It’s Galileo time again!

An article in the Sunday Express, not a newspaper I would normally read in fact I would only ever use it as toilet paper in an emergency, starts thus:

Former Supreme Court Judge Lord Sumption has condemned attacks on scientists who challenge “official wisdom” on Covid, comparing their critics to the “persecutors of Galileo”.

A classic case of the Galileo fallacy or Galileo gambit. For anybody not aware of the Galileo fallacy:

Lucy Johnston, Health and social Affairs Editor of the Sunday Express tweeted this article with the following lede:

Lord Sumption: “Scientists behaving like the persecutors of Galileo….forgetting all scientific conclusions are provisional, including their own.

Lucy Johnston’s lede is in fact disingenuous, as she combines two half sentences that are in no way connected in the article, but we will examine it as if they were. Galileo’s persecutors were very well aware that scientific conclusions are provisional as stated very clearly by Roberto Bellarmino in his Foscarini Letter, I quote:

Third, I say that if there were a true demonstration that the sun is at the centre of the world and the earth in the third heaven, and that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun, then one would have to proceed with great care in explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary; and say rather that we do not understand them than that what is demonstrated is false. But I will not believe that there is such a demonstration, until it is shown me. 

During the seventeenth century many Catholic astronomers and natural philosophers were involved in providing the necessary evidence to support a heliocentric world view. Many of them were Jesuits or Jesuit educated. They would not have done so if they did not believe that scientific conclusions are provisional. 

This is why I tweeted:

Sorry to introduce some real history into this thread but that is not what Galileo’s prosecutors did.

To which Helen O’Toole an Irish Early Years Educator (her description) replied with the following link:

One should note that the website, which is the website of the History television channel describes itself as “History #1 Factual Entertainment Brand” [my emphasis] History the television channel is notorious for it’s pseudo-documentaries of bullshit woo and the inaccuracies of its historical documentaries.

Here we can read the following: 

1633 April 12 Galileo is accused of heresy

This is in fact false. Galileo was not accused of heresy but of having breached the Church injunction, issued to him personally in 1616, not to hold or teach the heliocentric theory. Before somebody charges in saying, “they had no right to issue such an injunction”, I will point out, for the umpteenth time, that at the beginning of the seventeenth century the Catholic Church was an absolutist political and legal authority and had every right under the prevailing system to do so. 

It is also important to note, again for the umpteenth time, that when Galileo got himself into trouble with the Catholic authorities, the scientific situation was such that the available empirical evidence supported a geocentric or helio-geocentric system and not a heliocentric one, as there was absolutely no evidence that the Earth moved. Also, and this is very important, Galileo or anybody else, for that matter, was free to discuss a heliocentric system hypothetically but not to claim that it was factually true.

On April 12, 1633, chief inquisitor Father Vincenzo Maculani da Firenzuola, appointed by Pope Urban VIII, begins the inquisition of physicist and astronomer Galileo Galilei. Galileo was ordered to turn himself in to the Holy Office to begin trial for holding the belief that the Earth revolves around the sun, which was deemed heretical by the Catholic Church. Standard practice demanded that the accused be imprisoned and secluded during the trial.

Galileo was ordered to turn himself in for holding and teaching the heliocentric hypothesis as proven fact. The heliocentric theory was never formally declared heretical by the Catholic Church. The eleven Qualifiers, appointed by the Church to examine the heliocentric theory, came to the conclusion that the idea that the Sun is stationary is “foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture…” However, only the Pope can formally declare something heretical and in the case of the heliocentric theory no pope ever took this step.

This is followed by a wonderful case of false information by implication. “Standard practice demanded that the accused be imprisoned and secluded during the trial.” In Galileo’s case, due to his advanced age and his social status, on the one hand he was the most famous natural philosopher and astronomer in Europe and on the other he was a Medici courtier, Galileo was given his own three-room apartment, with servants, in the palace of the Inquisition. This is a somewhat different picture to the usual one, implied here, of Galileo being thrown into prison, or even a dungeon. Galileo even wrote a letter to his daughter saying how well he was being treated.

This was the second time that Galileo was in the hot seat for refusing to accept Church orthodoxy that the Earth was the immovable center of the universe: In 1616, he had been forbidden from holding or defending his beliefs. In the 1633 interrogation, Galileo denied that he “held” belief in the Copernican view but continued to write about the issue and evidence as a means of “discussion” rather than belief. The Church had decided the idea that the sun moved around the Earth was an absolute fact of scripture that could not be disputed, despite the fact that scientists had known for centuries that the Earth was not the center of the universe.

I do wish people wouldn’t in this context use the word belief. Galileo held it for a fact that the cosmos, as it was then known, was heliocentric and was convinced that he could prove it. The Church had not decided that “the idea that the sun moved around the Earth was an absolute fact of scripture that could not be disputed”. The Church said that scripture stated that the Sun revolves around the Earth and the best available empirical evidence at the beginning of the seventeenth century supported that hypothesis. The Church was quite happy to change that view if new evidence to support the heliocentric hypothesis should be found, which it did in the eighteenth century, when that evidence, stellar aberration, was in fact found. 

However, all the above I have gone through in various posts in the past, what drove me to write this new post was the last statement, “despite the fact that scientists had known for centuries that the Earth was not the center of the universe.” [my emphasis], I mean WHAT THE FUCK! It’s truly time for a bit of the HIST_SCI HULK

Can somebody please enlighten me, as to who these scientists were, who had known for centuries that the Earth was not the centre of the universe? 

Remember this was posted on “History #1 Factual Entertainment Brand” [my emphasis], so let us re-examine the actual historical facts. Copernicus published his De revolutionibus, containing his heliocentric hypothesis, in 1543, that’s ninety years before Galileo’s trial, not centuries. Copernicus had deferred the publication for a couple of decades because he couldn’t provide any empirical evidence to support his hypothesis. When he finally published his hypothesis was mathematically plausible but still lacked any empirical evidence. Over the next ninety years despite efforts by numerous astronomers at prove or refute Copernicus’ hypothesis nobody had found any empirical evidence to show that the Earth moved. The best evidence for a heliocentric system was Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion in particular his third law, which interestingly Galileo simply ignored. The other available evidence was the various observations, made by various astronomers, confirming the solar orbits of comets, which Galileo didn’t just ignore but actively rejected. Just for the record, in 1633, the available empirical evidence supported either a geocentric system or more likely a Tychonic helio-geocentric system with the Earth still firmly at the centre.

I find it simply depressing that an organisation with the worldwide reach of the History Channel (which actually just calls itself History these days) is propagating such inaccurate crap as factual history, which is being consumed and believed by such people as Helen O’Toole an Irish Early Years Educator, who drew my attention to this travesty. 

4 Comments

Filed under History of Astronomy, Myths of Science, Uncategorized

4 responses to “It’s Galileo time again!

  1. Phillip Harmsworth

    “Can somebody please enlighten me, as to who these scientists were, who had known for centuries that the Earth was not the centre of the universe?”

    Did Aristarchus of Samos have any followers? (Passing over the question of whether or not he counts as a scientist.)

    • The only other known supporter of heliocentricity in antiquity was Seleucus of Seleucia (c. 190 BC – c. 150 BC), whose impact was just as little as that of Aristarchus

  2. Of course, these days the “History” Channel is more aptly described as the “It Was Aliens” Channel.

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