The Galileo gambit: The tactic that needs to be put to rest

Galileo Galilei portrait by Justus Sustermans. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

We all know the story of Galileo’s persecution by the Catholic Church. Advocating a heliocentric model of the solar system – the Earth and planets revolve around the Sun, contradicting biblical literalism – the religious authorities censored Galileo and placed him under house arrest. Eventually, the maverick scientist, laughed at by the prevailing powers, was proven correct.

An inspiring story to be sure, but this has given rise to the Galileo gambit. Pseudo scientists and cranks of all kinds — from global warming deniers to creationists to COVID-19 denialists — will at some point claim that when the scientific establishment rejects their ideas they are, in fact, the equivalent of Galileo: unfairly maligned mavericks confronting a hostile and dogmatic orthodoxy.

This analogy with Galileo is a logical fallacy on a number of levels.

Galileo was hardly an outsider from the scientific establishment of the time. At age 25, he was the chair of mathematics at the University of Pisa. Regarded as the father of observational astronomy, he settled at the University of Padua and had powerful patrons — including the Medici family who supported scientific investigations at the time.

When Galileo presented the results of his observations — the heliocentric model — he was building on the foundations of the Copernican revolution. The latter prompted the paradigmatic shift from the old Ptolemaic system — which regarded the Earth as stationary, occupying a central place in the universe — to the new heliocentrism.

Observing the planets revolve around the Sun, Galileo was not on his own. He was cognisant of the fact that he, like Copernicus before him, was confronting the orthodox dogma of the church.

Today’s climate change deniers perversely claim that they are merely scientific mavericks challenging the status quo. However, on closer inspection, it is the global warming deniers who are analogous to the Catholic Church; driven by a fanatical ideological commitment to the capitalist market.

The billionaire corporations which pay for disseminating misinformation to undermine the scientific consensus regarding global warming are espousing a corporatist dogma flying in the face of the preponderance of evidence.

Steven Novella, writing about the Galileo syndrome, said that: “For every visionary scientist whose claims are initially rejected because they are so radical, only to be later confirmed and change our view of the universe, there are uncountable wannabes whose ideas are rejected because they are hopelessly flawed.

“Being rejected is not the best manner in which to be compared to Galileo, and in itself does not imply that one is a visionary or that one’s ideas are correct. Making the comparison, however, does imply a distorted self-view, and a certain lack of humility that if anything is predictive of being cranky rather than a visionary scientist.”

Novella emphasises that Galileo was persecuted, and regarded as a heretic, by a church relying on divine revelation and scriptural authority, not scientific evidence.

Albert Einstein, the typical outsider, rested his case on scientific evidence for his theories of special and general relativity, prior to their acceptance by the scientific community. He never promoted himself as a latter-day Galileo.

Being rejected by the scientific establishment is emotionally challenging and, throughout history, numerous scientists who were ridiculed were eventually proven correct.

German geologist Alfred Wegener (1880-1930) was laughed at by the scientific community when he first proposed the theory of continental drift, forming the basis of today’s plate tectonics. He argued that Pangaea, a supercontinent, existed millions of years ago. It is now widely accepted  by the geological community. Only achieving vindication after his death, he never once compared himself to Galileo when debating the scientific establishment.

There are scientific disagreements all the time. Scientists debate issues in a wide range of areas. This is standard practice. They also reject quackery and pseudoscience. There is a long-standing tactic employed by those who are quick to wrap themselves in Galileo’s mantle – the magnified minority. The denial of human-induced global warming uses this tactic — elevate the contrarian view to convey the pretence of scientific disagreements among the experts.

Whether it is the proponents of intelligent design, or the now-forgotten HIV/AIDS deniers, posing as the wounded Galileos of our time is a cynical attempt to gain scientific legitimacy for the views of pseudoscience partisans.

Back in the 1980s, with the AIDS epidemic, denial of the causal nature of HIV/AIDS, grew exponentially. The German-American biologist Peter Duesberg still maintains that HIV is not the cause of AIDS. There were numerous declarations by dissenting scientists, pushing the case for HIV/AIDS denial.

By the early 1990s, evidence for the HIV/AIDS connection became overwhelming, but there are still holdouts until today, their hopes revived in part by the growth of COVID-19 denialism.

It is noteworthy to observe the interlapping commonalities between various forms of science denialism.

There are numerous examples of scientists, once considered absurdly mistaken and mocked by the scientific establishment, proven correct by the weight of evidence.

However, whenever the Galileo gambit is deployed, let’s remember the words of Stephen Lewandowsky: “Being dismissed by scientists doesn’t automatically entitle you to a Nobel Prize”.

Being an aspirational Galileo is no guarantee that your ideas are correct.

[This article was first posted at Rupen Savoulian’s blog Antipodean Atheist here.]