Tag Archives: Heliocentrism

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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Climate change controversy in context

I came across this interesting article in Physics Today – Science controversies past and present. Interesting because it puts in context the current public controversy over the science of climate change.

The author, Steve Sherwood, compares this current controversy with  earlier controversies about scientific ideas. Specifically the Copernican theory of heliocentricism and Einstein’s relativity theories. He presents an interesting graphic comparing the controversies for the time taken to get scientific consensus with that for public consensus (click to enlarge).

Timelines for heliocentricism, relativity, and greenhouse warming, aligned by their dates of introduction. Coloured bars indicate the estimated times to consensus among experts and the public. Lightning symbols denote organized opposition from contrarian, religious, or political groups. The sequence of events is similar in all three cases except that relativity attained consensus more rapidly, especially among the public; it had emerged essentially fully formed, whereas the other two underwent refinements for many decades (Source Physics Today - http://www.physicstoday.org/resource/1/phtoad/v64/i10/p39_s1?bypassSSO=1#f3).

So I guess we shouldn’t be surprised at the current kerfuffle. Sherwood points out that “the progression of the global warming idea so far has been quite similar to that of Copernicanism.” But:

“As the evidence sinks in, we can expect a continued, if slow, drift to full acceptance. It took both Copernicanism and greenhouse warming roughly a century to go from initial proposal to broad acceptance by the relevant scientific communities. It remains to be seen how long it will take greenhouse warming to achieve a clear public consensus; one hopes it will not take another century.”

Psychological resistance to new ideas

And this sort of scenario is probably inevitable with ideas that break down existing ways of thinking. “That kind of change can turn people away from reason and toward emotion, especially when the ideas are pressed on them with great force.”

“It is jarring to ponder the scene of a colleague from the 17th century refusing to look into a telescope—a level of aversion to inconvenient facts, admittedly not common, that seems incredible. Yet modern counterparts can perhaps be found in those who vilify the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change without apparently ever having examined its reports, or who repeat claims—such as global warming having stopped in 1998—that can be trivially falsified by looking at the data. “

Sherwood thinks that perhaps we should take this lesson from history and not be so surprised when there is an anti-science backlash.

“A first step toward better public communication of science, and the reason we need it, may lie in recognizing why the backlash happens: the frailty of human reason and supremacy of emotional concerns that we humans all share but do not always acknowledge. “

Do we have time to procrastinate?

Maybe so. But I think the concern this time also derives from the possible consequences of global warming. Consequences that threaten the lives and property of many people throughout the world.  Consequences which can be largely averted if humanity has the political will to act now.

As Sherwood puts it:

“history tells us that in the end, science will probably come out fine. Whether the planet will is another matter.”

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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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Galileo’s revolutionary contribution

A good primary source

In An interesting question Thony C at The Renaissance Mathematicus responded to a comment at my post, Early history of science, with his own blog article. While it  mainly discusses the nature of censorship I would like to respond to some comments he made about the Galileo affair.

I will leave aside his/her tactic of blaming the victim – which seems quite fashionable among religious apologists writing on this issue today. For example Thony C claims:

“Nobody had been really bothered by the potential conflict until Galileo and Foscarini had made it into a real conflict by suggesting a theological solution thus creating a real problem for the Church;” “In his unconsidered and over hasty actions Galileo had forced the Church to ban the heliocentric theory.”

There is something unpleasant about excusing all the actions of a huge institution like the Catholic Church and its Inquisition and putting all the blame on an individual. Moreover an individual who is threatened with torture and sentenced to imprisonment! Soviet apologists no doubt blamed Andrei Sakharov for his confinement to the city of Gorky and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn for his expulsion from the country. That’s the trouble with apologists – their loyalties.

However, I would like to deal here with the so-called “theological solution” which Thony C presents as the real problem. Unfortunately this “crime” is usually not discussed in detail, yet apologists often wish to use it to divert attention away from the scientific issues. Was the theological problem simply non-acceptance of a geocentric model which was supposedly made factual by its presentation in the Christian bible? Was it just a matter of semantics, the hubris of including scientific questions within the domain of theology?

Thony C gives a clearer idea in his comment:

“The crime the these two men committed in the Church’s eyes was not that they propagated heliocentrism, which they did, but that they told the Church how to interpret the Bible and that was definitely a no, no.”

So was it a matter of interpretation, or more correctly who should do the interpreting and how?

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