A really fucking stupid statement

WARNING: This is an angry rant and contains explicitly obscene language. If you object to the use of such expressions then don’t fucking read it!

 

Conservative, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others. [Ambrose Bierce, “Devil’s Dictionary,” 1911]

 

Rick Perry Governor of Texas proved that he would be a worthy successor to George W. Bush in terms of stupidity by invoking the Galileo Gambit. Naturally the scientific oriented intertubes community pounced on the hapless Perry delivering body blows like Mike Tyson  on speed. Unfortunately in doing so many of them displayed a historical ignorance that almost matched that of Perry.

Following hot on the heels of M. J. Robbins, journalist David Zax drew attention to his 2009 article Galileo’s Vision at Smithsonian. com written to accompany an exhibition in the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia to celebrate the International Year of Astronomy. This article contains so many historical errors and falsehoods that I can’t even be bothered to find the time and energy to shit on it. However Robbins and Zax have a rival in the self-named science communicator Chris Mooney who proudly titles his contribution to the debate with a really fucking stupid statement, Galileo Was a Liberal.

This is one of the most pathetic examples of brainless presentism that I have read in a long time. Liberal and Conservative are terms in the actual sociopolitical context in America and are not applicable to the context of Late Renaissance Northern Italian culture (The word liberal was first used in English with its political meaning in the 19th century)

. The terms are so specific to the here and now in American politics that they are not even transferable to contemporaneous European politics. In fact they have changed so much in their connotations that they are not even applicable without extensive qualification to American politics, lets say, in the 1960s. Mr Mooney Galileo could not have been not a fucking Liberal your proud statement is meaningless crap.

Of course Mooney tries to cover his arse against this criticism, let us look at what he actually wrote,

In the context of his times, Galileo was a liberal. He was a fearless explorer of new knowledge, as well as a puckish challenger of assumed wisdom.

Mr Mooney in the context of his times the word liberal has no fucking meaning, end!

However let’s examine Mooney’s fearless explorer of new knowledge. Was Galileo being fearless in his Il Saggiatore as he used polemic and invective to pulverise the Jesuit astronomer Grassi who using empirical observation and mathematics had given the correct explanation of the nature of comets whereas Galileo was defending the incorrect Aristotelian explanation? Was Galileo being fearless when he deliberately ignored the best astronomical work on the heliocentric hypothesis available at the time, that of Kepler, because it might have stolen his glory? Was Galileo being fearless when he refused to acknowledge the superiority of the astronomical or Keplerian telescope because he had not invented/marketed it? Was Galileo being fearless when he propagated his totally anti-scientific theory of the tides as the highpoint of his Dialogo? Galileo’s scientific work is a mixture of progressive and stock conservative and to claim otherwise is a perversion of history. Another question does being a good for ones times scientific investigator automatically make one a liberal? I and many, many conservative scientists beg to differ. Was Edward Teller a liberal? I don’t fucking think so!

As liberal and conservative are terms of the sociopolitical and not the scientific context let us for a brief moment assume that they were applicable to 17th century Northern Italy and see if Galileo is a liberal or a conservative when viewed politically. Before his explosive climb to fame or better notoriety in 1610 Galileo was a professor for mathematics at the University of Padua the university of the Republic of Venice. When he published his Sidereus Nuncius he was awarded a life time contract with a dream salary however he chose instead to cash in his fame for a position as courtier at the absolutist Medici court in Florence. If he had stayed in the relatively liberal Venice he would have been able to publish what he liked with little fear of retribution. His friend Sarpi, the historian and theologian, was much more a thorn in the flesh of the Catholic Church than Galileo would ever be but the Republic of Venice would not have dreamed of delivering him up to the authorities in Rome and indeed never did so. If Galileo had remained in Padua he could have fearlessly explored new knowledge, as well as a puckishly challenged assumed wisdom to his hearts content with little fear of anybody. However our hero chose the career path of a courtier at an absolutist court where his life literally hung on the whims of his feudal lord. He then spent the next twenty plus years until his fall eagerly climbing the greasy pole of absolutist court politics. In fact this probably had more to do with his eventual fall than his scientific activities but that is a theme for a separate post. I think one can safely say that in the sociopolitical context of late Renaissance Northern Italy Galileo was very much a conservative member of the establishment.

I’m not a member of the P. Z. Myers’ anti-Mooney claque and find quite a lot of his articles very positive but as far as I’m concerned this time he would have been well advised if he had put his brain into gear before putting finger to keyboard. You might think I’m exaggerating but let us review what Money actually did. Firstly he produced a really bad case of presentism, which as far as I’m concerned is a cardinal sin in the history of science. Secondly he claimed that being a good scientist automatically makes someone a liberal, which is just plain stupid. Finally he proudly states that Galileo was a liberal whereas any examination of Galileo’s life shows him to have been a conservative member of the absolutist establishment of his times in sociopolitical terms. Put simply Mooney fucked up.

Before I leave the subject of Galileo and bad science journalism the article by David Zax, that I mentioned above, links to another article by Sarah Zielinski, which illustrates and describes the instrument from the Franklin Institute exhibition. The centrepiece of the exhibition was one of Galileo’s telescopes the descriptive text from Ms Zielinski reads:

Galileo’s telescope anchors the exhibit “Galileo, the Medici and the Age of Astronomy,” which is at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia until September 7, 2009. Though Galileo didn’t invent the telescope (Dutch opticians did), he improved upon it. The first telescope used a combination of two lenses within a tube, and it could magnify items by three times, but showed them upside down. But when Galileo constructed his own telescope in 1609, he added a third lens. His telescope magnified items by eight times and showed them right side up. Over the following years, Galileo built several telescopes, including one that would magnify items by a factor of 30.

The emphasized lines show that the writer has absolutely no idea what she’s writing about! All of Galileo’s telescopes are so-called Dutch telescopes, which have two lenses a convex objective and a concave ocular or eyepiece. Such a telescope has an upright image. The astronomical telescope designed by Kepler in 1611 has two convex lenses, both objective and ocular, and inverts its image. Galileo never built or used such a telescope. The three lens or terrestrial telescope, also invented by Kepler in 1611, has convex objective and ocular and a third convex inverter lens which produces an upright image. This telescope was also never used by Galileo. One would think that The Smithsonian Magazine would employ a better standard of reporter.

 

 

 

21 Comments

Filed under History of science, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

21 responses to “A really fucking stupid statement

  1. Dan

    Did I get it right? You used Edward Teller as an example of a “good for ones time scientist [sic]”?

    One tends to doubt your take on Galileo, since you seem to know so little about more recent science.

    There may be some good scientists who are traditionally conservative in a political sense. May. Be.

    Maybe two. Reality has a well-known liberal bias, which I’m sure is a part of the frustration you manifest by writing with such semi-hysterical profanity.

    • As you are apparently unaware of the fact that Teller was a highly significant 20th C physicist I have to ask who seems to know so little about more recent science?

      Reality is incapable of having any form of bias, it just is. If you mean that the body of practicing scientists has a well-known liberal bias I would not argue with that. However it is a bias, which means per definitions that there are non-liberal scientists. It would in fact surprise many of the self proclaimed skeptical intertubes community to discover how many practicing and successful scientists do not share their political views.

      Any frustration that I have expressed totally unhysterically in this post is with journalists who trample with size twelve hobnailed boots all over the academic discipline that I practice, the history of science.

      Your implication that I am a conservative myself is totally laughable.

      If you think any of my statements about the life and work of Galileo are wrong then you should be specific in your criticism and we can discuss the matter. However I should warn you that it’s my profession to which I have devoted a large part of my life and you will probably end up looking silly.

  2. two points:

    1. Thony isn’t writing anything remotely controversial about Galileo, except perhaps among people who don’t know any history.

    2. Edward Teller was both a political conservative of the Cold Warrior type and a significant scientist. Is there really a debate about the tendencies of his politics or the importance of his contributions to science?

  3. If anything, Galileo was an astronaut.

  4. And a really fucking nice blogpost!

  5. Ian H Spedding FCD

    Did people swear in medieval times in the same way and using the same words that we do now. I’m thinking that maybe they change over time. I remember, for example, that “bloody” was a much more common and much stronger swear-word in the UK when I was younger than now.

    • The simple answer to your question is no, swearing changes with time like all language. In the Middle Ages ‘bloody’ was still a genuine swear word as in swearing an oath, ‘By Our Lady’. The Lady of course being the Virgin Mary. If you look at Chaucer or Shakespeare you will find a whole palette of profanities that are no longer used most of them religeous oaths like bloody. A lot of our obscenities were simply Germanic vocabulary, fuck , shit etc. It’s interesting to speculate why they came to be seen as obscenities.

      • Richard A

        Probably because of the Norman invasion. Words of French-Latin origin became the language of the ruling classes, and the ‘low’ language was Anglo-Saxon. Any peasant can shit and piss, but it takes a king to defecate and urinate.

  6. What struck me about Chris Mooney’s article is that he presumed to be in the position of debunking the ideological misappropriation of Galileo—an aim that you would probably find agreeable given your diligent efforts in this blog to do the same. The failing, of course, was that Mooney ended up stumbling into precisely the same trap himself. If only he demonstrated as much care in opposing bad history as he does in merely opposing conservatives.

  7. Geez! When will you ever tell us what you *really* think?

  8. Jeb

    Did people swear in medieval times in the same way and using the same words that we do now.

    Online random Shakespeare insult generator. Fun but you also can learn something of the language of the time. Some is literary but some comes from the street.

    “Would the fountain of your mind were clear again, that I might water an ass at it.Your bait of falsehood takes this carp of truth.Thou fobbing rude-growing horn-beast!The most infectious pestilence upon thee! O teach me how I should forget to think.Thou currish hasty-witted mumble-news! We leak in your chimney.Thou mammering rough-hewn clack-dish!You shall stifle in your own report, and smell of calumny.Thou paunchy milk-livered flirt-gill!Thou impertinent whoreson strumpet! You are a fishmonger.Hence, horrible villain, or I’ll spurn thine eyes like balls before me; I’ll unhair thy head, Thou shalt be whipp’d with wire, and stew’d’in brine, smarting in lingering pickle.Thou fawning dread-bolted flirt-gill!”

    As I said to my bank manager just the other week.

  9. I very much agree with your article but this sentence is a little bit self defeating (I lack a better term) “If he had stayed in the relatively liberal Venice”. I know what you mean by that, and I guess most readers also know what you mean by that by as you so eloquently put it: “Liberal and Conservative are terms in the actual sociopolitical context in America and are not applicable to the context of Late Renaissance Northern Italian culture “.

    As a matter of curiosity: do you see yourself as a modern day North-American ,liberal that has some centrist/conservative views?

  10. Jeb

    America the measure of man. That role use to belong to monsters and the Antipodes.

  11. Ron Van Wegen

    Love your work.
    However, it was unfair and aggressive to do what you did. I agree that it’s up to me whether I will read it or not but you’re warning came after you’d already begun to use that language which I find offensive, unnecessary and counter-productive. If you want to write like that to vent your spleen, it’s your blog and your right to do so but I was unprepared for the aggression upon opening your site and seeing the headline. The warning should have come before the headline and the headline should not have been visible so as to give me the opportunity to continue on or not. I would have continued reading because I believe what you write is important. I would have forgiven you for your rant but that level of hostility makes me very uncomfortable. The world is full of this violent, aggressive “argumentation” and frankly I’m sick of it. I think you did yourself a disservice. But I will be back. I’m no prude. I just really, really hate that sort of language.

    • I apologise if reading my rant offended your sensibilities and you are entitled to think that I did myself a disservice, I don’t. I am what I am, warts and all. You are sick of a world full of “violent aggressive argumentation”. I’m sick of people abusing the history of science. We express our despair differently. I’m glad that you have chosen to continue to read my scribblings and I can assure you that such outbursts will remain the exception and never become the rule.

  12. Joe H.

    You will probably have a reaction to this new paper from Sherwood in NSW.
    http://www.physicstoday.org/resource/1/phtoad/v64/i10/p39_s1?bypassSSO=1

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s