What did Galileo ever do to you?

Statue of Galileo outside the Uffizi, Florence

I ask this because some of those who write about Galileo on the internet seem to have a  real grudge against the guy. A personal grudge – judging from the emotion in their writing.

Now I am not saying Galileo was perfect – he was as human as anyone else, perhaps more so. I read a few biographies of famous scientists these days and I am really pleased modern biographies are not hagiographic. They generally present the subject “warts and all.” The scientists are human – often very human. Personally ambitious, spiteful and jealous. (Just like scientists today – I have often said we could make an excellent soap opera based on the day-to-day life in a New Zealand scientific research institute).

These human presentations really do underline the fallacy of considering scientists and science as somehow inhuman, lacking in emotion. Like robots. They help make the science, and their discoveries, real, human and interesting. Science is actually a very messy process and the more readers get presented with this reality in these biographies the better they will understand the process.

But why should the reader of today personally feel a grudge against Einstein because of the way he treated his first wife and child, or against Newton because of his ambition, superstitions, jealousy and other personal failings?

Even worse – why should the historian of science bear such a personal grudge – especially as this distorts presentation of their subject? Yet when it comes to Galileo this seems to be the case. Some self-proclaimed historians of science are taking sides. They wish to blame the victim for his persecution by the Inquisition. They will present Galileo’s human faults at great length, while ignoring completely the very human interactions within the school of cardinals, within the Vatican and inquisition. They ignore the political realities of the Catholic church of the time which influenced Pope Urban’s reaction to Galileo and his judgement by the inquisition.

Taking sides on past arguments

And the same thing with the science. Almost inevitably these people concentrate on Galileo’s scientific mistakes (eg his tides argument). Instead of objectively presenting the facts of the controversies over the Ptolemaic and Copernican models of the solar system at the time they insist on taking sides. They rehearse the arguments of Galileo’s opponents (eg “we don’t feel the earth moving,” there was no orbital parallax observed for the fixed stars – interpreting this as “non-existent” parallax, and not “not yet observed”) while completely ignoring Galileo’s often extremely informative replies to specific criticisms. They present a picture implying that supporters of geocentricism had undeniable evidence. Accepted by everyone except Galileo. And implying that Galileo had no worthwhile arguments supporting a heliocentric model at all.

In these discussions I have been told that geocentrism was the scientific consensus at the time and was well supported by the existing scientific knowledge. Even told that a committee of “scientists” had ruled so – see Historical fiction. (The “committee of scientists” turned out to be a panel of consultant theologians asked by the Inquisition to make a judgement – see Historical fiction for the text of the brief consultant’s report and members of the panel).

Another claim is that geocentrism was a “well established and strongly empirically supported theory” – implying Galileo had no business arguing against it. When I pointed out that was actually not so, that the geocentric model required a number of ad hoc adjustments, not empirically supported, to achieve its ability to predict planetary motions I get told that it was not meant to be an “explanatory” model. Well, yes. We know about its instrumental success for navigators and astrologers. But why attribute “strong empirical support” to the model when this was not the case? Well, obviously so that any minor problems of the alternative heliocentric model could be used to discredit it.

I have even been told that the heliocentric model had been “falsified” because orbital parallax (detecting displacement of a star against its background at the 6 monthly orbital extremes of the earth) had not been observed. As Galileo said at the time on this issues:

the adversaries of this opinion rise up, and take what Copernicus has called ”imperceptible” as having been assumed by him to be really and absolutely non-existent.”

And then these modern critics also ignore Galileo’s demonstration of the over-estimation of stellar sizes due to an optical delusion in naked eye observations and how reduction of these effects produced much more distant stars and hence minimisation of parallax.

Emotional hostility to Galileo

Did I mention the emotional commitment to this anti-Galileo grudge? In recent debates where I have attempted to explain Galileo’s position, or ask for specific references to claims against Galileo, I have been called a “tool,” and a “fanboy” with “cherished notions of Galileo’s intellectual immaculacy.” Accused of “hand waving” and using “a minimal amount of dubious or inaccurate facts” and being a “tone-deaf fundamentalist.” Even “despicable, self-righteous and deluded.”

All because I argued Galileo’s case!

These reactions seem to result from the protagonists having a mission – the “demythologizing of history!” They appear consider the current understanding of Galileo and his contribution to science has raised him to the status of a saint, rather than a scientific hero – and a human scientific hero at that. One of my opponents claimed:

” . . . the convoluted details and scientific problems associated with the transition from geostatic to heliostatic math models has been simplified to the archetypal culture hero Galileo performing the iconic deeds that validate our Modern way of life.”

You sort of wonder where that has come from? And what exactly about “Modern way of life” is Galileo being blamed for?  From my perspective it seems to come from within their own mind and ideology because I certainly don’t pick up those messages from current biography’s of Galileo or descriptions of his scientific contributions. It seems to me rather than “demythologising history” they are in fact attempting to create a myth – Galileo as the dishonest fraudster. Perhaps even highly immoral. Suppressing and distorting data, ignoring the arguments against the Copernican model. And even seeming to argue that the geocentric model should really not have been displaced.

Historical debates

Last year in Bias in the history of science I discussed Maurice A. Finocchiaro’s book Retrying Galileo, 1633-1992. This provides the history of the Galileo Affair as it has been debated over the last almost 400 years. And these presentations have certainly been controversial. Partly because of limited access to documents in the early days. But also because of ideological positions (for and against the church).

Some of the ideological controversy continues – just do an internet search for Galileo and his persecution. See how much of the electronic space is taken up by religious apologists. Their blaming the victim approach is alive and active today and probably is responsible for diffusion of some of their arguments into the academic discussion of the history of science.

Finocchiaro also saw some others motives – such as Koestler’s emotional commitment to mystery which lead him to be very negative about Galileo – the cold, logical scientist, who ‘did not exemplify “the unitary source of the mystical and scientific modes of experience.”’ In contrast Koestler was much more flattering of the “mystical origin and sleepwalking character of Kepler’s discoveries.” Finocchiaro called Arthur Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe a “popular libel against Galileo.”

One certainly has to be aware of ideological and emotional commitments when judging the statements of those writing on the history of science.

Whatever – the long history of the Galileo affair controversy, and the different sides taken, certainly provide plenty of ammunition for anyone wishing to find apparent authoritative support for their own prejudices today.

But why should they have the prejudices they do?

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9 responses to “What did Galileo ever do to you?

  1. Well, I think it is nothing more than religious apologetics in action. In the same way that certain children are presented to have ‘invited’ clerical abuse and rape, so too has Galileo similarly ‘invited’ the abuse of his historical position (of detaching the catholic acceptance of explanations that hinge on things having a nature to how reality actually operates). I think that’s what all the apologists are trying to do: blame the victim so that they can continue to hold their contrary beliefs aloof from the reality they falsely describe.

  2. I think this religious apologetics can actually have a wider influence. In the sense that it exerts an influence academically it tends to inject ideas into the areas of philosophy of science and history of science. So their influence can actually spread to the non-religious apologists.

  3. “The scientists are human – often very human.”

    How can you be “very human”?

    You are either human or you are not.
    The language on this blog is very puzzling to an outsider.

  4. It’s a figure of speech, Michel.

    We recognize that humans are flaws, biased, selective in considering data, etc. They also have emotional reactions which lead to ambition, s, etc. all I am saying is that scientists also have these problems – they are not robots, they are human.

    Saying “very human” is just to stress that these failings are present.

    Sent from my iPad

  5. Thanks Ken. I am still learning the idioms.
    Thanks for supporting a tool.

  6. You will notice that I was also called a “tool” in my debate with those hostile to Galileo. Best to treat that sort of thing as water off a duck’s back.

  7. Yes I am scornful of those that call people tools.
    Water off a ducks back, indeed.

  8. Pingback: A Philosopher, a Poem, and a Song | Professions for PEACE

  9. Thank you for this excellent post! All of it is stimulating and thought-provoking, and I especially enjoy these inquiries you present: “…why should the reader of today personally feel a grudge against Einstein because of the way he treated his first wife and child, or against Newton because of his ambition, superstitions, jealousy and other personal failings? Even worse – why should the historian of science bear such a personal grudge – especially as this distorts presentation of their subject? Yet when it comes to Galileo this seems to be the case.”
    Thank you again for this well-written article.

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