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Of Galileo and Canute

16 Sep 2020 | OP ED Watch

In a world where people loudly insist on “following the science” on everything from COVID-19 to climate, often with a surprising ignorance about what the science really says, University of Texas professor of government and philosophy J. Budziszewski gives modernist icon Galileo Galilei an unexpected bop on the noggin for his arrogance. He concedes that “Church authorities greatly erred in condemning Galileo” but adds that “the part of the story we aren’t usually told” is “They didn’t criticize him for following the science, but for not following it” because his theory about circular rather than elliptical orbits, um, “didn’t square terribly well with observations.” Man. Even the history of science is complicated, never mind the actual science.

Galileo is, as noted an icon, like Canute. Who also, revealingly, is even more fatuously misunderstood in the modern world. The real historical Canute did not believe he could stop the tides and staged an evidence-based demonstration to rebuke the groveling courtiers who told him he could. His humility was for centuries a byword among the people and a caution to their governors in the English-speaking world, one that frankly we stand in dire need of today.

Our response to Galileo is more complicated than the current tendency to sneer ignorantly at Canute. But it also needs a cleanup. Especially since Galileo is normally hailed as a rebel against the usual obtuse stifling arrogant authorities of the day by defenders of orthodoxy against eccentric challenges. Of course nowadays everyone claims to be a rebel no matter how privileged and dug in they are. But facts are facts.

The fact is that Galileo had a powerful intuition of which he was so certain that he defied authority, took evidentiary shortcuts and put himself at considerable personal risk. And perhaps progress does depend in large measure, for better or worse, on unreasonable people. But as Budziszewski says, the story of Galileo “ought to serve as a reminder that policy can never be based just on ‘what the science says,’ because science never speaks with one voice. It is often, in a sense, political, even if it is not partisan. Small wonder, because the evidence doesn’t speak for itself. It may not even be clear what counts as evidence in the first place, and the evidence is viewed through the lens of preconceived ideas that may be wrong. Disagreement among scientists is normal and healthy, but just as in the rest of life, a minority may be suppressed for a long time just because the majority can get away with it.” Including, he adds, on “Climate change”.

So beware lest you think you’re Galileo and you’re really the cardinals. Or that you’re proceeding without a proper factual basis. Or both.

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