The Myth of Galileo: A Story With a (Mostly) Valuable Lesson for Today
Thursday, September 8, 2011, 12:36 PM
In the Republican presidential debate last night, Rick Perry responded to John Huntsman’s appeal to science on climate change by saying:
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 . . . Just because you have a group of scientists who stood up and said here is the fact. Galileo got outvoted for a spell.
This has lead to numerous pundits to scoff at Perry’s analogy. Political scientist Steven Taylor provides a typical example:
. . . Perry presented this analogy as if Galileo was caught up in a scientific battle with other scientists when, in fact, he was the scientist battling non-scientists. As such, governor, that analogy does not mean what you think it means (or, to. paraphrase a debate line from many years ago: you, governor, are no Galileo).
Steven Taylor is a very smart guy. But he is (mostly) wrong about Galileo.
Here is the real story about Galileo Galilei. It’s not the story about an enlightened scientist being persecuted by a narrow-minded Catholic Church because that story is (mostly) a myth. It’s not a story about a great scientific genius either, though he was that (mainly). It’s also not a story about someone being reincarnated with the soul of the old astronomer like the song by the Indigo Girls that, for a few weeks in ’92, I thought was (almost) profound. (And I should point out that it not an original story but one that cribbed together from other sources.)
But like all good stories this one provides a (mostly) valuable lesson.
In Galileo’s day, the predominant view in astronomy was a model first espoused by Aristotle and developed by Claudius Ptolemy in which the sun and planets revolved around the earth. The Ptolemic system had been the reigning paradigm for over 1400 years when a Polish Canon named Nicholas Copernicus published his seminal work, On the Revolution of the Celestial Orbs.
Now Copernicus’ heliocentric theory wasn’t exactly new nor was it based on purely empirical observation. While it had a huge impact on the history of science, his theory was more of a revival of Pythagorean mysticism than of a new paradigm. Like many great discoveries, he merely took an old idea and gave it a new spin.
Although Copernicus’ fellow churchmen encouraged him to publish his work, he delayed the publication of On the Revolution for several years for fear of being mocked by the scientific community. At the time, the academy belonged to Aristotelians who weren’t about to let such nonsense slip through the “peer review” process.
Then came Galileo, the prototypical Renaissance man a brilliant scientist, mathematician, and musician. But while he as intelligent, charming, and witty, the Italian was also argumentative, mocking, and vain. He was, as we would say, complex. When his fellow astronomer Johann Kepler wrote to tell him that he had converted to Copernicus’ theory, Galileo shot back that he had too — and had been so for years (though all evidence shows that it wasn’t true). His ego wouldn’t allow him to be upstaged by men who weren’t as smart as he was. And for Galileo, that included just about everybody.
In 1610, Galileo used his telescope to make some surprising discoveries that disputed Aristotelian cosmology. Though his findings didn’t exactly overthrow the reigning view of the day, they were warmly received by the Vatican and by Pope Paul V. Rather than continuing his scientific studies and building on his theories, though, Galileo began a campaign to discredit the Aristotelian view of astronomy. (His efforts would be akin to a modern biologist trying to dethrone Darwin.) Galileo knew he was right and wanted to ensure that everyone else knew that the Aristotelians were wrong.
In his efforts to cram Copernicanism down the throats of his fellow scientists, Galileo managed only to squander the goodwill he had established within the Church. He was attempting to force them to accept a theory that, at the time, was still unproven. The Church graciously offered to consider Copernicanism a reasonable hypothesis, albeit a superior one to the Ptolemaic system, until further proof could be gathered. Galileo, however, never came up with more evidence to support the theory. Instead, he continued to pick fights with his fellow scientists even though many of his conclusions were being proven wrong (i.e., that the planets orbit the sun in perfect circles).
Galileo’s primary mistake was to move the fight out of the realm of science and into the field of biblical interpretation. In a fit of hubris, he wrote the Letter to Castelli in order to explain how his theory was not incompatible with proper biblical exegesis. With the Protestant Reformation still fresh on their minds, the Church authorities were in no mood to put up with another troublemaker trying to interpret Scripture on his own.
But, to their credit, they didn’t overreact. The Letter to Castelli was twice presented to the Inquisition as an example of the astronomer’s heresy and twice the charges were dismissed. Galileo, however, wasn’t satisfied and continued his efforts to force the Church to concede that the Copernican system was an issue of irrefutable truth.
In 1615, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine politely presented Galileo with an option: Put up or Shut up. Since there was no proof that the earth revolved around the sun, there was no reason for Galileo to go around trying to change the accepted reading of Holy Scripture. But if he had proof, the Church was willing to reconsider their position. Galileo’s response was to produce his theory that the ocean tides were caused by the earth’s rotation. The idea was not only scientifically inaccurate but so silly it was even rejected by his supporters.
Fed up with being dismissed, Galileo returned to Rome to bring his case before the Pope. The Pontiff, however, merely passed it along to the Holy Office who issued the opinion that the Copernican doctrine is “foolish and absurd, philosophically and formally heretical inasmuch as it expressly contradicts the doctrine of Holy Scripture in many passages…” The verdict was quickly overruled by other Cardinals in the Church.
Galileo wasn’t about to let up, though, and to everyone’s exasperation, pressed the issue yet again. The Holy Office politely but firmly told him to shut up about the whole Copernican thing and forbid him from espousing the unproven theory. This, of course, was more than he was willing to do.
When his friend took over the Papal throne, Galileo thought he would finally find a sympathetic ear. He discussed the issue with Pope Urban VIII, a man knowledgeable in matters of math and science, and tried to use his theory of the tides to convince him of the validity of his theory. Pope Urban was unconvinced and even gave an answer (though not a sound one) that refuted the notion.
Galileo then wrote A Dialogue About the Two Chief World Systems in which he would present the views of both Copernicus and Ptolemy. Three characters would be involved: Salviati, the Copernican; Sagredo, the undecided; and Simplicio, the Ptolemian (the name Simplicio implying “simple-minded”). And here is where we find our hero making his biggest blunder: he took the words that Pope Urban had used to refute his theory of the tides and put them in the mouths of Simplicio.
The Pope was not amused.
Galileo, who was now old and sickly, was once again called before the Inquisition. Unlike most suspected heretics, though, he was treated surprisingly well. While waiting for his trial, Galileo was housed in a luxurious apartment overlooking the Vatican gardens and provided with a personal valet.
In his defense, Galileo tried a peculiar tactic. He attempted to convince the judges that he had never maintained nor defended the opinion that the earth moves and that the sun is stationary and that he had, in fact, demonstrated the opposite by showing how the Copernican hypothesis was in error. The Holy Office, who knew they were being played for fools, condemned him as being “vehemently suspected of heresy”, a patently unjust ruling considering that Copernicanism had never been declared heretical.
Galileo’s sentence was to renounce his theory and to live out the rest of his days in a pleasant country house near Florence. Obviously the exile did him good because it was there, under the care of his daughter, that he continued his experiments and published his best scientific work, Discourses on Two New Sciences. He died quietly in 1642 at the ripe old age of 77.
As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote, “In a generation which saw the Thirty Years’ War and remembered Alva in the Netherlands, the worst that happened to men of science was that Galileo suffered an honorable detention and a mild reproof, before dying peacefully in his bed.”
As Paul Harvey would say, now we know the rest of the story. So what can we learn from this tale? I think it provides different lessons for different groups of people.
For scientists it shows that if you are in agreement with most of your colleagues, you will most likely be forgotten while history remembers some crank. For advocates of non-consensus positions (e.g., AGW skeptics, Intelligent Design theorists) it teaches that claiming your theory is correct is no substitute for backing it up with experiments and data (even if you are right). For aggressively self-confident people the lesson is that sometimes being persistent and believing in yourself will just get you into trouble. For Catholics it provides an example of why you shouldn’t insult the Pope (at least when there is an Inquisition going on).
I suspect that there are many more lessons that can be gleaned from this story. But I find that the real moral is not so much in the story itself but in the fact that the story even needs to be told in the first place. While I first heard the story of Galileo in elementary school, it wasn’t until long, long after I had graduated from college that I finally learned the truth. No doubt some people are just now hearing about it for the first time. How is that possible?
I suspect it may have something to do with the fact that for centuries people like Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw, Carl Sagan, Bertolt Brecht, and the Indigo Girls have been passing on the myth. I don’t think any of them were intentionally lying. In fact, I doubt any of them ever bothered to examine the facts themselves. They didn’t need to. The story fit what they already believed—that science and religion were natural enemies—and that was all they needed to know.
It would be easy to mock such gullibility and intellectual laziness. But the truth is that I’m probably guilty of doing the same thing quite often. Perhaps it’s because I am a journalist (sort of) and am more apt to believe whatever version of a story I find more interesting. As a newspaper editor I often favored David over Goliath, even when the powerful Philistine was more credible than the person slinging the stones. “Boy Shepherd Slays Powerful Giant” always makes for a better headline.
As a Christian, though, I don’t have the option of favoring the position that will sell more newspapers. Instead, my duty is to side with the truth. When I hear a story that fits my agenda I should examine all the relevant facts before accepting it as Gospel. I may not always be absolutely certain which side of the line the truth lays. But I do know on thing for sure. That is the side that God will be on.
As one might expect, the Galileo affair is a much more complex matter than is presented in caricatures today. Galileo was right about some things, and wrong about others. Just like the Church.
On reflection, I think that the Church, contrary to the fables in currency today, was the more judicious of the interlocutors. Much of the debate was less about religion than it was about prudence and respect for evidence. Galileo was arrogant and wrong on important aspects of the science, and the Church appropriately challenged him on his claims. His support of the Copernican view was mostly right, but he misrepresented the state of the evidence.
Galileo was a great scientist, and like most great scientists, he had an enormous ego and made many mistakes. His unique contributions were largely eclipsed by his successors.
But he has lived on as metaphor, in the pantheon of those who hate the Church.