Galileo Still Matters

Just weeks after an Australian group hit the news for denying global climate change while evoking the name and spirit of Galileo, we have another scientifically- and historically-dubious set of claims, also in the name of the Italian astronomer-physicist. The culprit this time is Republican Presidential candidate and Texas Governor Rick Perry (warning: link requires registration):

I do agree that there is…the science is not settled on this. The idea that we would put Americans’ economy at jeopardy based on scientific theory that’s not settled yet, to me is just nonsense. I tell somebody: “Just because you have a group of scientists that stood up and said, this is the fact” … Galileo got outvoted for a spell. But the fact is, to put America’s economic future in jeopardy, asking us to cut back in areas that would have monstrous economic impact on this country, is not good economics, and I will suggest to you is not necessarily good science. Find out what the science truly is before you put the American economy in jeopardy.

Ironically, of course, failure to do anything about climate change is going to do much greater damage to the economy — not to mention the radical changes in people’s lives that will result from drought or flooding, potential water shortages, mass extinctions of ocean-dwelling species, etc. The scientific consensus is overwhelmingly in favor of global climate change for a good reason.

But getting back to Galileo and Mr. Perry’s reading of history. First up, Copernicus’ theory, which placed the Sun at the center of the Solar System, was not unknown at the time, even though officially it was heresy according to the Catholic Church. (Copernicus and Galileo were both faithful Catholics; Copernicus served the Church in some professional capacity, though it’s not clear whether he was ever an ordained priest.) There was widespread debate over whether a geocentric or heliocentric model would prevail by the time Galileo stirred the pot, and Galileo’s great contemporary Johannes Kepler actually had a much more accurate theory than Galileo’s. Galileo was less “outvoted” than he was shouted down by governmental and clerical authority, without regard to scientific merit. His arguments were not evaluated based on evidence, but based on how they sat with established doctrine.

The bigger error than the historical one, however, is the misunderstanding of science. This is not a matter of opinion, but again of evidence. It doesn’t matter if Galileo was the only one or one of a thousand scientists espousing the heliocentric view: the evidence is all on one side, with none on the other. This is why bringing the power of censorship and civil authority was truly the nuclear option against Galileo: it was saying his ideas needed to be suppressed, not evaluated. That’s an anti-scientific action.

Galileo is not important because he was a maverick: he is important because he was right. His model had flaws (namely, he utilized circular orbits when we know today planetary orbits are elliptical, with the usual caveats about general relativity, perturbations by other planets, etc.), but those flaws were corrected by further evidence and scientific study, not by an opinion poll. Science is not what we wish it to be, and attitudes of political candidates towards science tell a lot about how they approach the world.

I noted earlier on Twitter that Galileo wrote in the vernacular Italian, not in scholarly ecclesiastical Latin, and intended his books to be read by ordinary people (though obviously literacy rates made “ordinary” mean something a bit different than it does today). In this way he was similar to Charles Darwin: On the Origin of Species was written for an educated lay audience, and it was this work that introduced evolution to the larger scientific community as well. Note, however, that Mr. Perry does not evoke Darwin to support his denial of scientific evidence, even though Darwin was equally a maverick and whose views are equally accepted in the scientific community.


2 Responses to “Galileo Still Matters”

  1. 1 Porlock Junior September 11, 2011 at 02:43

    That Darwin guy had it easy, though. A few days after he dies, his family gets a respectful, almost apologetic letter from high members of the Establishment, requesting her to consider letting them bury him in Westminster Abbey. No match for the Pope graciously permitting Galileo to be buried in the church, provided it’s all obscure and there’s no monument to his internationally admired work.

    Anyway, nice treatment of the “outvoted” nonsense.

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