or policy responsible for its problems, and so there is no one law or policy that can fix everything. But proposals like these should be taken seriously.


[1] Prison Policy Initiative, “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2019.”

[2] BBC, “World Prison Populations,” 2019; Prison Policy Initiative, “Following the Money of Mass Incarceration,” 2017.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jonsson, P. “After Atlanta Raid Tragedy, New Scrutiny of Police Tactics,” The Christian Science Monitor; Hohmann, L, “No-Knock Police Raid Ends in Blazing Tragedy.”

[5] Sances, M. and H. You, (2017) “Who Pays for Government? Representation and Exploitative Revenue Sources,” The Journal of Politics 79(3): 1090-1094.

[6] Drug Policy Alliance, “From Prohibition to Progress: A Status Report on Marijuana Legalization.”

[7] United States Sentencing Commission, “Demographic Differences in Sentencing: An Update to the 2012 Booker Report.”

[8] Harper, C. C., and S. S. MacLanahan, (2004) “Father Absence and Youth Incarceration,” Journal of Research on Adolescence 14:369-397.

[9] Nagin, D. S. (2013), “Deterrence in the Twenty-First Century,” in Crime and Justice: A Review of Research, vol 42: Crime and Justice in America, 1975-2025, ed. M. Tonry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 199-263; Levitt, S. D. (2004), “Understanding Why Crime Fell in the 1990s: Four Factors that Explain the Decline and Six that Do Not,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 18:163-190; Doob, A. and C. Webster. (2003), “Sentence Severity and Crime: Accepting the Null Hypotheses,” Crime and Justice 30(2003):143-195; Levitt, S. D. (1998), “Why Do Increased Arrest Rates Appear to Reduce Crime: Deterrence, Incapacitation, or Measurement Error?” Economic Inquiry 36:353-372; Gendreau, P., T. Little, and C. Goggin (1996), “A Meta-Analysis of Adult Offender Recidivism: What Works!” Criminology 34:575-607; Farrington, D. P., P. A. Langan, and P. O. Wikström (1994), “Changes in Crime and Punishment in America, England, and Sweden between the 1980s and 1990s,” Studies on Crime and Crime Prevention 3 (1994): 103-131.

[10] Gendreau, P., T. Little, and C. Goggin (1996).

[11] Pfaff, J. (2017), Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform. New York: Basic Books.

[12] Prison Policy Initiative, “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2019.”

[13] Andrzejewski, A. (2016), “War Weapons for America’s Police Departments: New Data Shows Feds Transfer $2.2B in Military Gear,” Forbes, May 10, 2016.

[14] Fund, J. (2014), “The United States of SWAT?National Review.

[15] State of New Jersey 216th Legislature (2014), “An Act Concerning Court Administration, Supplementing Titles 2A and 2B of the New Jersey Statutes, and amending P.L. 1995, c. 325.”

[16] Ibarra, R. (2018), “Crime Rates Plunge in New Jersey, and Bail Reform Advocates Are Gloating,” WNYC.

[17] Parmley, S. (2019), “Two Years Into Bail Reform, Pretrial Detention Much Lower, AOC Report Says,” New Jersey Law Journal.

[18] New Jersey Judiciary 2018.

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26 days ago
Athens, Greece
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What does the time spend unlocking your IPhone has to do with the time it takes your CI to build? More than you might think. We tend to underestimate how inefficient workflows impact developer productivity and distract from the task at hand.

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In this article I explain the first- and second-order effects of inefficient developer workflows. We share real-life examples and analyse at what point you should invest in automation vs. doing things manually. I discuss inefficient setups I am frequently coming across and that I believe have an extreme impact on developer productivity: test-automation quality, build time of CI pipelines, vulnerability scans pre-vrs post-commit, static vrs. dynamic environment setups, insufficient configuration management. Thank you to Nigel Simpson who is the Director of Enterprise Tech at a fortune 100 to give some additional insights in the way they are thinking about these things.

Key question for me remains: at what point is a problem sufficiently big enough to invest in automation? Even for my very personal day to day work, I set aside an hour a month to look at how I can optimize. I will sort applications on my devices for fast access depending on usage, I will look into my project management setup or simply the way I organize my inbox.

I very much encourage every team to regularly (maybe ones a quarter) spend an afternoon as a team and reflect on your workflow. We do groomings for everything right? Take the time and think how you want to work together as a team. It will pay off faster than you think.

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34 days ago
Athens, Greece
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The Great Myths 9: Hypatia of Alexandria

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Hypatia of Alexandria sits alongside Galileo and Giordano Bruno as kind of historical trinity in anti-theistic mythology. She is depicted as a martyr of science and reason, wickedly murdered by religious fanatics, and a symbol of lost learning and the beginning of the Dark Ages. But the distorted story that makes up her modern myth bears little resemblance to actual history and ignores the key contexts for both her life and her assassination.


Ever since her violent death in 415 AD Hypatia of Alexandria has been used as a symbol, though what she has symbolised has changed several times. For John Toland (1670-1722) she represented proof of his argument that women could be men’s intellectual equals. Voltaire depicted her as a champion of the literary arts, claiming in 1772 that she was killed because she dared to teach Homer and Plato. In the nineteenth century several novels about her romanticised her story still further, with Charles Kingsley (1819-1875) depicting her as a superior European rising above the decadence and decline of her oriental environment before being murdered by swarthy eastern degenerates.

But the deception of her that is most pervasive currently is one of a rationalist astronomer and mathematician, foully murdered by Christian fanatics, with her tragic and violent death marking the end of the enlightened and tolerant Classical world and a descent into Medieval superstition and ignorance. This is based largely on superficial and erroneous versions of her story: perhaps most notably that given by Carl Sagan in his influential 1981 TV documentary series Cosmos and, more recently, the 2009 biopic Agora by Alejandro Amenábar and starring Rachel Wiesz as the ill-fated philosopher.

This is the version of her myth that has been seized upon with glee by anti-theists and, along with the myths around the Great Library of Alexandria and the ones about Christians destroying most ancient science and learning, forms a meta-narrative that is the core of the persistent “Conflict Thesis” view of history that goes unquestioned in many atheist circles.

This popular version of the Hypatia story is summarised by Sagan in Cosmos. After rehearsing a series of myths and distortions about the Great Library of Alexandria (see here for details) he goes on to tell a strange version of the tale of its destruction:

Let me tell you about the end. It’s a story about the last scientist to work in this place. A mathematician, astronomer, physicist, and head of the school of Neo-Platonic philosophy in Alexandria. That’s an extraordinary range of accomplishments for any individual, in any age. Her name was Hypatia. She was born in this city in the year 370 AD.

This was a time when women had essentially no options. They were considered property. Nevertheless, Hypatia was able to move freely, unself-consciously through traditional male domains. By all accounts she was a great beauty. And although she had many suitors, she had no interest in marriage.

The Alexandria of Hypatia’s time, by then long under Roman rule, was a city in grave conflict. Slavery, the cancer of the ancient world, had sapped classical civilization of its vitality. The growing Christian church was consolidating its power and attempting to eradicate pagan influence and culture. Hypatia stood at the focus, at the epicenter of mighty social forces. Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria, despised her: in part because of her close friendship with a Roman governor, but also because what she symbolized: she was a symbol of learning and science which were largely identified by the early church with paganism.

In great personal danger Hypatia continued to teach and to publish, until in the year 415 AD, on her way to work, she was set upon by a fanatical mob of Cyril’s followers. They dragged her from her chariot, tore off her clothes, and flayed her flesh from her bones with abalone shells. Her remains were burned, her works obliterated, her name forgotten. Cyril was made a saint.

The glory you see around me is nothing but a memory. It does not exist. The last remains of the library were destroyed within a year of Hypatia’s death.

This account is riddled with nonsense, as we will see. But it was the inspiration for Amenábar’s film, which essentially tells the same story. Amenábar and his co-screenwriter Mateo Gil at least did a little more research than Sagan and so corrected a few of his errors. That aside, their story still has Hypatia somehow associated with the Great Library (or rather its sub-library in the Serapeum), though they show it being destroyed earlier in her life rather than, as Sagan claims, as a consequence of her death. But Agora goes much further in depicting Hypatia as a free-thinker who is probably an atheist. At one point, confronted with the accusation that she is without any religion (“someone who, admittedly, believes in absolutely nothing”) Hypatia replies, rather vaguely, “I believe in philosophy”. Later the movie has Cyril describe her as “a woman who has declared, in public, her ungodliness”.

Amenábar also amplifies the tragedy of her death by depicting her discovering heliocentrism and Keplerian elliptical orbits. Despite this being a total invention by the screenwriters, publicity for the movie included vox pops in European cities where people were asked who first came up with these concepts and had them being (understandably) surprised when “informed” that it was Hypatia. Since the movie’s release this “fact” has now begun to appear in popular articles and online discussions about Hypatia. This is how pseudo historical myths take hold.

Like much New Atheist bad history, the myths perpetuated and added to by Sagan and Amenábar can ultimately be traced back to one of Edward Gibbon’s more polemical anti-Christian passages:

Hypatia, the daughter of Theon the mathematician, was initiated in her father’s studies; her learned comments have elucidated the geometry of Apollonius and Diophantus, and she publicly taught, both at Athens and Alexandria, the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. In the bloom of beauty, and in the maturity of wisdom, the modest maid refused her lovers and instructed her disciples; the persons most illustrious for their rank or merit were impatient to visit the female philosopher; and Cyril beheld, with a jealous eye, the gorgeous train of horses and slaves who crowded the door of her academy.

A rumour was spread among the Christians, that the daughter of Theon was the only obstacle to the reconciliation of the praefect and the archbishop; and that obstacle was speedily removed. On a fatal day, in the holy season of Lent, Hypatia was torn from her chariot, stripped naked, dragged to the church, and inhumanly butchered by the hands of Peter the reader, and a troop of savage and merciless fanatics: her flesh was scraped from her bones with sharp oyster shells, and her quivering limbs were delivered to the flames. The just progress of inquiry and punishment was stopped by seasonable gifts; but the murder of Hypatia has imprinted an indelible stain on the character and religion of Cyril of Alexandria.

(Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Ch. 47, 1776)

Gibbon then goes on to detail the illustrious later career of the wicked bishop Cyril and his progress to sainthood, noting tartly “[s]uperstition, perhaps, would more gently expiate the blood of a virgin than the banishment of a saint”. This passage contains most of the key elements that have formed the hagiography of Hypatia as a martyr of science and learning savagely murdered by ignorant Christian fanatics. Unsurprisingly, the Gibbonian narrative boosted by Sagan and Agora is a mainstay of anti-theist folklore: a story that gets repeated with little to no effort at checking how much of it is true. The key elements tend to include:

  • Hypatia was a free-thinker, sceptic and probably an atheist who opposed religion
  • Hypatia was a significant scientist, astronomer and mathematician
  • She was the inventor of the astrolabe and the hydroscope
  • She was the head of the “School of Neoplatonic Philosophy” in Alexandria
  • She was associated with the Great Library of Alexandria or even its last Librarian
  • She was young and very beautiful
  • She was murdered out of a hatred for her learning
  • Her death brought the intellectual tradition of Alexandria to an end and marks the end of Classical civilisation and the beginning of the Dark Ages.

Fake quote

A typical example of the results of this distorted mythic version of her story is a 2019 blog article on Godzooks: The Faith in Facts Blog by Rick Snedecker. Working from some quotes by Hypatia that he found on the internet, Snedecker warmed to the theme of Hypatia as a sceptic about religion. In the rather awkwardly-titled bl;oh article “Religious doubt is far older than even antiquity’s doomed Hypatia”, he begins with this quote as evidence of her scepticism of religion:

“Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles as poetic fancies. To teach superstitions as truths is a most terrible thing. The child mind accepts and believes them, and only through great pain and perhaps tragedy can he be in after years relieved of them.”

Snedecker assures his readers that “Hypatia is important because many people erroneously think religious doubt, skepticism and atheism are a mostly modern phenomena” and cites Jennifer Michael Hecht’s Doubt: A History (2004) saying Hypatia was the “‘last secular philosopher of antiquity’ and a martyr, in part, of reason at the hands of religious zealotry”. He goes on to give a typically Gibbonian version of the death of Hypatia and to draw some moral lessons from it about modern American politics.

The main problem here is that none of Hypatia’s writings survive and no ancient source contains this alleged “quote” or anything like it. So where did this alleged “quote” come from? The answer is that it was invented in 1908 by the American writer, soap-salesman and eccentric Elbert Hubbard. In a series of educational books for children called Little Journeys to the Homes of the Great Teachers, Hubbard chose Hypatia as one of his “great teachers” but was stymied by the awkward fact that we actually have none of Hypatia’s writings or teachings, making it rather hard to present her as “great”. He solved this problem by simply making some teachings up, including the wise words above.

In a classic case of confirmation bias, Snedecker took this suspiciously modern-sounding “quote” as evidence for what he wanted to be true and did not bother to actually track it to its source. He adjusted his article slightly when he was alerted to his mistake, saying that it was only “attributed” to Hypatia and adding the words “likely apocryphally”. But he did not bother to correct the sentiment or educate himself on whether Hypatia was actually any kind of doubter of religion at all.

Snedecker is not the only atheist blogger who has used this fake quote. Donald Prothero, a Professor of Geology at Occidental College in Los Angeles, wrote a glowing review of the movie Agora on Skepticblog in 2012. As well as being riddled with other historical howlers, he too took the invented Hubbard “quote” at face value and did not bother to check it. These particular “skeptics” are not very good at being sceptical, when it suits their agendas.

Of course, the real Hypatia was very different to the mythic version beloved by the current crop of anti-theistic activists.

Hypatia Teaching
“Hypatia Teaching at Alexandria” by Robert Trewick, (1790-1840)

Hypatia – Background, Education and Scholarship

Hypatia came from a rich family that formed part of Alexandria’s civic elite. This conservative ruling and intellectual class lived in the upper city and formed what Edward J. Watts calls the “Alexandrian garden and townhouse set” (Hypatia: The Life and Legend of an Ancient Philosopher, Oxford, 2017, p. 18) and understanding this background is essential to any real grasp of her life and, especially, her dramatic death. This is because, despite the modern obsession with highlighting the religious elements in her story, it is actually one of social and political classes clashing in the context of massive changes in late Roman society. As Watts puts it:

Historians writing about Hypatia have tended to focus on fourth- and fifth-century Alexandrian religious dynamics, but spatial and socioeconomic divisions mattered far more than religious differences to Hypatia’s contemporaries. Most fourth- and fifth-century Alexandrians and pagans did not understand religious differences in the same way that modern religious communities do. They did not see stark divisions between Christians and pagans and would not have naturally been hostile toward people with different beliefs.

(Wats, pp. 17-18)

So mapping modern conceptions of religion that would have been alien to Hypatia’s world onto our sources while ignoring the social and economic divisions that were integral to Alexandria in her period will inevitably lead to a misunderstanding of who she was and why she died.

For 700 years the Greek-speaking elite who ruled Alexandria had benefited from the city’s riches thanks to its status as one of the great trading ports of the ancient world. Founded by Alexander the Great, it had been one of a network of Hellenic cities in the eastern Mediterranean for centuries before being annexed by the Romans and becoming a key trading and export hub, linking the Roman Empire to both the Nile and the Red Sea and the wider world beyond.

Hypatia’s ruling class presided over one of the largest cities of the Roman world, with somewhere between 300,000 and 500,000 people crammed into its ten square miles. Its inhabitants were mostly Greek or Coptic-speaking, but with a large community of Jews in its Delta quarter and a constant influx of immigrants from rural areas and other parts of the eastern Empire. Most of these people lived in cramped and fairly squalid apartments and crowded housing in the quarters that made up the lower city. But Hypatia came from a more luxurious and rarefied world: one that rarely thought about the thousands of labourers and beggars who they passed if their litters and carriages took them through the streets where the bulk of the population lived.

We know she was the daughter of Theon (c. 335- c. 405), a philosopher and mathematician who edited several important mathematical works. But ancient scholars did not conform to modern ideas of specialisation in particular disciplines. Astronomy was a branch of mathematics and astrology was an extension of both and so Theon studied all three. He was also a poet and he wrote on divination and auspices, including a (lost) work entitled On Signs and the Examination of Birds and the Croaking of Ravens. Interestingly, none of the sceptics and atheists who hold him up as the source of Hypatia’s alleged rationalism and scepticism seem aware of this particular element of her father’s studies. He was later referred to as “the man from the Mouseion”, but the original Mouseion with its famous Great Library had ceased to exist in the previous century, so this could be a reference to a later, refounded institution, a name for his private school or it may simply be a euphemism for a particularly renowned scholar. It is clear that it was he who enabled his daughter to get an education of a kind few women of the time were able to obtain.

Elite education in the late Roman world followed a well-established curriculum. It began early, with a child learning to read and write from around the age of five. This is where most noble girls’ education ceased, though some could go on with their male counterparts to study grammar and poetry from the age of around twelve or even go on to study rhetoric, debating and public speaking at about fifteen. This was where most boys’ education ended, since it prepared them to practice law as well as giving them the grounding to enter the ranks of the large administrative class that kept the Late Roman Empire running. Other noble boys who were less academically gifted would have spent more time at the gymnasium, with a view to a military career.

A few, however, would have progressed to higher studies in logic, mathematics and philosophy; which included mathematics’ sub-branch, astronomy. Some could then have specialised in medicine. Even the very few girls who had progressed beyond grammar to study rhetoric would generally not advance to this higher level – most of them would have married in their mid-teens and have households and children to concern them. But as the daughter of an established philosophical scholar, Hypatia seems to have progressed naturally to study in her father’s salon with his other pupils. And as a member of an elite family who did not need to marry for wealth or connections, she could devote her late teens and early twenties to higher study. Hypatia famously never married, which seems to have been partly as a result of her ascetic Neoplatonic philosophical beliefs but was probably also simply because she did not need to.

Hypatia was clearly a brilliant student and seems to have moved from being her father’s pupil to becoming his colleague, teaching alongside him. She also collaborated with him in his astronomical and mathematical work. A heading in Theon’s thirteen-book commentary on Ptolemy’s Almagest (or the Mathēmatikē Syntaxis as it was known at the time) reads “Commentary by Theon of Alexandria on Book Three of Ptolemy’s [work], an edition revised by my daughter Hypatia, the philosopher”. Alan Cameron argues that all of the following ten books of the Almagest that Theon uses were edited by Hypatia, noting that the method of long division used in Books 3-13 differs from that used in Books 1-2 (see Alan Cameron, “Hypatia: Life, Death, and Works” in Wandering Poets and Other Essays on Late Greek Literature and Philosophy, 37-80, Oxford, 2016, p. 191). Cameron also makes a strong case that she also edited the surviving text of Ptolemy’s Handy Tables – an immensely significant work for centuries to come given that it tabulated all the data needed to compute the positions of the Sun, Moon and planets, the rising and setting of the stars, and eclipses of the Sun and Moon.

The tenth century AD Byzantine encyclopedia called the Suda credits her with three main scholarly works: a commentary on the Conic Sections of the third-century BC scholar Apollonius of Perga, one on the Handy Tables of Ptolemy, and a third on the Arithmetica of the second to third century AD mathematician Diophantus of Alexandria. Her commentaries have been lost, but we have portions of the works of Apollonius and Diophantus that she studied and so have some idea of her level of sophisticated learning. While we have no evidence of her writing any original work herself, this should not give the impression that her scholarship was second rate – many scholars in her period focused on editing and commenting on earlier works and these commentaries usually included original insights. That said, the significance of her contributions to mathematics and astronomy are often wildly overstated: she was a renowned scholar and clearly did sophisticated work, but she should not be presented as any kind of great innovator.

Among the more grandiose claims made for her in popular works is the assertion that she invented various scientific instruments. For example, this spectacularly stupid article on the World History website breathlessly assures its readers that “Hypatia invented the plane astrolabe, the graduated brass hydrometer, and the hydroscope”. This is complete nonsense. To begin with, astrolabes pre-date Hypatia’s time by at least 500 years. We have a surviving letter by one of Hypatia’s students, Synesius, that mentions her in connection with an astrolabe, but it does not claim she invented anything. Writing to Paeonius, a military official in Constantinople who may have previously been the military comes of Alexandria, Synesius presents him with an astrolabe and says “[This astrolabe] is a work of my own devising, including all that she, my most revered teacher [i.e. Hypatia], helped to contribute, and it was executed by the best hand to be found in our country in the art of the silversmith.” He is clearly crediting his training in mathematics and astronomy by Hypatia for his ability to create this complex instrument, but he does not claim she somehow invented astrolabes.

Similarly, one of Synesius’ letters to Hypatia asks her to send him a hydroscope. By this stage Synesius was no longer living in Alexandria, having taken up the position of bishop of Ptolemais in Lybia. It seems his new city did not have artisans capable of making such a technical instrument and so he asks his former teacher to send him one from the much larger city of Alexandria. But given he goes to some lengths to explain what a hydroscope is and how it works, it is fairly clear he is not writing to the instrument’s inventor. And a “hydrometer” is simply another name for a hydroscope.

Even more absurd is the depiction in the movie Agora of Hypatia as a radical innovator in astronomy who rejected geocentrism, embraced a heliocentric cosmology and even discovered the planets have elliptical orbits. This is total fantasy. We have some references to Aristarchus of Samos (c. 310 – c. 230 BC) presenting some kind of early heliocentrism, though we have no idea how speculative or how astronomically-based his ideas were. We do know they were rejected centuries before Hypatia was born. As for elliptical orbits, the Greek devotion to the idea that a circle was a “noble” form was so strong that even in Kepler’s time great thinkers could not bring themselves to accept the lop-sided and inelegant image his model presented – Galileo rejected the Keplerian model out of hand. That the daughter of a man who devoted his life to the study of Ptolemy’s geocentric cosmos and who probably edited a substantial part of Ptolemy’s great opus on the subject herself would somehow be a heliocentrist is totally ludicrous. Unfortunately, thanks to Agora, this fantasy is now being added to the list of silly myths around Hypatia.

Hypatia was an excellent scholar and renowned for her learning, but she was not a great innovator and did not invent anything that we know of.

Plato teaching.

Hypatia and Neoplatonism

Popular versions of the story of Hypatia tend to emphasise her mathematics and astronomy, partly because we understand and can relate to these disciplines, but mainly because it sets up the climax of the “rationalist murdered by ignorant religious fanatics” story. That she was a philosopher of a school of Neoplatonism is either not mentioned or mentioned without much elaboration. If her philosophy is referred to at all, we are often told that she was “the head of the Neoplatonic School in Alexandria”, which summons up an image of a modern-style institution, with buildings and administrators and Hypatia as some kind of official dean or chancellor. It was nothing like that.

A “school” in this period was a very private affair: a fairly informal group of students who studied under a respected teacher. It was usually an invitation-only group and most such schools met in the teacher’s home, though meeting in public spaces was also reasonably common. Members of this kind of scholarly salon were close-knit, devoted to each other and to their master (or mistress, in Hypatia’s case) and maintained a strong bond long after they went their separate ways. We see evidence of this close, almost secretive, ongoing devotion in the letters of Synesius; both those to Hypatia herself and others to his fellow former students. And there were many such “schools” – about as many as there were philosophers prominent enough to attract disciples. There were several in Alexandria and several others of them were also Neoplatonist.

Hypatia most likely inherited students from her father and her school was probably a continuation of his. Under her tutelage, this exclusive group won wide renown and Socrates Scholasticus says “many [students] came from a distance to receive her instructions” (Ecclesiastical History, VII.15), indicating that her fame reached well beyond Alexandria. What many modern popular writers do not seem to grasp is that she did not study and teach Neoplatonic philosophy as well as mathematics and astronomy. Rather, she taught mathematics and astronomy because she was a Neoplatonic philosopher.

Neoplatonism developed out of Plato’s tradition of Greek philosophy in the third century AD, based largely on the teachings of Plotinus (c. 204-270 AD). It was to have a long history and undergo many branchings and changes over the centuries, including becoming highly influential on Christian thought to the extent that it formed something of a philosophical foundation for early Christianity. It is not hard to see why. Plotinus developed Plato’s theory of eternal forms into a complex metaphysical system whereby there were three eternal cosmic principles underlying all reality: “the One”, “the Intellect” and “the Soul”. In this system, the ultimate principle from which everything else proceeds is “the One”, also called “the Good” or “the Father”, which is utterly transcendent, beyond all being and non-being and “prior to all existents”.

Other principles emanate from “the One” , the first of which is “the Intellect” or more properly “Nous”, which is the highest sphere accessible to the human mind. It is both the perfect image of “the One” and also the archetype of all existing things. Emanating from “the Intellect” is the “World Soul”, which stands between the “the Intellect” and the material and phenomenological world. It also embraces and includes all individual souls, which by study and contemplation can, via the “World Soul”, be informed by “the Intellect” and so attain enlightenment with the infinite “One”. Those who do not do this lose themselves in the material world and the finite and so are never happy or fulfilled in the way the philosophically enlightened are.

The Neoplatonic hierarchy

This rather mystical system bears some resemblance to Indian philosophy and certainly lent itself to religious ideas. On one hand it was developed in the third to fourth century by Iamblicus (c. 245- c. 325 AD) into an intensely ritualised system whereby ceremonies, hymns, magical formulae and devotion to the gods helped mediate between the believer and the transcendent cosmic principles. At around the same time Christian thinkers found Neoplatonism’s three cosmic principles highly compatible with their theological ideas about the Trinity and the spiritual versus the material worlds. This is why we find several Christians among Hypatia’s students, including at least two future bishops.

Hypatia seems to have rejected the newer Iamblichan branch of Neoplatonism and stuck to the more established and conservative tradition of Plotinus. Unlike Iamblichus’ new school, her philosophy was not necessarily connected to any particular religious beliefs and exactly what her own beliefs were is unclear, though she does not seem to have been a Christian despite being a teacher of several scholars who were. But the idea that she was some kind of modern-style rationalist or even an atheist is fairly absurd. For her, the study of philosophy aimed at enlightenment via the contemplation of “the One” via “the Intellect” and the “World Soul”. Mathematics was part of this not for its own sake, but as a way to elevate the mind beyond the material and into the mystical abstract. Astronomy and astrology served the same function, as branches of mathematics.

It should be clear that a modern conception of Hypatia as a mathematician or astronomer in any modern understanding of those terms is clearly wrong. Exactly how removed her studies were from our current conceptions of an academic in those fields becomes clearer when it is noted that more (to us) esoteric fields were part of her teaching. As already noted, her father wrote a book on auspices – the practice of reading omens from watching the behaviour of birds. Her student Synesius wrote a short treatise on the interpretation of dreams called De insomnius, which he sent to Hypatia for her comment. He also drew on the Chaldean Oracles and on mystical Hermetic writings. All this means that, from what we can understand about her teachings and her school, she was nothing like the modern fantasies of a rationalist and atheist devoted to pure mathematics and astronomy for their own sake. Any of the modern anti-theists who imagine this would actually find Hypatia’s mystical teachings quite bizarre.


Street Politics in Ancient Alexandria

One thing ancient sources agreed on about Hypatia’s Alexandria was that its citizens were excitable, passionate about the issues of the day and prone to sorting them out in the streets, often with savage violence. Writing of the murder of the Christian patriarch Proterius in 457 AD, Evagrius Scholasticus observes:

The people [of Alexandria] in general are an inflammable material, and allow very trivial pretexts to foment the flame of commotion … it is said that everyone who is so disposed may, by employing any casual circumstance as a means of excitement, inspire the city with a frenzy of sedition and hurry the populace in whatever direction and against whomsoever he chooses.

(Ecclesiastical History, II.8)

Evagrius was invoking something of a cliche here, given that writers had been saying this about the Alexandrian mob for centuries. Others called them “wholly light-minded, unstable, most seditious”, or “lawless [and] incensed” or “an irritable race” in a city “half-crazed in the riots of her frantic populace”.

Like many cliches, this one had an element of truth to it. In 203 BC the people of the city rose up and murdered Agathocles, the scheming and murderous regent of the young Ptolemy V Epiphanes, literally tearing him limb from limb. Alexandria had the distinction of being the site of one of the first pogroms against Jews, with a massacre of protesting Jews there in the city amphitheatre in 66 AD, followed by a larger massacre of the wider Jewish population by Roman troops. Riots between Jews and Greeks in the city had broken out earlier in 39 AD and again in 40 AD, killing hundreds. The unpopular Arian Christian patriarch George of Cappadocia was kicked to death by an angry mob in 361 AD. As mentioned above, the later patriarch, Proterius, met a similar grisly fate in 457 AD.

Riots and violent street politics were well known in other ancient cities, but Alexandria appears to have been particularly divided along class lines. Christopher Haas’ excellent monograph, Alexandria in Late Antiquity: Topography and Social Conflict (John Hopkins, 1997) details how “[u]rban society in late antique Alexandria appears to have been fundamentally two-tiered” (p. 51), with a sharp division between the small number of elite honestiores and the poor humiliores who made up the vast bulk of the population. Haas argues that there is little sign of any kind of substantial middle class as a social and political buffer between these two.

The upper class was based on old money – centuries old in many cases – and extensive property holdings around the city and across the diocese of Egypt generally. They also held almost all of the city’s political power through their dominance of the civic magistracies. They sat on the boulē, or city council, shared other political offices among themselves and were part of the Empire-wide network of patrons, clients and Imperial administrators. They were Greek-speaking, mostly of Greek ethnicity, usually well educated, politically conservative and very rich. This was the social class of Hypatia and her father. They tended to live in the upper city closer to the harbour and by the late fourth century they were mostly Christian, though some continued to practice pagan rites.

Most of the population lived in the crowded lower city or the outer suburbs outside the city walls. They were more ethnically diverse, but were mainly Coptic-speaking labourers and artisans. They organised themselves into a myriad of collegia – associations for mutual support and protection. Many of these were trade or craft guilds, but others were religious societies, drinking clubs or sporting associations. The collegia had established organisational structures, with recognised official leaders and elders. There was also something of a recognised hierarchy among them, with certain collegia being more esteemed and politically powerful than others. And they had their political allegiances as well, which meant it helped members of the city’s ruling elite to cultivate their favour and mobilise them when it helped them.

Christianity established itself in Alexandria very early, traditionally tracing their patriarchate there to the evangelist, Mark. The early Christian community would have been a collegium among many others: providing financial aid to members, settling disputes, providing burial for paupers and so on, much like the other collegia. Christianity’s marginal status politically in the third century, with its periodic official persecutions, meant the sect had to look after itself even more, with the Patriarch becoming a significant figure in a growing faith within the city. With the conversion of Constantine, the end of persecution and increasing Imperial favour shown to Christianity, these bishops and patriarchs gained even greater power and authority, but this began to cause problems.

From about 381 AD Alexandria was the administrative capital of the Diocese of Egypt, which stretched from Lybia to the shores of the Red Sea. The Diocese was ruled by an imperially-appointed prefectus augustalis rather than an ordinary vicarius, as an acknowledgement of the historical importance of Egypt in the Roman Empire. The military commander in the diocese was the comes limitis Aegypti, who held great power in his own right, sometimes rivalling that of the prefect. The prefects of Alexandria were part of the network of patronage and preferment that made up the late Roman Imperial administration, which meant they were either members of the Alexandrian city elite or people of a similar class from other cities in the Empire.

But with the change in the status of Christianity from marginalised cult to Imperially-favoured religion and, eventually, the state religion of the Empire, the question of where bishops like the Patriarch of Alexandria fitted into the social and political hierarchy became a pressing one. They were no longer just another leader of a prominent collegium, but commanded great power in the city, especially among the poorer class in the lower city and beyond the walls. Those patriarchs who failed to gain the support of the mob could have short careers, as George of Cappadocia found in 361 AD. But in 412 AD a new bishop became patriarch in the face of elite opposition, and quickly proceeded to harness that popular support to further his agendas and increase his authority in the city. And this is what sparked the political turmoil that claimed Hypatia’s life.

The previous patriarch had been Theophilus, who had held the See of St Mark for 28 years. Early in his reign Christians and pagans had clashed in a conflict that led to pagan militants occupying the great temple of Serapis, which was then demolished as part of the negotiated end of the siege of the temple that followed – an event that forms part of the myths around the Great Library of Alexandria. But on the whole Theophilus managed the political tumults of the city and was on good relations with its ruling elite. He also seems to have also been on good terms with Hypatia, who by the end of his reign was a prominent public figure in the city. Theophilus presided over the wedding of Hypatia’s former student Synesius and then later supported his elevation to the bishopric of Ptolemais.

Theophilus’ health went into a long decline and his protege and maternal nephew Cyril began to position himself as his uncle’s successor before the old patriarch’s death in late 412 AD. But an archdeacon Timotheus had the support of the richer citizens and – this being Alexandria – the dispute led to yet more rioting. Despite Timotheus having some very powerful backers, including the city’s military commander, the comes limitis Aegypti Abundantius, Cyril’s popular support from the mobs of the lower city meant he prevailed.

Cyril did not waste any time in making use of his popular support. It seems the sect of the Novatians – Christians who took a hard line on refusing the readmission of idolators and other sinners to the Church – had backed Timotheus, so Cyril turned on them. He shut up their churches, stripped them of vessels and ornaments and persecuted their leader, Theopemptus. Flushed by this early success, Cyril was soon to turn his attention to another rival force in the city.

The trouble began with what seems something fairly innocuous – dancing. Public dancing exhibitions were a popular entertainment in Alexandria and many other cities and they often drew large crowds. The Jewish community in Alexandria was especially fond of this entertainment and engaged in it in large numbers on their Sabbath, with the moralist historian Socrates Scholasticus observing that this meant “disorder [was] almost invariably produced”. The prefectus augustalis of the city, Orestes, decided these events needed to be more closely regulated and so had an edict to this effect read in the theatre. One of Cyril’s supporters, a certain Hierax, was rather too enthusiastic in his cheering and applause at this announcement, causing the Jews in the theatre to shout he was there simply to stir up animosity. Orestes was already no fan of Cyril and his militant followers, so he had Hierax seized and, according to Socrates, “publicly subjected him to the torture in the theatre”.

Far from settling things down, this action triggered a sequence of violence. An angry Cyril had a fiery meeting with the leaders of the Jews. This inflamed things further and led to an organised large scale attack on Christians by a large mob of Jews. They set up an ambush in the streets:

Having agreed that each one of them should wear a ring on his finger made of the bark of a palm branch, for the sake of mutual recognition, they determined to make a nightly attack on the Christians. They therefore sent persons into the streets to raise an outcry that the church named after Alexander was on fire. Thus many Christians on hearing this ran out, some from one direction and some from another, in great anxiety to save their church. The Jews immediately fell upon and slew them; readily distinguishing each other by their rings.

(Socrates Scholasticus,VII.13)

Cyril quickly struck back. He turned on the city’s Jewish quarter “accompanied by an immense crowd of people”, sacked its synagogues and, according to Socrates, forcefully expelled the whole Jewish population from the city. This cannot be strictly true, since we know of many Jews in the city in subsequent periods, but even allowing for exaggeration by a hostile source (Socrates was a Novatian), the scale of this riot must have been huge and included wholesale looting of Jewish property.

The prefect Orestes was outraged at Cyril’s actions. Socrates tells us that even before this “Orestes had long regarded with jealousy the growing power of the bishops, because they encroached on the jurisdiction of the authorities appointed by the emperor”, so this blatant challenge to the authority of the prefect could not be ignored. Both Orestes and Cyril petitioned the emperor and a political stand-off ensued. Cyril tried to find a reconciliation with his fellow Christian, Orestes: “Cyril extended toward him the book of gospels, believing that respect for religion would induce him to lay aside his resentment … however, even this had no pacific effect on the prefect”. Something that was very important to Orestes’ class was at stake – the hierarchy of political authority in the city. And as a member of the ruling elite, Orestes was not in the mood for compromise with a radical upstart backed by a mob from the lower city. The result was soon to be more violence.


As already noted, by this stage Hypatia was a prominent figure in the city. Recognised major philosophers had long been seen as important in civic life as a kind of neutral and moderating force; figures who by their learning and detachment from the world made impartial and wise advisers to rulers and administrators. At least, that was the theory. But in Hypatia’s case the sources agree that it worked in practice. Our most contemporary source, the Christian historian Socrates Scholasticus, was lavish in his praise for her prudence and the respect she commanded:

On account of the self-possession and ease of manner, which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not infrequently appeared in public in presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in coming to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more.

(Ecclesiastical History, VII.13)

The pagan Damascius was from a rival school of Neoplatonism and so was rather less fulsome about her philosophical status. But writing a century after Socrates, he gave a similar assessment of the respect she commanded in Alexandria’s affairs:

Because she was skilled and articulate in her speech and wise and politically virtuous in her actions, the city seemingly loved her and particularly prostrated herself before her, and the governors always greeted her first when they came into the city.

(Life of Isidorus, 43E)

In this capacity as a public philosopher and advisor to the prefect, Socrates tells us she had “frequent interviews with Orestes”. She also belonged to the same social and political class as the prefect and is likely to have been more aligned to him politically than to a radical like Cyril. So it is hardly surprising that she was seen as associated with the prefect in the clashes that followed.

With their petitions to the emperor in far off Constantinople still awaiting a response, Orestes and Cyril were in a stalemate, so Cyril decided to strengthen his position by calling in allies from outside the city. As patriarch of the whole diocese, he had the support of the monks in the ascetic communities in the Nitrian desert, south-west of the city. These were hard-bitten, ferociously devout Christians who lived a tough life of near constant penance and prayer – far more fanatical, tough and passionate than the kind of quiet, gentle and elderly contemplative that the word “monk” conjures up today. Socrates reports that “they were of a very fiery disposition” and that “about five hundred of them” left their desert cells and entered the city in noisy support of their patriarch.

Exactly what Cyril intended these new allies to achieve is not clear, but the result was yet more violence. The militant monks encountered Orestes in the streets and a demonstration turned into a riot. A monk called Ammonius threw a stone at the prefect’s head, wounding him. Seeing him fall with blood streaming from his wound, most of Orestes’ guards fled, but the people of the city surrounded the prefect, fought off the rioting monks, seized Ammonius and rescued Orestes. Angered at the violence against him, Orestes had Ammonius tortured so severely that the monk died. And, of course, this ratcheted up the tensions still further.

Cyril decided to back the monks’ actions, sent another petition to the emperor and then took to the pulpit to declare Ammonius nothing less than a martyr for the faith. But Socrates tell us this gambit backfired.:

[T]he more sober-minded, although Christians, did not accept Cyril’s prejudiced estimate of him; for they well knew that he had suffered the punishment due to his rashness, and that he had not lost his life under the torture because he would not deny Christ

(Ecclesiastical History, VII.14)

It should be noted here that virtually everyone involved in this spiralling political conflict was a Christian. Orestes had been baptised by the Patriarch of Constantinople and ruled a city with a majority Christian population. This means the crowd that rescued him from the rioting Nitrian monks were also Christians. And Cyril’s attempt to turn Ammonius into a martyr failed because it was rejected by most Christians – “the more sober-minded”. The dispute was not one with Christians on one side and non-Christians on the other; it was between the radicals who supported the politically belligerent patriarch and more conservative citizens who largely preferred the status quo and so supported the prefect.

The failure of Cyril’s martyrdom gambit left his followers at a disadvantage in the conflict. Tensions had now risen to the point where openly attacking the prefect would come dangerously close to treason. So his more radical supporters, possibly quite by chance, found a new target for their frustration. Since Hypatia was an adviser to the prefect, rumours began to circulate that she was preventing any reconciliation with Cyril, and she became the focus of their ire:

Some of them therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter, waylaid [Hypatia] returning home, and dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Cæsareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her with tiles. After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them.

(Ecclesiastical History, VII.15)

Socrates Scholasticus’ account is the closest in time to the events and clearly states that Hypatia “fell a victim to the political jealousy which at that time prevailed”, Despite being no fan of Cyril, he does not attribute her assassination to his instigation, though he makes it clear that it happened because of his political conflict with the prefect.

The later pagan writer, Damascius, on the other hand does put the blame squarely on Cyril in his account:

[O]ne day, Cyril, bishop of the opposition sect, was passing by Hypatia’s house, and he saw a great crowd of people and horses in front of her door. Some were arriving, some departing, and others standing around. When he asked why there was a crowd there and what all the mess was about, he was told by her followers that it was the house of Hypatia the philosopher and she was about to greet them.

When Cyril learned this he was so struck with envy that he immediately began plotting her murder and in the worst form he could imagine. For when Hypatia went out of her house, in her accustomed manner, a throng of merciless and ferocious men who feared neither divine punishment nor human revenge, attacked and cut her down, thus committing an outrageous and disgraceful deed against their fatherland.

(Life of Isidorus, 43E)

It suited Damascius’ purposes to make the Christian bishop into the murderous villain of the story and polemicists from Gibbon onward have been happy to accept his word on this. But modern historians are less convinced. Socrates was a hostile source regarding Cyril and had good reason to note Cyril’s guilt on this in his much earlier account, but he does not. Edward Watts argues that mobs were used to intimidate and noisily demonstrate in ancient street politics, but deliberate murders were rare even in tumultuous Alexandria – they only tended to happen when things got out of hand and were rarely the deliberate object of the exercise (see Watts, pp. 115-116).

Whether he ordered the killing or not, Cyril certainly benefited from its aftermath. The city was outraged at the murder, the emperor condemned it and the violence that proceeded it and Orestes was either recalled or requested his recall to Constantinople. Cyril, on the other hand, remained in place and Damascius hints that he had powerful allies in the Imperial court – he mentions one named Aedisius – who convinced the emperor not to act further in retaliation against the patriarch. So as a result of Hypatia’s brutal lynching, whether it was planned or spontaneous, Cyril went from a losing position in the conflict with Orestes to effectively winning.

The Making of a Myth

Hypatia’s death began to be used to advance various narratives and agendas almost immediately. For Socrates, it was evidence of the ambition and greed for power of Cyril – the man who had persecuted Socrates’ Novatian sect. Damascius also made Cyril the villain, directly stating he orchestrated the murder. But Cyril went on to be something of a hero in both Orthodox and Coptic Christianity, so it is perhaps not surprising that about 200 years after the murder we find John, Bishop of Nikiû in the Nile Delta, depicting Hypatia as the pagan villainess who was rightly brought down by the patriarch:

And in those days there appeared in Alexandria a female philosopher, a pagan named Hypatia, and she was devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes and instruments of music, and she beguiled many people through (her) Satanic wiles. And the governor of the city honoured her exceedingly; for she had beguiled him through her magic. And he ceased attending church as had been his custom

…. And thereafter a multitude of believers in God arose under the guidance of Peter the magistrate …. and they proceeded to seek for the pagan woman who had beguiled the people of the city and the prefect through her enchantments…and they dragged her along till they brought her to the great church, named Caesarion … And they tore off her clothing and dragged her …. through the streets of the city till she died. And they carried her to a place named Cinaron, and they burned her body with fire. And all the people surrounded the patriarch Cyril and named him “the new Theophilus”; for he had destroyed the last remains of idolatry in the city.

The parallels here with Socrates’ near contemporary account are very clear and we know that John of Nikiû used Socrates’ Ecclesiastical History as his main source for this section of his Chronicle. But Nikiû has deliberately changed the story and added some embroidery of his own: now Hypatia is an evil pagan magician who leads Orestes astray and causes him to abandon his faith. None of this is reflected in any other later Christian sources – the Byzantine Suda, Theophanes and Nicephortus Callistus all essentially reflect Socrates’ account. So it seems these new elements were Nikiû’s invention to help mitigate the blame for a murder by an esteemed bishop. It should be kept in mind that Nikiû was a Coptic bishop who wrote in a time when paganism was largely a memory and female philosophers hard to even imagine.

Many popular modern accounts conflate elements in the story and so have Hypatia being killed by the Nitrian monks, which serves to highlight the lurid “wise rationalist killed by ignorant clergy” theme in the polemics. But Maria Dzielska points out that this is not found in what Socrates tell us and that the monks “terrified by the popular reaction to their aggression against the prefect Orestes, took flight” (Dzielska, Hypatia of Alexandria, Harvard, 1995, p. 97). That the mob who killed her were supporters of Cyril is clear, but they do not seem to have been monks.

Similarly, the idea that her status as a scholar was the motivation for her death is largely without foundation. It was her scholarship that gave her the political prominence that led to her assassination, but this cannot be used as evidence that Christians hated learning. Again, the praise for her learning is consistent across all the sources, Christian or otherwise, and Socrates explicitly states that she was killed despite the renown her learning brought her, not because of it. After detailing the basis for her high status as a scholar he says “[y]et even she fell a victim to the political jealousy which at that time prevailed” (my emphasis). Only the brief account of Hesychius says that her murder was “on account of jealousy and her superior wisdom and, most of all, her knowledge about astronomy” (preserved in Suda Y.166 1-11). But he also blames “the innate rashness and tendency towards sedition of the Alexandrians”, so the reference to her learning seems more to highlight her superiority to the typical Alexandrian mob.

Many modern accounts also dwell on the gruesome details of her death: with Hypatia being seized, stripped, dismembered, dragged through the streets and then burned. Socrates’ use of the word ὄστρακα for the tools by which she was killed led Gibbon to declare that “her flesh was scraped from her bones with sharp oyster shells”, since the word means “shells”. But it can also mean “potsherds” and was a term used for roof tiles, which is most likely what it means in the description of her murder. Roof tiles were available in abundance in an Alexandrian street and made ready missiles in a riot or for a mob stoning someone to death.

The image of a woman being “completely stripped” certainly excited the fevered imaginations of some nineteenth century writers, who could not help but suggest she had also been raped. Given that one later source makes mention of Hypatia having been a great beauty, this gave rise to depictions of a naked and youthful Hypatia at the mercy of her thuggish assailants, which tells us more about those nineteenth century painters and writers than it does about history.

Charles William Mitchell, "Hypatia", 1885
Charles William Mitchell, “Hypatia”, 1885

In fact, Hypatia is likely to have been in her mid-sixties when she was killed and the story of her great beauty serves to set up a moral fable about her philosophical chastity and so is of dubious historicity.

It should also be noted that a ritualised dragging of the body through the streets, dismemberment and then burning of someone who had been lynched or executed is found in several other accounts of such events in Alexandria. The murder of George of Cappadocia and his two compatriots was followed by a similar process. So were the bodies of some Jews in the pogroms of 39 AD and the that of Proterius in 457. Christopher Haas argues that these parallels are not coincidences, calling it an “Alexandrian civic ritual of expiation” (Haas, p. 87; see his detailed analysis pp. 87-89). So these elements in the story are not, as some seem to think, evidence of a particular animus against learned women, but – yet again – just how they did things in the street politics of Alexandria.

Similarly, Hypatia’s status as a female scholar and philosopher is often heavily emphasised, with claims made that she was “the first female mathematician” or somehow unique in her status as a female scholar. As already noted, most women in the Greco-Roman world’s highly patriarchal society did not advance beyond a rudimentary education, but while Hypatia’s advanced learning was unusual, it was far from unique. Centuries before she was born we have references to female scholars like Aspasia, Diotima, Arete, Hipparchia and Pamphile. Closer to her time we have Pandrosion in Alexandria and Sosipatra in Pergamon. Nor was she the last such female scholar. Just after her time the Iamblican Neoplatonist Asclepigenia studied and taught in Athens and in Alexandria Aedisia did the same, untroubled by any Christian mobs.

This also indicates another part of the myth that is nonsense: the idea that Hypatia’s murder represented the end of learning in Alexandria and the beginning of “the Dark Ages” generally. This has been presented as the moral of the story of Hypatia from Gibbon through Sagan to Agora: Bertrand Russell concludes his highly Gibbonian account of her death with the solemn words “after this Alexandria was no longer troubled by philosophers” (A History of Western Philosophy, Simon and Schuster, 1945, p. 387). But not only did Aedisia and her sons maintain a flourishing school in the generation after Hypatia, she also managed to completely avoid assassination despite being a pagan, a woman and a scholar. And Hierocles, Asclepius of Tralles, Olympiodorus the Younger, Ammonius Hermiae and Hermias all continued the tradition of learning in the city in the century that followed, as did John Philoponus and various Christian scholars. What actually seems to have brought about a decline in scholarship was the Muslim conquest in 641 AD, after which the city was never the centre of learning it had once been.

The story of Hypatia used by anti-theist polemicists is essentially a pseudo historical moral fable, told to reinforce an outdated and debunked view of intellectual history. Hypatia was not murdered because Christians hated her learning. She had no association with the Great Library of Alexandria or its successor in the Serapeum. Her death did not signal the end of ancient philosophy and the beginning of “the Dark Ages”. She was not unique, not a secularist or an atheist, not a modern style sceptic or rationalist and not a great scientific innovator. On the contrary, she was very much a woman of her age, something of a mystic by our standards and rather conservative in her outlook. She was caught up in one of the regular outbursts of political turmoil in a city renowned for its violent street politics and her death was part of a political dispute that was not over religion or learning. The real story of Hypatia is actually much more interesting than the anti-theist version and atheists need to study it to understand it properly if they genuinely claim to be rationalists. After all, rationalists accept the analysis of historians, not lurid but emotionally-appealing fairy tales.

Further Reading

Alan Cameron, “Hypatia: Life, Death, and Works” in Wandering Poets and Other Essays on Late Greek Literature and Philosophy, pp. 37-80, (Oxford, 2016)

Thony Christie, “Hypatia – What do we Really Know?”, Renaissance Mathematicus, 2019

Maria Dzielska, Hypatia of Alexandria, (Harvard, 1995)

Peter Gainsford, “Cosmos #3 – Hypatia and the Library”, Kiwi Hellenist, 2018

Christopher Haas, Alexandria in Late Antiquity: Topography and Social Conflict (John Hopkins, 1997)

Spencer Alexander McDaniel, “Who was Hypatia Really?”, Tales of Times Forgotten, 2018

Edward J. Watts, Hypatia: The Life and Legend of an Ancient Philosopher, (Oxford, 2017)

Bryan J. Whitfield, “The Beauty of Reasoning: A Reexamination of Hypatia of Alexandria”, The Mathematics Educator, Vol.6:1 (1995), pp. 14-21

The post The Great Myths 9: Hypatia of Alexandria appeared first on History for Atheists.

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35 days ago
Athens, Greece
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HEY does not support IMAP and that's its most important feature.

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First of all, let's take a step back.

Email is probably the first Internet applications. It was there before the Web. Its core component is the SMTP protocol that describes how messages are sent and how they are routed to the final recipient. It's the equivalent of the postal service: You just write the recipient's address on the envelope and the postal service takes care of how the envelope will be delivered. SMTP stands for Simple Mail Transportation Protocol.

In the first days of email, this was enough. The email landed on the server you had telnet access, and you could use a text client that opened your inbox (a text file with all your emails) and presented them to you.

Nowadays the emails arrive on a server, and we use POP3 or IMAP, two other protocols to read them. IMAP allows a mail desktop or mobile clients like Outlook, Mail.app (that runs on Macs) or even web clients like Roundcube to download the emails that have arrived on your mail server, organise them in mailboxes (that are usually presented as nested folders), flag them, mark them as read or unread and delete them.

This is all that is allowed by IMAP. (POP3 is even more limited and not widely used anymore.)

All web services that I know of support SMTP (of course, no SMTP = no email) and IMAP. SMPT+IMAP is the golden standard of email services and allows users to access their emails using the mail client of their preference.

But this also means that IMAP defines what you offer to your clients. You can't offer a mail client whose features contradict with IMAP, because you have the risk that if the same user used your client and then an IMAP client, the whole experience will be messed up. When Gmail launched IMAP support in 2007, we all realised that our labels (a novel Gmail feature back in the day) can not be mapped to folders. (Just google "gmail IMAP labels".)

Which brings us to HEY. HEY is often criticized for not offering IMAP support, but this is what allows it to be different and offer novel features. Here are some that come to my mind:

  • merging conversations
  • renaming conversations
  • attaching notes to conversations
  • "blacklisting/whitelisting" (screening) senders.

Almost all the features highlighted in https://hey.com/features/ can not be implemented in IMAP (or you have to use hacks, special folders, make sure that the contacts app the user uses is aware of screening, etc.). And this is what makes HEY different.

If I were part of their dev team, I would feel liberated:

"Here is a database containing the emails of a user, what can you do with it? Go crazy."

Different is not necessaryly better. Some users have built efficient and elaborate workflows using the existing offerings from Google, Microsoft and others.

But if you are not satisfied with how your mailbox looks like, if you've thought of declaring email bankruptcy, then HEY may be good for you.

Personally, I couldn't be happier. I've had my @gmail.com address for 15+ years and I still remember how excited I were when I got my Gmail invite (*), but for the last 10 years I hated opening my mailbox. HEY changed this.

Today, I purchased the annual subscription. However, I won't be sending emails from HEY (I use Gmail and BCC my HEY address) until they support custom domains: Next time I tell someone "my new email is...", it will be on my own domain.

(*) Funny story. I got my HEY invite from @fragkakis. When I thanked him, he said "I got my Google Wave invite from you, once." :-)

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37 days ago
Athens, Greece
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98.6 Degrees Fahrenheit Isn’t the Average Anymore

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Jo Craven McGinty, reporting for The Wall Street Journal:

Nearly 150 years ago, a German physician analyzed a million temperatures from 25,000 patients and concluded that normal human-body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. That standard has been published in numerous medical texts and helped generations of parents judge the gravity of a child’s illness. But at least two dozen modern studies have concluded the number is too high.

The findings have prompted speculation that the pioneering analysis published in 1869 by Carl Reinhold August Wunderlich was flawed.

Or was it?

In a new study, researchers from Stanford University argue that Wunderlich’s number was correct at the time but is no longer accurate because the human body has changed. Today, they say, the average normal human-body temperature is closer to 97.5 degrees Fahrenheit.

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195 days ago
Is this about better nutrition?
Cambridge, Massachusetts
194 days ago
A response to climate change, perhaps?
188 days ago
Athens, Greece
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4 public comments
179 days ago
The fact the doctors don’t know this is a very real problem.
193 days ago
That's been my base temperature for as long as I can remember. Don't know if it's a general change in people today or maybe that a sample of 25,000 patients from 150 years ago would have a lot more people fighting infections that we now vaccinate folks for.
Nashville, Tennessee
199 days ago
New York, New York
200 days ago
Nice. I thought it was just me.
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