Galileo was insufficiently woke?

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.


Filed under Myths of Science, Uncategorized

24 responses to “Galileo was insufficiently woke?

  1. Nobody ever points out that Stigler’s law is a ludicrous generalization

    • Of course it is. It was always tongue in cheek but it is surprising to how many eponymous discoveries it actually applies in the Early Modern Period.

  2. Writing an article for a newspaper, no more makes you a journalist than sitting in a hen-house makes you a chicken. Trevor Phillips is a politician and what we read is no more than a diatribe against his political opponents; I offer Boris Johnson as the prototype of the species of politicians masquerading as journalists. In Johnson’s case it was the Daily Telegraph that published his fact-free articles; here it is Rupert Murdoch’s The Times. As usual, reality is more complex than the extremists on either side will admit.

  3. Michael Traynor

    I got a good laugh out of “Every scientist knows the Galileo story.” At this point I’m leaning toward it being closer to ‘No scientist knows the Galileo story.’, if by “story” one means what actually happened to the guy.

    • no name

      “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?’

      I don’t think it is the whole true. In my opinion in XVI or XVII century the word “hypothesis” was used as math trick used to facilitate calculations. In E. Namer’ book “Galileo Trial” I found a fragment of letter, where Galileo treated word “hypothesis” in this way. The other example may be Osjander’ s preface. Also in church’s documents’ s heliocentrism was called false or contrary to Bible.

      Sorry for my bad English.

      • The terms ‘hypothesis’ and ‘theory’ are here used in the modern sense

      • Michael Traynor

        And in Galileo’s time the scientific community viewed heliocentricity as false, so the Church was merely following the science to which Galileo was opposed.

  4. Todd Timberlake

    Great points and I agree, but I can’t resist fixing your Dylan quote. It’s from Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream and it should read: “I said you know, they refused Jesus, too. He said you’re not him.” Still suits the point your were making, but since we are going for historical accuracy here….

  5. What does any of this have to do with “wokeness”?

  6. Pat Ballew

    Wow, you are at your best with your dander up. If you ever pur a soapbox up in Hyde Park you could draw massive crowds.
    Thanks again for your constant focus on authentic history.

  7. Sorry, going to have to disagree with you on the meaning of “satellite”; the Earth is a satellite of the Sun (as well as being a planet).

    1) “A moon or other smaller body orbiting a larger one. [from 17th c.]”

    2) “a celestial body that orbits a much larger celestial body”

  8. Michael Traynor

    I think it worth noting that Phillips takes as his starting point a survey that, by his own account, has both lefties and righties allowing their political views to influence their decisions on appointment of colleagues but then only slags the lefties for this.

  9. Daniel N.

    “I said you know, they refused Jesus, too. He said you’re not him.”

    I think this could be a reference to attempts of Spanish to convert Jews after they conquered the whole Iberian peninsula in 1492. Jews responded to Catholics trying to convert them, “our ancestors were not convinced by Jesus, and you’re not Jesus”. Something along that line…

    • I don’t think that was what Dylan was referencing but you can judge for yourself. Here’s his 115th Dream

      I was riding on the Mayflower
      When I thought I spied some land
      I yelled for Captain Arab
      I have yuh understand
      Who came running to the deck
      Said, “Boys, forget the whale
      Look on over yonder
      Cut the engines
      Change the sail
      Haul on the bowline”
      We sang that melody
      Like all tough sailors do
      When they are far away at sea

      “I think I’ll call it America”
      I said as we hit land
      I took a deep breath
      I fell down, I could not stand
      Captain Arab he started
      Writing up some deeds
      He said, “Let’s set up a fort
      And start buying the place with beads”
      Just then this cop comes down the street
      Crazy as a loon
      He throw us all in jail
      For carryin’ harpoons

      Ah me I busted out
      Don’t even ask me how
      I went to get some help
      I walked by a Guernsey cow
      Who directed me down
      To the Bowery slums
      Where people carried signs around
      Saying, “Ban the bums”
      I jumped right into line
      Sayin’, “I hope that I’m not late”
      When I realized I hadn’t eaten
      For five days straight

      I went into a restaurant
      Lookin’ for the cook
      I told them I was the editor
      Of a famous etiquette book
      The waitress he was handsome
      He wore a powder blue cape
      I ordered some suzette, I said
      “Could you please make that crepe”
      Just then the whole kitchen exploded
      From boilin’ fat
      Food was flying everywhere
      And I left without my hat

      Now, I didn’t mean to be nosy
      But I went into a bank
      To get some bail for Arab
      And all the boys back in the tank
      They asked me for some collateral
      And I pulled down my pants
      They threw me in the alley
      When up comes this girl from France
      Who invited me to her house
      I went, but she had a friend
      Who knocked me out
      And robbed my boots
      And I was on the street again

      Well, I rapped upon a house
      With the U.S. flag upon display
      I said, “Could you help me out
      I got some friends down the way”
      The man says, “Get out of here
      I’ll tear you limb from limb”
      I said, “You know they refused Jesus, too”
      He said, “You’re not Him

      Get out of here before I break your bones
      I ain’t your pop”
      I decided to have him arrested
      And I went looking for a cop

      I ran right outside
      And I hopped inside a cab
      I went out the other door
      This Englishman said, “Fab”
      As he saw me leap a hot dog stand
      And a chariot that stood
      Parked across from a building
      Advertising brotherhood
      I ran right through the front door
      Like a hobo sailor does
      But it was just a funeral parlor
      And the man asked me who I was

      I repeated that my friends
      Were all in jail, with a sigh
      He gave me his card
      He said, “Call me if they die”
      I shook his hand and said goodbye
      Ran out to the street
      When a bowling ball came down the road
      And knocked me off my feet
      A pay phone was ringing
      It just about blew my mind
      When I picked it up and said hello
      This foot came through the line

      Well, by this time I was fed up
      At tryin’ to make a stab
      At bringin’ back any help
      For my friends and Captain Arab
      I decided to flip a coin
      Like either heads or tails
      Would let me know if I should go
      Back to ship or back to jail
      So I hocked my sailor suit
      And I got a coin to flip
      It came up tails
      It rhymed with sails
      So I made it back to the ship

      Well, I got back and took
      The parkin’ ticket off the mast
      I was ripping it to shreds
      When this coastguard boat went past
      They asked me my name
      And I said, “Captain Kidd”
      They believed me but
      They wanted to know
      What exactly that I did
      I said for the Pope of Eruke
      I was employed
      They let me go right away
      They were very paranoid

      Well, the last I heard of Arab
      He was stuck on a whale
      That was married to the deputy
      Sheriff of the jail
      But the funniest thing was
      When I was leavin’ the bay
      I saw three ships a-sailin’
      They were all heading my way
      I asked the captain what his name was
      And how come he didn’t drive a truck
      He said his name was Columbus
      I just said, “Good luck”
      Copyright © 1965 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1993 by Special Rider Music

  10. Phil Harmsworth

    The reference to “six years at the hands of the Inquisition” may be a result of confusing Galileo with Giordano Bruno.

    • I suspect you’re are probably right but if you can’t tell the difference between Bruno and Galileo, then you shouldn’t be writing about either of them.

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