The Times Higher Education has an article entitled Drugs ban is ‘scientific censorship’, says paper, which is concerned with the fact that the political ban on various recreational drugs hinders scientific research on those substances. The article and the paper it is reviewing make, what I think is, an important point and one that should be addressed but it also contains the following, in my opinion, unfortunate historical statement:
“The outlawing of psychoactive drugs amounts to the worst case of scientific censorship since the Catholic Church banned the works of Copernicus and Galileo,” said Professor Nutt.
Why unfortunate? Well you see the Catholic Church never actually banned the works of Copernicus. First off there were no works, plural, but just one, his De revolutionibus. Secondly contrary to the widely held belief it was never banned by the Catholic Church or anybody else for that matter. Following the challenge to their authority by Galileo Galilei and Paolo Antonio Foscarini in interpreting holy scripture in 1615 and the Commission of Qualifiers judgment in 1616 that the proposition that ‘the sun is the centre of the world and completely devoid of local motion is foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts many places the sense of Holy Scripture’ De revolutionibus was not banned but placed on the Index until corrected.
Now this might seem like a case of splitting hairs, De revolutionibus was placed on the Index of forbidden books, total censorship end of the story. However this is far from being the case. The clue is in the addition ‘until corrected’. This meant that if those passages that stated that the heliocentric hypothesis was a fact were suitably modified back to being a hypothesis then the book would be removed from the Index.
What most people don’t realise is that this is exactly what happened. De revolutionibus was with surprisingly few minor alterations already removed from the Index in 1621 and any Catholic was free to study it in this modified form. In fact Galileo’s own personal copy with the modifications glued into place still exists.
Interesting in this context is that even this very mild censorship seems only to have been effective in Italy. The only surviving copies, which have been modified, are almost all in Italy. Outside of Italy nobody seems to have taken the Vatican’s censorship seriously not even in other Catholic countries.