We haven’t had a good Galileo rant here at the Renaissance Mathematicus for some time, but when you just begin to think that maybe people have stopped misusing the Tuscan natural philosopher for their own ends, up pops a new example and we’re off again.
My attention was drawn to today wonderful example by the following exchange on Twitter:
Seb Falk (@Seb_Falk): I’ve heard a lot of nonsense about Galileo, but persecuted by the Church for being insufficiently woke? That’s a new one on me.
Is there a Galileo-related law equivalent to Godwin’s Law? If not, Falk’s Law states that as a culture war continues, the probability that someone will invoke a mythologised account of the trial of Galileo in a specious defence of academic freedom approaches 1.
Dave Hitchcock (@Hitchcokian): Amazing. it shall definitely be known henceforth as Falk’s Law.
Seb Falk: I’m honoured – though I was just thinking that @rmathematicus has been calling this stuff out for so long we should call it Christie’s Law. Bloody history of science, always naming things after the wrong person
James Sumner (@JamesBSumner): Well, now, that’s perfectly consonant with Stigler’s law of eponymy
For those not aware of Stigler’s Law, it states that no scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer. Stigler’s law itself was in fact discovered by Robert K Merton and not Stephen Stigler.
So what was the piece about Galileo that provoked the creation of Falk’s Law?
Trevor Phillips (@MTREVORP) opens an article in the Times newspaper titled University bigots want to control minorities with the following:
Every scientist knows the Galileo story. When one of the greatest minds of the 17th (or any other) century concluded that, contrary to the Catholic Church’s teaching, the Earth was not the still centre of the universe but just one satellite of the sun he was for the high jump.
Subjected to six years at the hands of the Inquisition, character assassination and house arrest, he finally gave in and admitted his “wrongthink” but is reputed to have muttered under his breath “E pur si muove” – “Still, it moves”. The man whom Einstein called the father of modern science was said to be hurt most by the way his fellow philosophers abandoned him for fear of suffering the same fate.
I find it fascinating just how much a supposedly intelligent, educated, well informed writer can get wrong in just two very short paragraphs. We start with the opening sentence; experience has clearly shown that very few scientists know the actual Galileo story; most of them know one or other very mangled version of what might be termed the Galileo myth, which all have something in common, a factual, historical truth content on a par with an episode of Game of Thrones.
We then get the statutory hyperbollocks as soon as Galileo becomes the subject of discourse, “one of the greatest minds of the 17th (or any other) century.” This leads me to the thought, what if Galileo had not been hyped up to this larger than life, once in a century genius, would people be just as outraged if he had been mistreated by the Inquisition. Is it a worse crime if those in power mistreat a brilliant scientist, than if they mistreat Giuseppe, the guy who empties the trash cans? Not just here but in lots of things that I have read, I get the impression that is exactly what a very large number of people think. Are some lives really worth more than others? Their argument seems to be something along the lines of but Galileo changed the world, Giuseppe the trash can guy didn’t. What if the fact that Giuseppe was rotting in an Inquisition dungeon, instead of cleaning the streets led to an outbreak of cholera that wiped out half the population of the city? But I digress.
What follows is a significant misrepresentation of the facts that is dished every time somebody present their mythical version of the Galileo story and one that I have dealt with many times. It wasn’t just the Catholic Church’s teaching that we live in a geocentric cosmos but was the considered, majority opinion of informed astronomers based on the then available empirical evidence. Galileo was involved in a complex scientific debate on the astronomical and cosmological status of the solar system and was not this brilliant scientist taking on the ignorant, non-scientific, religious prejudices of the Catholic Church. There are a couple of grammatical and lexigraphical anomalies in Phillips’ sentence that should have been picked up by a good sub-editor. If he is going to write Earth with a capital ‘E’ then he should also write sun with a capital ‘S’ and the earth is not a satellite of the sun it is a planet. Satellites orbit planets, planets orbit suns.
Subjected to six years at the hands of the Inquisition? Really? Galileo’s interrogation, trial and the passing of judgement by the Roman Inquisition lasted not quite four months, so I have literally no idea what Phillips is talking about here. I also have absolutely no idea what he means when he writes, “character assassination”, through out the whole affair he was treated with care and consideration and the respect due to him both because of his age and his reputation. Does one really need to repeat that Galileo was not tried for supporting the heliocentric hypothesis but for breaking an injunction from 1616 not to hold or teach the heliocentric theory as fact rather than, as a hypothesis? There was literally no question of “wrongthink”, Galileo was fully entitled to think what he liked about heliocentricity and even to express those thoughts verbally but he was not permitted to claim that heliocentricity was a proven fact. Just for the record, for the umpteenth time, it wasn’t. I find it almost funny that Phillips includes house arrest amongst the mistreatments before Galileo adjured. Having adjured he was, in fact, sentenced to imprisonment, which was immediately commuted to house arrest by the Pope, so after the fact not before.
Of course, having dished up a totally fictional account of Galileo’s dispute with the Church, Phillips doesn’t not spare us the “E pur si muove” – “Still, it moves” myth, in for a penny in for a pound. If we going to present fairy tales in place of historical accuracy then why not go the whole hog? We, natural, get that leading expert on the history of science, Albert Einstein, quoted on Galileo’s status in that history. Why ask a historian when you can ask Uncle Albert, the font of all wisdom? Another reminder, the expression ‘father of’ is a meaningless piece of crap.
Phillips’ last claim leaves me, once more, totally bewildered. “[Galileo] was said to be hurt most by the way his fellow philosophers abandoned him for fear of suffering the same fate.” There are two aspects to this claim. Firstly, the man, who is a serious candidate for the most egotistical and arrogant arsehole in the entire history of science and who spent a large part of his life actively insulting, denigrating and alienating ‘his fellow philosophers’ was hurt because they didn’t support him, really? Secondly, I have spent a life time reading about and studying Galileo and the historical context in which he lived and worked and I have never ever come across anybody claiming anything remotely like this claim made by Phillips. Put differently, Phillips is just making shit up to bolster the argument that he is going to present in his article. This is not history or journalism this is quite simply lying!
People used to refer to the Galileo Gambit, when somebody, almost always a crank, compared having his ‘fantastic ideas’ rejected to the Catholic Church’s persecution of Galileo. To this Bob Dylan delivered up the perfect retort:
He said, “They persecuted Jesus too.” I said, “You’re not him.”
“I said you know, they refused Jesus, too. He said you’re not him.”
[Correct version of Dylan quote curtesy of Todd Timberlake]
Trevor Phillips delivers up a slightly different variation on the theme. He is using a totally mythical version of the Galileo story to beat people, who he disapproves of or disagrees with around the head. If he can’t make the points that he wishes to make without resorting to lies and deception in that he misuses an episode in the history of science then he should give up pretending to be a journalist.