Tag Archives: Galileo

Rejection of scientific studies in online discussions


Sometimes the on-line discussion of scientific issues  looks like a citation battle. People take sides, battle lines are drawn and struggle commences. Each side fires barrages of citations “proving” their own argument.

The battle progresses in real-time – the proferred citations are immediately rejected and alternatives offered. One would think the other side would take time out to actually read the offered citations – but no they are usually quickly rejected as unreliable.  I also get the impression that in many cases the side offering the citation  has also not bothered to read it – usually relying on its use by an ally or its coverage in a friendly on-line magazine.

OK, it natural to be lazy but wouldn’t we all learn a lot more by actually reading the citations being thrown around. And doesn’t it discredit one’s position to reject a citation out of hand for unjustified reasons?

The Logic of Science recently posted an analysis of the bad reasons people use for rejecting citations – 12 bad reasons for rejecting scientific studies. It is well worth a read – we will recognise these 12 reasons and hopefully learn not to use them ourselves in future.

Here are the 12 bad reasons:

Bad reason #1: Galileo/Columbus

“When faced with results that they don’t like, many people will invoke Galileo or Columbus and claim that they defied the mainstream view and people thought that they were crazy, but they turned out to be right. . . [However] no one thought that Galileo was crazy. He presented facts and careful observations, not conspiracies and conjecture. He did not blindly reject the science of his day, rather he made meticulous observations and presented data that discredited the common views. That is not in any way shape or form the same as arrogantly and ignorantly rejecting a paper just because you disagree with it.”

Yes, the Galileo claim always come across to me as very arrogant and crazy – yet it’s a common excuse. An Australian climate change denial group even incorporated Galileo into its title – poor old Galileo must be turning in his grave.

Bad reason #2: science has been wrong in the past

“[P]eople often make the broad claim that science shouldn’t be trusted because it has been wrong before. . . . . First, it is true that science has been wrong, but it has always been other scientists who have figured out that it was wrong. Further, it is logically invalid to blindly assume that it is wrong just because it has been wrong before.

Additionally, although there have been plenty of minor hypotheses which have been discredited, there have been very few core ideas that have been rejected in the past century. In other words, ideas which are supported by thousands of studies have rarely been rejected, and very few central ideas have been overthrown in recent decades.

Finally, attacking science by asserting that it has been wrong before is utterly absurd because science is inherently a process of modifying our understanding of the world. In other words, science is self correcting. This is one of it’s greatest strengths. . . . . It constantly replaces erroneous ideas as new evidence comes to light (the same can’t be said for anti-science views which rigidly cling to their positions no matter how much evidence opposes them). Therefore, the fact that science has been wrong is actually a good thing, because if there were no instances where we had discovered that a previous idea was wrong, that would mean that science hadn’t advanced.”

Scientific knowledge is always incomplete – with time it becomes more and more correct in its description of reality, but there is always room for improvement, for deepening of specific knowledge and refinement of theories.

It seems to me very crass to use this inherent property of good science against science itself.

Bad reason #3: it’s all about the money

Ironically, this excuse is commonly used by people allied with movements funded by big business who are campaigning against scientific findings they feel challenged by.

“This is probably the most common response to papers on climate change, vaccines, GMOs, etc., and it’s often simply untrue. The scientific community is massive, and there are thousands of independent scientists doing research. Further, all scientific publications require authors to declare any conflicts of interest, so you can actually check and see if a paper was paid for by a major company, and if you did that, you would find that many of the papers supporting GMOs, vaccines, etc. have no conflicts of interest. Anti-scientists, of course, have no interest in actually looking at the paper. They would rather just assume that it was paid off because that fits with their world-view.

. . . even if a paper does have a conflict of interest, that doesn’t give you carte blanche to ignore it. The fact that someone works for a pharmaceutical company, for example, does not automatically mean that they biased or falsified their data. If a paper has a conflict of interest, then you should certainly give it extra scrutiny, and you should be suspicious if it disagrees with other papers or has questionable statistics, but you cannot automatically assume that it is flawed.”

Wise words. We should always read scientific papers critically and intelligently – especially when there may be a conflict of interest. But it is neither critical or intelligent to reject them out of hand in this way.

Bad reason #4: there are other results that I disagree with

Someone will say, “I reject the science of X because science also says Y and I disagree with Y.” We can rephrase this as, “I reject science because I reject science.” I would not, for example, accept water fluoridation as evidence that it’s ok to reject the science of vaccines unless I had already rejected the science of fluoridation. In other words, you have to justify your rejection of the science of Y before you can use it as evidence that we shouldn’t trust the science of X. Further, even if you could demonstrate that the science of Y (in this example fluoridation) was wrong, that still would not in any way shape or form prove that the science of X (in this example vaccines) is wrong. In fact, this entire line of reasoning is just a special case of the logical fallacy known as guilt by association. If are going to say that a scientific result is incorrect, you have to provide actual evidence that the specific result that you are talking about is incorrect.”

Yes, this tactic is a red-herring, often used as a diversionary device, and very lazy as it shows an unwillingness to consider properly the issue at hand.

Bad reason #5: gut feelings/parental instincts

know I am right

” . . . .  show someone the scientific evidence for vaccines, and they respond with, “well as a parent only I know what is best for my child.” Similarly, when I show people the evidence for GMOs, they often respond with something like, “well I just have a gut feeling that manipulating genes is bad.” I do not give a flying crap about your instincts or gut feelings. The entire reason that we do science is because instincts and feelings are unreliable. When someone presents you with a carefully conducted, properly controlled study, you absolutely cannot reject it just because you have a gut feeling that it’s wrong. Doing that makes no sense whatsoever. It is the most blatant form of willful ignorance imaginable. Don’t get me wrong, intuition is a good thing, and gut feelings can certainly help you in many situations, but they are not an accurate way to determine scientific facts.”

Our feelings and instincts are very strong and will often divert our attempts at rational considerations. I think such factors are  often behind the rejection of scientific studies – even when this reason is not given. But:

“Gut feelings simply aren’t reliable. That’s why we do science.”

Bad reason #6: I’m entitled to my opinion/belief

“This is another very common response, and it is very similar to #5. Science deals with facts, not opinions or beliefs. When multiple scientific studies all agree that X is correct, it is no longer a matter of opinion. If you think that X is incorrect, that’s not your opinion, you’re just wrong. Think about the relationship between smoking and lung cancer again. What if someone said, “well everyone is entitled to their opinion, and my opinion is that it’s safe.” Do you see the problem? Scientists don’t have an opinion or belief that smoking is dangerous; rather, it is a scientific fact that it is dangerous, and if you think that it is safe, you are simply in denial. Similarly, you don’t get to have an “opinion” that the earth is young, or vaccines don’t work, or climate change isn’t true, or GMOs are dangerous, etc. All of those topics have been rigorously tested and the tests have yielded consistent results. It is a fact that we are changing the climate, a fact that vaccines work, a fact that the earth is old, etc. If you reject those, you are expressing willful ignorance, not an opinion or belief.”

Hear, hear!

Bad reason #7: I’ve done my research/an expert agrees with me

” . . . . . if your “research” disagrees with properly conducted, carefully controlled studies, then your research is wrong (or at the very least, must be rejected pending future data). There, it’s that simple. The only exception would be if your research is actually a large set of properly controlled studies which have directly refuted the study in question (e.g., if you have a meta-analysis vs. a single study, then, all else being equal, go with the meta-analysis). It’s also worth pointing out that having a few people with advanced degrees on your side does not justify your position (that’s a logically fallacy known as an appeal to authority). No matter what crackpot position you believe, you can find someone somewhere with an advanced degree who thinks you’re right.”

This appeal to authority is commonly used – nothing seems to offend an anti-fluoride campaigner more than to refer to their ideological leader, Paul Connett, without reference to his degree of former university title! Such people also often show the converse – refusing to use titles when referring to the work of someone they disagree with.

Bad reason #8: scientific dogma

“This response basically states that all scientists are forced to follow the “dogma” of their fields, and anyone who dares to question that dogma is quickly ridiculed and silenced. . . . .  In short, that’s simply not how science works. Nothing makes a scientist happier than discovering that something that we thought was true is actually false. In fact, that is how you make a name for yourself in science. No one was ever considered a great scientist for simply agreeing with everything that we already knew. Rather, the great scientists are the ones who have shown that our current understanding is wrong and a different paradigm provides a better understanding of the universe. To be clear, if you are going to defeat a well established idea, you are going to have to have some very strong evidence.”

A related claim is that the “scientific establishment” prevents publication -often used to explain why many of the authorities used by people rejecting scientific studies do not have a credible publication record.

I would be the last person to deny human jealousies and defense of peer-reviewers and scientific editors can be a problem with specific journals – but there is many alternative journals willing to accept papers.

But this does raise another issue to be wary of – there are some journals which have incredibly poor peer review and often accept papers because of the authors’ willingness to pay a publication fee. Publication in such journals should definitely be seen as a warning sign – but as in all other cases judgment should be based on a critical and sensible analysis of the paper  itself.

Bad reason #9: distrust of governments/media

” Many people, however, take it even a step further. On numerous occasions, I have shown someone a study which was not in anyway affiliated with a government agency, yet they still responded with a lengthy rant about corrupt governments or the media. The basic idea of their argument seems to boil down to, “the government/media agree with these results, therefore they must be false.” This line of reasoning is, however, clearly fallacious (in fact it’s a logical fallacy known as guilt by association). Governments and the media will lie to push their own agendas, I’m certainly not denying that, but that fact does not automatically mean that everything that they say is a lie. . . . . . . It’s fine to be skeptical of what you are told by the government/media. In fact it is a good thing, but when you are presented with scientific evidence, then it’s not a matter of trusting the government/media. Rather, it is a matter of whether or not you accept science. In other words, I don’t need to trust the government or media in order to accept the results of a carefully controlled study.”

A related reason is to imply that any scientific study is not independent because the researcher are paid. Rather silly, considering we all have to live and researchers are no different. These people will instead cite articles written by activists or journalists working for magazines financed by an industry like the “natural”/alternative health industry. Or claim the financing of activist organisation is by “donation” so it doesn’t count

Bad reason #10: it’s a conspiracy

“This one is very closely related to #8 and 9, but it takes things a step further. It proposes that there is a massive conspiracy and scientists are being paid by governments/big companies to falsify results. . . . . the scope of this conspiracy would be impossibly huge. The scientific community consists of millions of people from all over the world working out of thousands of universities, institutes, non-profits, corporations, agencies, etc. It includes people from countless religions, cultures, political ideologies, etc. There is no way that you could possibly get that many people to agree on a massive deception like this. Just think about what is being proposed here. Do you honestly think that nearly all of the world’s climate scientists have been bought off? . . . . . .  Do you honestly think that all of those different organizations (many of whom compete with each other and have different goals and purposes) have all managed to come together to make one unified conspiracy? That’s just nuts. The same problems exist for governments. . . . . Honestly ask yourself the following question: which is more plausible, that countless governments, companies, non-profits, etc. have all come together to create the world’s largest conspiracy and buy off virtually every scientist on the planet, or that the thousands of independent scientists who have devoted their lives to science are actually doing real research?”

Personally I think this reason should be considered as an immediate acceptance that the commenter has lost or that they have disqualified themselves – like Godwin’s law for the first person to bring up Hitler or the Nazis.


Bad reason #11: anecdotes

“Anecdotes do not matter in science, because anecdotes don’t allow us to establish causation. Let me give an example. Suppose that someone takes treatment X and has a heart attack 5 minutes later. Can we conclude from that anecdote that treatment X causes heart attacks? NO! It is entirely possible that the heart attack was totally unrelated to the treatment and they just happened to coincide with one another. Indeed, I once heard a doctor describe a time where he was preparing to vaccinate a child, and while preparing the vaccine, the child began having a seizure (to be clear, he hadn’t vaccinate the child yet). He realized that if he had given the vaccine just 60 seconds earlier, it would have looked for all the world like the vaccine had caused the seizure when in fact the kid just happened to have a seizure at the same time that a vaccine was being administered.

. . . . it should be clear that anecdotes are worthless because they cannot establish causal relationships (in technical terms, using them to establish causation is a logical fallacy known as post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacies [i.e., A happened before B, therefore A caused B]). Properly controlled studies, however, do allow us to establish causation.”

Yet commenters again and again fall back on anecdotes – even after launching a citation attack the anecdotal evidence seems to have much more relevance than anything reported in scientific studies.

Bad reason #12: a scientific study found that most scientific studies are wrong

“This argument is fascinatingly ironic because it uses a scientific paper to say that we shouldn’t trust scientific papers, but let’s look closer because this argument actually has some merit. The paper being references is, “Why most published research findings are false” by John Ioannidis, and it is actually a very useful and informative work, but it often gets misused.”

The Ioannidis paper describes several reasons why individual papers may be wrong. Issues like small sample size and publication bias in its many forms.

Researcher who often search the literature are aware of these problems and they are aware of the advice to approach all papers critically and intelligently – even the ones which present results you find favourable.

But as the article points out:

“. . .all of that may sound very bleak, but it should not make you lose all confidence in the scientific process because of a very important component of scientific inquiry: replication. Ioannidis’s work applies mostly to single paper studies. . . . .  So, this paper shouldn’t make you question the safety of vaccines, the effects we are having on the climate, etc. It should, however, make you skeptical of the one or two anti-vaccine papers that you occasionally see, or the one paper supporting some “miracle cure,” or the occasional paper on homeopathy, acupuncture, etc. Those studies almost always have tiny sample sizes and countless other studies have failed to replicate their results. This is why it is so important to look at the entire body of literature not just a single study.”


The Logic of Science article concludes:

” . . . no matter how you cut it, many of you wouldn’t be alive today if it wasn’t for science. Science clearly works and you need an extremely strong justification for rejecting scientific results.

To be fair, some scientists are corrupt and bad science does occasionally get published, but bad research tends to be identified and discredited by other researchers. In other words, there may be a high probability of a single paper being wrong, but when lots of different studies have all arrived at the same conclusion, you can be very confident in that conclusion. Perhaps most importantly, you cannot simply assume that a paper is bad just because you disagree with its results. You need to present actual evidence that it is flawed or biased before you can reject it.”

Good advice. When you enter a discussion you should actually read the citations you use – and insist you discussion partner readers theirs. And read them critically and intelligently.

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The Galileo fallacy and denigration of scientific consensus

Statue of Galileo outside the Uffizi, Florence

It’s one mark of the significance of Galileo to scientific progress that many myths about him exist even today. He seems to still be a focal point in  present day debates between science and religion, pseudoscience and magical thinking.

But one of the most cynical myths is the opportunist interpretation of his promotion of the Copernican heliocentric solar system as being simply a David vs Goliath struggle. And that Galileo was correct because he was standing up to the “orthodoxy,” or consensus, of the then “establishment.”

A recent example is that promoted by British playwright Richard Bean “who reckons  climate change science is junk, the findings alarmist, data frequently tortured into submission and the mainstream media not in a position to confront the complexity of the issue and question whether it’s really happening” (see Herald article Beyond belief). He said in his interview:

“Orthodoxy closes off thinking and if you can’t express an opinion or question an idea, well, Galileo is the perfect example of what happens.

“He declared that not everything revolves around the Earth and paid the price for his beliefs [he was tried by the Inquisition as a heretic, threatened with torture, was forced to recant and spent the rest of his life under house arrest] while human thinking and endeavour were held back.”

But this is wrong on 2 counts:

  1. It relies on the fact of being in the minority, of opposing the consensus, as being “proof” of correctness.
  2. It implies that because the user of the fallacy is in the minority and opposing the consensus then the user is correct. In  other words – “bugger the evidence, I must be right because I am coming out against the consensus.”

As Rational Wiki puts it:

“The Galileo gambit, or Galileo fallacy, is the notion that if you are vilified for your ideas, you must be right.”

It’s a favourite argument used by creationists, by climate change contrarians/deniers/ pseudosceptics (see the egregiously named Galileo Movement in Australia) and, as I have found lately, anti-fluoridationists. A way of claiming superiority while at the same time discounting, even denigrating, the wealth of scientific knowledge with which the user disagrees.

Being vilified doesn’t make you right

And, it didn’t make Galileo right in everything he advanced. Classically he made a big mistake with his theory of tides where he tried to use tides to “prove” the movement of the earth. He was wrong there, and probably wrong in many other places, like all great scientists . Those people comparing themselves to Galileo are opening themselves up to the charge that they are “proving” themselves wrong, and not right.

It’s about evidence, silly

The real lesson from Galileo is not to oppose the “establishment” or current scientific consensus – but to rely on evidence. It was this argument of his, which today most of us accept and see as almost self-evident, that describes Galileo’s real contribution to the progress of science.

His argument for the heliocentric solar system, and against a geocentric solar system, was really an argument of evidence against dogma, prevailing philosophy and the Church’s use of scripture. he expressed it very well in a letter to the Grand Duchess Christina in 1615. He said:

“I think that in disputes about natural phenomena one must begin not with the authority of scriptural passages, but with sense experiences and necessary demonstrations.  . . . and so it seems that a natural phenomenon which is placed before our eyes by sense experience or proved by necessary demonstrations should not be called into question, let alone condemned, on account of scriptural passages whose words appear to have a different meaning.”

He was arguing against the idea that science should be a handmaiden to, or slave of, religion. That for matters of the natural world, in astronomy for example, science trumped scripture (or its specific interpretation). And it did so because it was derived from experience, from interrogating reality, rather than relying on dogma and preconceived “revelations.”

So what about the “scientific consensus?”

Scientific authority no longer rests with the Church and religious philosophers, as it did in Galileo’s time. When we talk about scientific consensus today we usually refer to the widespread acceptance of a scientific idea, theory or facts based on evidence. The consensus on climate change represented by the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for example, are not dogma typical of Galileo’s time. It can in no way be compared with the consensus of theologians who rejected the Copernican heliocentric model of the solar system (see Consultant’s Report on Copernicanism (24 February 1616). It is in fact a consensus on the facts and conclusions based on an extremely thorough review of the scientific literature.

It is actually those people who use the Galileo gambit to support their own dogmatic, contrarian or pseudoscientific views who are not using evidence. They are relying on personal beliefs, religious ideas or magical thinking and not evidence. Their use of the Galileo gambit is a substitute for interrogating reality.

Of course, none of what I have said means that new ideas in science are never in the minority. obviously they often are – and must be fought for. But new ideas don’t win credibility by using the Galileo gambit, by arguing that just because they oppose the scientific consensus they must be right. They win credibility because their proponents gather the evidence that supports them, and evidence which conflicts with the prevailing ideas.

A minority viewpoint can and does win credibility because its proponents provide evidential support. The Galileo gambit is for losers.

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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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Souvenirs for scientists

I love these Matryoshka dolls: Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Sagan and Hawking

Matryoshka dolls are great ornaments – and kids, especially the very young ones, love to play with them. I have been aware that the whole idea of these traditional dolls has been extended to produce sets of politicians, for example, as souvenirs. However, this is the first set I have seen of scientists.

A great idea – along the lines of standing on the shoulders of giants. Just the thing for a scientist’s desk.

Now, I wonders of there are sets for biologists,chemists, mathematicians, . . .

Thanks to Rachana Bhatawdekar  @astrogeek03

Thanks also to Darcy who hunted down the original source. These dolls were constructed by as a gift for his girlfriend who was majoring in astronomy. He talks about it on his post Astronomatryoshkas

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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Waking from a coma!

I was listening to a Science Weekly podcast recently which got me thinking about how crap we are at predicting the future. And how this can lead to humourous situations.

I remembered the excellent film Goodbye Lenin! It’s about an East German woman Christiane, a faithful and idealistic member of the Socialist Unity Party, who had been in an extended coma through the political upheavals leading to German reunification.

When  she awakes her family do not want to disillusion her and resort to all sorts of humourous manipulations to cover up, or explain away, the political changes. Still believing she is living in a communist society she is amazed to see a poster of Lenin on the opposite building replaced by an advertisement for Coca-Cola!

The Science Weekly podcast (Science fiction and the age of astronomy) interviews the author Stuart Clark about the first book in his fictional trilogy on the history of astronomy. The book Sky’s Dark Labyrinth was published in April.

It presents a history of the lives and discoveries of Johannes Kepler and Galileo.  Clark described how different the societies of their time were compared with today. And the concept of science.

Johannes Kepler

He suggested that if either of these great men, heroes of science, were to have gone into a coma and woken up in today’s society they would have been horrified by the situation of science! They would have come from a society dominated by religion. From a time when they themselves included religious ideas in their scientific arguments. To find a modern science which has no place for religion. Where inclusion of religious arguments in science is extreme naivety.


And yet a society where the advantages and power of the scientific method which they advocated is illustrated so well.

Very similar to Christiane’s experience in Goodby Lenin! Falling asleep in a dogmatic political/ideological environment which she idealistically supported. And waking up in a completely different, but very successful, society and ideological environment.

Mind you – if Galileo or Kepler were suddenly brought back to life and woke up in the offices of the creationist Discovery Institute in Seattle – I wonder what they would be told.

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From “Grand Design” to “On Being”

In recent months Stephen Hawking has been “fair game” for theologians, philosophers of religion and even some philosophers of science. Basically because of pre-publication publicity around his book (with co-author Leonard MlodinowThe Grand Design . I suggested this attention will soon switch to Peter Atkins when his new book On Being: A Scientist’s Exploration of the Great Questions of Existencebecomes available over the next few months (see On being philosophical about science). Like The Grand Design, Atkins’ book will be unpalatable to theologians and “philosophers of religion. It may also brush some philosophers up the wrong way.

To clear the decks, as it were, for the coming theological onslaught I am responding here to some of the criticisms made of The Grand Design, and Stephen Hawking. Actually, I am sure some of the future flack over Atkins’ book will concentrate on similar issues.

Overall, I think The Grand Design is a very readable book providing a brief overview of current ideas about the origin of the unvierse. It also gives a history of science and the philosophy of science. Don’t expect any details (it’s only 180 pages long) but it is certainly thought provoking. And, yeah, what an inappropriate title – presumably chosen for publicity reasons.

But what about the criticisms of the book? These are mainly around a few issues. Often really just around quotes from the book used for publicity purposes. Inevitably such criticisms lack context. Here are my comments on them:

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Einstein on Galileo’s contribution

Some religious apologists just can’t leave Galileo alone. They are unhappy about the fact that most people accept that the Church behaved badly in sentencing Galileo for heresy. (He got house arrest for the rest of his life and bans on his books, one of which was suppressed for 200 years). So in a manner which reminds me of modern day Stalinists trying to make excuses for the Stalin Terror, or to claim it wasn’t as bad as people believe, the apologists have been busy rewriting the history of the Galileo affair.

For example, they promote a document describing Galileo’s “imprisonment for his heretical ideas of a heliocentric solar sytem” as a myth! (see On the crushing of historical fables about religion, science and culture and Mythbusting: Historical fables about Christianity and Science).

In my previous post Blaming the victim I included this quote from the the Inquisition’s sentencing of Galileo which clearlyshows it is the apologists who promote myths:

“You have rendered yourself vehemently suspect of heresy, namely of having held and believed a doctrine which is false and contrary to the Sacred and Divine Scriptures, that the Sun is the center of the world and does not move from east to west, and that the Earth moves and is not the center of the world; and that one may hold and defend as probable an opinion after it has been declared and defined contrary to Holy Scripture.”

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The Galileo Lectures

I usually enjoy the NZ Royal Society Lectures. This year we have had the Galileo Lectures to mark the International Year of Astronomy.

Here are the description of the six lectures, together with links to download the podcasts. Taken from: Radio New Zealand National : Lectures & Forums : The Galileo Lectures.

The Galileo Lecture series is produced by Radio New Zealand National in partnership with the Royal Society of New Zealand. It celebrates the 2009 International Year of Astronomy, marking 400 years since Galileo used a telescope to view the solar system and transformed our understanding of Earth’s place in the Universe.

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Galileo, Darwin and the new enlightenment

Here are two interesting talks in Wellington next Sunday?

1.00 pm to 4.00 pm, Sunday 25 October 2009
Mezzanine Floor, Wellington Central Library

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