Galileo: an inconvenient truth?

A couple of weeks ago we had a rousing discussion about the foolishness of the NAS (the National Academy of Sciences). My friend Mike responded:

In movies the old guard looks foolish. In Disney kid movies the grownups are always wrong. The “old guard” is not science, it is religion. It was religion which resisted Copernicus, not science. It was religion which resisted Bruno, not science. It was religion which resisted Galileo, not science.

This is, of course, the popular version of the story. However, today I came across an interesting retelling at The Evangelical Outpost that challenges the popular notion of the Roman Catholic Church’s resistance to science. With regard to the Copernicus story, he writes:

Although Copernicus’ fellow churchmen encouraged him to publish his work, he delayed the publication of On the Revolution for several years for fear of being mocked by the scientific community. At the time, the academy belonged to Aristotelians who weren’t about to let such nonsense slip through the “peer review” process.

This does put a slightly different spin on things so far. Then Galileo enters the picture, a smart guy, but not necessarily the first on his block to abandon Aristotle. However, to his credit he made several discoveries which challenged the Aristotelian approach, that “were warmly received by the Vatican and by Pope Paul V.” However, our friend Galileo apparently was not satisfied by mere open minds:

The Church graciously offered to consider Copernicanism a reasonable hypothesis, albeit a superior one to the Ptolemaic system, until further proof could be gathered. Galileo, however, never came up with more evidence to support the theory. Instead, he continued to pick fights with his fellow scientists even though many of his conclusions were being proven wrong (e.g., that the planets orbit the sun in perfect circles).

In fact, it seems Galileo did everything possible to get himself in trouble, finally doing so – however, not by arguing science, but theology.

Now, of course we can’t take this information at face value, because after all, it comes from an evangelical Christian blog. I mean, I questioned it myself. But, the author points to a source as none other than the International Planetarium Society. The article at their site begins:

One of the little fictions that planetarium lecturers like to tell is that of Galileo confronting the Inquisition. Accused of holding the heretical belief that the Earth moves around the sun, Galileo stands defiantly—the enlightened man of science—facing the entrenched dogma of the Church. It is a story told so often that we have come to believe it ourselves.

Unfortunately, history does not support such a picture. Galileo may not have been guilty of heresy, but he was guilty of several other things: (l) some of his scientific “facts” were wrong; (2) he claimed to have proof when no proof existed; (3) he was unaware of Kepler’s exposition of planetary motion, though Kepler’s book was in his own bookcase; and (4) he had made enemies—bitter enemies—quite needlessly.

Nor was the Roman Church the main villain in the piece. Galileo’s real enemies were the university professors.

Galileo, according to the IPS article, was “pugnacious, argumentative, and vain. He refused to believe that any of his contemporaries could be as enlightened as he.” It sounds like he would have fit right in with many of today’s pop scientists.

It’s all very interesting. According to the IPS article, Galileo, whose thinking was foundational to our modern scientific method, completely failed as a scientist, refusing to accept or even consider discoveries of others who would have confirmed his own opinions.

History is often inconvenient, which is probably why it is so heavily edited. As long as we choose to ignore history, Sting was correct: History will teach us nothing. It is convenient to paint the Church as the perennial bad guys of science; however, as the character Palmer Joss says in the movie Contact, science and religion share the goal of truth. Or, at least they should.

3 thoughts on “Galileo: an inconvenient truth?”

  1. I didn’t mean to direct this post to you. I remember hearing the same story, but have never really followed up on it, either.

    I think the main point is not directed to either ID or materialist science, but that within the most sincere camp there will be those who ignore evidence in favor of their decided beliefs. An example is Rupert Sheldrake talking about being asked to participate in one of Dawkins’ films:

    “Richard seemed uneasy and said, ‘I’m don’t want to discuss evidence’. ‘Why not?’ I asked. ‘There isn’t time. It’s too complicated. And that’s not what this programme is about.’ The camera stopped. The Director, Russell Barnes, confirmed that he too was not interested in evidence. The film he was making was another Dawkins polemic.”

    As David Berlinski has said:

    Let’s be reasonable… the popular myth of science as a uniquely self-critical institution, and scientists as men who would rather be consumed at the stake rather than fudge their data, is okay for a PBS special, but that’s not the real world; that’s not what’s taking place…

    External criticism is necessary for both science and theology, as I mentioned a few days ago in my post about faith and doubt, if we’re really interested in either truth or knowledge.

  2. Dammit, now I have to do some more looking into this. It’s not fair, I tell you not fair!

    History does teach us something, if nothing more than it is written by the victors; the strands of truth must often be found untangled from the snarl one by one.

    I think that Galileo is one whose story is often mistold, and you are right I went for the argument based on the popular perception of what happened.

    The larger point remains that the ID’ers like to think of themselves as presenting a new revolution in science, but their method is use false facts in order to bring it about. You may have heard Geoff Simmons discussion with PZ Myers the other day (link from my site) in which he opens by denying the fossil trail from walking whales to marine whales (false facts) and then tries again to paint a link between Darwin and the Nazis. And this is the standard tune of the Discovery Institute. So the NAS is saying that nothing is to be gained scientifically through ID, although people are welcome to hold on to their faiths.

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