Tag Archives: Galileo affair

Historians and sociologists just as human as scientists

This great Sidney Harris cartoon reminds me of the Big Bang Theory scene where Sheldon and Leonard end up wrestling during a conference presentation by Leonard. It’s also a handy antidote for anyone with an idealistic picture of scientists and how science is done.

The human, but real, behaviour of scientists seems to be a current theme in recent discussions of the nature of science by historians and sociologists. That’s not a bad thing in itself – much of the old history may have given an unrealistic and idealistic picture of science as it was done in the past. Let alone now.

I enjoy reading about the history of science and am really pleased that biographies of famous scientists are no longer hagiographies. These days we often learn about the personal foibles and character flaws as well as the great discoveries. It doesn’t in any way destroy my picture of science to learn about Newton’s or Einstein’s character or personality defects, or about the affairs, professional jealousies and outright bad behaviour of science icons. And my own professional experience has certainly taught me about the social and political influences on science and science funding.

Given that current science history tends to be a “warts and all” coverage, and that modern scientists also experience the real sociology of science day-to-day I am a bit surprised that some UK historians and sociologists recently took it upon themselves to lecture us about this (see Historians and sociologists lecture scientists – about science) As if scientists had a naive, idealistic picture of how they do science!

Keeping us honest?

Mind you – it did start me thinking. These historians and sociologists are assuring us that they perform an important function. Revealing, and reminding us, of the social and political influences on science. And of the real non-algorithmic nature of the scientific process. Of the real scientific method. These historians think they play a key role in keeping scientists honest – perhaps they do.

But who plays this role when it comes to history and sociology? Who has described the social, political and ideological influences on the history and sociology of science? And has anybody been reminding the students and practitioners in these fields of those influences on their ideas and teachings?

Personally I think history and sociology should be subjected to the same sort of realism that these historians and sociologists have given science. This might then help overcome an attitude which comes across as “Believe me, I am a historian/sociologist and what I say represents intensive research and consensus in my profession.”

Perhaps we need to remind ourselves that historians and sociologists are just as human as scientists. They also are prone to personal emotions and vanities. They are exposed to social, political and ideological influences. And they probably have less opportunity to validate their ideas against reality than do their scientist colleagues.

Where claims of consensus are false

Two areas where historians who have attempted to claim they represent a consensus view really annoy me:

Galileo is of course a key figure in the history of science – but one whose history and significance is contested among historians (although scientists generally accept his important contributions to scientific method and astronomy). Some historians really seem to hate the guy. They downplay his contributions, often appearing to argue against them. They will concentrate on his mistakes (all scientists make mistakes), set impossibly high standards of proof for his ideas and even now seem to favour alternative discredited ideas.

Paula E. Findlen, Stanford University describes “the trial and condemnation of Galileo” as having been “debated, and reinterpreted for over three and a half centuries. We are not yet done with this contentious story.” So true. The historian of science Maurice Finocchiaro has detailed this debate in his book Retrying Galileo, 1633-1992. A shorter version is in his chapter of Ronald Number’s collection Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion.

I am sure much of the controversy could be sheeted back to ideological motivations and that would be a fascinating study. But the persistent controversy among historians about the “Galileo Affair” underlines the fact that one should not take on faith the history presented by a single historian.

Some historians of sciences adamantly promote the myth that Christianity gave birth to modern science. The ideological bias is pretty obvious here but again this is an area where one should not just take the word of a single historian – no matter how much they assure you their view represents a consensus of their profession.

For an overview of that particular myth Noah J. Efron has a good chapter, That Christianity Gave Birth to Modern Science, in Ronald Number’s collection Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion. Efron chairs the Program in Science, Technology and Society at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and serves as President of the Israeli Society for History and Philosophy of Science.

Just imagine that we had an equivalent of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – but for history and sociobiology instead of climate science. Maybe then historical and sociological controversies could be resolved and the consumer may really get a consensus view.

But I am sure there would still be sceptics/contrarians, deniers!

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Historians of science sometimes miss the wood for the trees

I came across this nice little quote recently:*

Philosophy of science without history of science is empty;
history of science without philosophy of science is blind.

It’s attributed to  Imre Lakatos, the Hungarian philosopher of mathematics and science.

This really appealed to me as I have been somewhat surprised lately how some historians of science approach their subject mechanically. They look on the history of science as a sequence of events, discoveries, etc., without ever seeming to recognise the significance of what is going on. I can’t help thinking about woods and trees.

One example is the intensive debate about the Galileo affair which questions why Galileo should have argued for heliocentricism when no parallax evidence could be found. Or that his explanation for tides was wrong. Or that he was rather abrasive with a tendency to polemics. Or that he was ambitious. Etc., Etc.

These historians seem to impose too much of their own understandings, values and ideology onto the historical events.  They are also treating history as a dead collection of unconnected events while ignoring the underlying evolution of methods and approaches. The changes in the philosophy and epistemology of science.

Galileo’s real contribution

To me the real importance of studying such history is to see the changes in approach lying behind the great discoveries. Galileo is often called the father of modern science, not because he was the first astronomer to use a telescope, or because of the discoveries that ensued. But because he challenged the old approach, the old way of thinking influenced by theology and religious philosophy, and not objective reality. His contribution was basically epistemological. And it was a necessary part of the modern scientific revolution.

I commented on this before in Galileo’s revolutionary contribution. To me Galileo’s real significance and contribution is summarised in his comments of theology. In part:

“therefore, whatever sensory experience places before our eyes or necessary demonstrations prove to us concerning natural effects should not in any way be called into question on account of scriptural passages whose words appear to have a different meaning, since not every statement of Scripture is bound to obligations as severely as each effect of nature.”

Elsewhere he expressed this in terms of discovering the truth about nature in the “book of nature”, rather than the scriptures.

I just wish more historians of science appreciated the history of the philosophy or epistemology of science.


*This quote was used as an introductory message by Peter Dear in his chapter “Philosophy of Science and Its Historical Reconstructions” in the collection Integrating History and Philosophy of Science: Problems and Prospects.

Some of the other chapters also have interesting quotes. For example, this one in Jan Golinski’s chapter “Thomas Kuhn and Interdisciplinary Conversation: Why Historians and Philosophers of Science Stopped Talking to One Another.”:

“Paradigm was a perfectly good word until I messed it up.”

Thomas S. Kuhn

So true!

Then what about this one in Dean Rickles’ chapter “Quantum Gravity Meets &HPS”:

Science is what scientists have done, not what a philosopher tells us the scientist meant to do, were really doing, or should have done.

James Cushing

Yeah – doesn’t that attitude of some of the philosophically minded annoy you?

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Bias in the history of science

I am currently reading Retrying Galileo, 1633-1992 by Maurice A. Finocchiaro. This certainly provides some background to the current mythology about the Galileo affair (see The Galileo myths). Apparently Galileo’s trial never stopped with his sentencing in 1633 – he has been continually re-trialled ever since. So many myths, both anti-Galileo and anti-Church, have been promoted over the intervening years.

On the one hand this does show how susceptible history is to the confirmation bias of the individual historian. But it also provides plenty of “authentic” quote-mining material for the current Galileo mythologists.

Where is the sympathy for science?

What drives this common bias on such subjects? I naively expected that experts from other fields who make a living studying or commenting on science to be sympathetic with scientific processes and understanding of scientific method. Retrying Galileo shows this is not always the case.

We can see plenty of examples where such experts have been hostile to science. For example, the proponents of intelligent design (ID) had “philosophers of science” as expert witnesses at the Kitzmiller v Dover trial (see Intelligent design and scientific methodThese “philosophers of science” were effectively defending a perverted “theistic” science. Similar the “sociologist of science” Steve Fuller was an expert witness supporting ID. He has since written posts on the ID blog site Uncommon Design and authored a book defending ID – Science v. Religion? Intelligent Design and the Problem of Evolution.

When I realised that sociologists of science study and advise on science management and funding that had me worried. Mind you, perhaps it explains the phenomenon I noticed during my career – some of those managing our science were actually anti-science!

This tweet from historian of science James Hannam is another example that concerned me:

@DrJamesHannam: Could science come to regret claiming to have all the answers? It can cost you when you get it wrong. “

Now as the author of God’s Philosophers and The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution – how does Hannam make such a mistake? Who the hell claims science has all the answers – certainly not the practitioners of science. Nor should a respectable historian of science.

Back to the Galileo myths

Another example of confirmation bias is the attitude of Elaine Howard Ecklund, author of the book Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think (see Are scientists hostile to religion? for my review). She claimed many of the scientists she interviewed  gave the Galileo affair as “a central piece of their evidence that religion and science are in entrenched conflict.” But as she says – “Galileo was never tortured; that’s a myth.”

True – and I wonder how many scientists specifically claimed he was tortured. She does not quote a single example. (See The Galileo myths for my point that these sort of claims are themselves myths – no reputable history of science makes this claim today and I seriously suspect not many informed scientists do either). But Ecklund felt it necessary to expand on her assertion by presenting a lengthy quote from Koestler’s history of the affair in The Sleepwalkers. This is one of the anti-Galileo “histories.” In Retrying Galileo Finocchiaro claims that Koestler “disliked Galileo” and described Koestler’s history as a “popular libel against Galileo”. So her quote implied that Galileo did not deserve our current assessment of him as one of the great fathers of modern science. And made a number of straw man assertions aimed at discrediting Galileo – eg., “Galileo did not invent the telescope; nor the microscope; nor the thermometer; nor the pendulum clock . . and did not prove the truth of the Copernican system.”

In his book Sense and Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism, philosopher and historian of science Richard Carrier discusses methods of gaining knowledge at length. He points to problems that historians face in obtaining reliable knowledge but suggests they can usually do so by adopting specific historical methodologies.

I really like his warning to “recognize that almost any story can be an invention”:

“So the First Rule of Historical Method is: don’t believe everything you read. A believable history has to be constructed from several converging lines of evidence that have been critically and skillfully examined, and not every piece of evidence is equally trustworthy. Humans are notorious liars, eager exaggerators, and happy to believe almost anything they agree with. Skepticism is a virtue—but unfortunately a rare one, even rarer than honesty.”

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Galileo’s modern critics

The Gallileo Affair - a useful primary source of documents

What is it with some philosophical and historical commenters who take sides against Galileo in his 17th century dispute with the Church?

Perhaps because we now have many documents from that period (17th century) – including Galileo’s original writings, official documents from the Inquisition and the church,  and the text of complaints made to the inquisition about Galileo’s beliefs and teachings. This itself can fuel different perspectives.

However, I think another source of this lively debate lies in the preconceived notions and beliefs of the modern protagonists. That, to me, is the only explanation for a trend (a trend – I don’t blame all) among commenters on the history of science that seeks to blame the victim (in this case Galileo) for the affair. To claim that Galileo was scientifically wrong. That the Church was correct to suppress research into a heliocentric model for the solar system. And to threaten imprisonment for anyone holding these opinions. And, inevitably, when there a preconceived beliefs, sources are selected to confirm those beliefs.

We can see one example in Andrew Brown’s blog article Science is the only road to truth? Don’t be absurd  (see my earlier post Debates in the philosophy of science). Here, I want to take issue with his claim that the Church was partly correct in suppressing Galileo’s ideas on heliocentricism:

” Because if there is one thing that has been established in the history of science in the last 50 years, it is that in strictly scientific terms, and going by the evidence available to him and to his contemporaries, Galileo was wrong and Cardinal Bellarmine was right. Heliocentrism was a beautiful theory, and Galileo would have been free to teach it as such – but the observation of stellar parallax, or rather the discovery that none could be observed, should have knocked it on the head “

There are a few points in this which need challenging.

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Historical fiction

Sometimes a historical fiction by a good and responsible author can be very informative. Of course one should always check reliable sources for details. But a good author can do a lot of that research for you. And they can add environmental and dramatic material which helps to put the details of the history into context.

I recently commented (see Waking from a coma!) about Stuart Clark’s new book. It’s the first in a trilogy of historical fiction describing the history of astronomy. The book, Sky’s Dark Labyrinth, is set around Galileo and Kepler, their scientific contributions, personal lives and their treatment by the church and society.

Having finished reading the book I can recommend it. It’s well written, informative on the  scientific history and provides good images of the culture of the times.

Some more Galileo myths

Recently some people of a historical bent have criticised my articles on Galileo. So I guess I may now be criticised for reading historical fiction after this revelation. But any such criticism will be irrelevant as I always do try to check details with reliable sources.

I am surprised at some of the criticisms I have already had. Perhaps I shouldn’t be as there are clearly some people who have motivations for misrepresenting Galileo and for criticising the status he has today. I commented on this before in The Galileo myths.

One Galileo myth I have heard came initially from a local theologian. He twisted and squirmed (as they do) to justify the church’s treatment of Galileo. In the end he actually made the claim that Galileo based his own heliocentric position on faith and that the Church based their geocentric one on the science! That Galileo was in conflict with all the scientists of the time.

This came up again recently when a commenter on another blog repeated this claim and told me that the church had consulted a committee of “scientists” in 1616 who confirmed that heliocentricism was scientifically wrong (as well as being theological heretical). I think the theologian may also have been using this to justify his claim.

(Galileo was initially investigated by the Inquisition in 1616 as a result of complaints he held the opinion of a heliocentric universe. However, the trial and conviction for which he is remembered was held in 1633).

“Scientists” or theologians?

Lets put aside the fact that a committee of “scientists’ would have been unlikely at that time (perhaps a committee of mathematicians and astronomers but not “scientists”). I pointed out that the panel was actually made up from eleven theologians – and got told I was incorrect and simply making the claim because of my “personal dislike of the Catholic Church”! Strange reaction considering I had already quoted from the preamble to Galileo’s “Inquisition’s Sentence (22 June 1633)” – a primary source”

“the Assessor Theologians assessed the two propositions of the sun’s stability and the earth’s motion, as follows:
That the sun is the center of the world and motionless is a proposition which is philosophically absurd and false, and formally heretical, for being explicitly contrary to Holy Scripture;
That the earth is neither the center of the world nor motionless but moves even with diurnal motion is philosophically equally absurd and false, and theologically at least erroneous in the Faith.”

The highlighting of the word theologian is mine.

A good source of primary documents

Still one can argue about the significance of the assessor theologians report and it always best to consult the actual documents before doing so. Therefore I have provided in full below the report from the assessor theologians. You can make your own inferences on their qualifications and reasons for making the assessments they did. You can also draw your own conclusions about the extent to which they consulted the astronomers of the time.

My point on the latter is that any “committee” trying to draw an objective conclusion on this question would have consulted, amongst others, the most outstanding Italian astronomer of the time, who incidentally was also in Rome when they sat, Galileo.

As for the apparent unanimity and confidence of the report – I find that strange as the Church in other documents of the time was expressing concern “about the spreading and acceptance by many of the false Pythagorean doctrine, altogether contrary to the Holy Scripture, that the earth moves and the sun is motionless.”


The source is Maurice A. Finocchiaro’s The Galileo Affair: A Documentary History.

Consultants’ Report on Copernicanism

(24 February 1616)

Assessment made at the Holy Office, Rome, Wednesday, 24 February 1616, in the presence of the Father Theologians signed below.

Propositions to be assessed:

(1) The sun is the center of the world and completely devoid of local motion.

Assessment: All said that this proposition is foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture, according to the literal meaning of the words and according to the common interpretation and understanding of the Holy Fathers and the doctors of theology.

(2) The earth is not the center of the world, nor motionless, but it moves as a whole and also with diurnal motion.

Assessment: All said that this proposition receives the same judgment in philosophy and that in regard to theological truth it is at least erroneous in faith.

  • Petrus Lombardus, Archbishop of Armagh.
  • Fra Hyacintus Petronius, Master of the Sacred Apostolic Palace.
  • Fra Raphael Riphoz, Master of Theology and Vicar-General of the Dominican Order.
  • Fra Michelangelo Segizzi, Master of Sacred Theology and Commissary of the Holy Office.
  • Fra Hieronimus de Casalimaiori, Consultant to the Holy Office.
  • Fra Thomas de Lemos.
  • Fra Gregorius Nunnius Coronel.
  • Benedictus Justinianus, Society of Jesus.
  • Father Raphael Rastellius, Clerk Regular, Doctor of Theology.
  • Father Michael of Naples, of the Cassinese Congregation.
  • Fra Iacobus Tintus, assistant of the Most Reverend Father Commissary of the Holy Office.

And what about this from the Inquisition Minutes of the next day:

“The Most Illustrious Lord Cardinal Millini notified the Reverend Fathers Lord Assessor and Lord Commissary of the Holy Office that, after the reporting of the judgment by the Father Theologians against the propositions of the mathematician Galileo (to the effect that the sun stands still at the center of the world and the earth moves even with the diurnal motion), His Holiness ordered the Most Illustrious Lord Cardinal Bellarmine to call Galileo before himself and warn him to abandon these opinions; and if he should refuse to obey, the Father Commissary, in the presence of a notary and witnesses, is to issue him an injunction to abstain completely from teaching or defending this doctrine and opinion or from discussing it; and further, if he should not acquiesce, he is to be imprisoned.”

Rather an extreme discussion to be based on such a flimsy report, isn’t it?

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The Galileo myths

Dr Marc Crislip

For a while there I had wondered if I was the only one who noticed the current attempts of theistically motivated historians and philosophers to rewrite the history of the Galileo affair. But no, greater minds have come to a similar conclusions. I picked up this quote from Marc Crislip on the most recent podcast of The Skeptics Guide to the Universe:

“Galileo was a man of science oppressed by the irrational and superstitious. Today, he is used by the irrational and the superstitious who say they are being oppressed by science. So 1984.”

So true.

Last year was the International Year of Astronomy, celebrating in part Galileo’s original use of a telescope to observe heavenly bodies. An important celebration for science.

But it was also taken up by Christian apologists, historians and philosophers. A number of books were published rewriting the history in a way more sympathetic to the church. Opinion pieces were written and the apologist blogs eagerly leaped on the bandwagon. An all too common atmosphere of martyrdom was spread. George Sim Johnston, wrote recently on the Catholic Education Resource Centre blog that “the Galileo case is one of the historical bludgeons that are used to beat on the Church.”

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