Galileo and the Tea Party

By Chris Mooney | September 12, 2011 2:41 pm

I’ve done my latest DeSmogBlog piece on the Rick Perry Galileo flap. I say a lot, but I particularly liked this part of it:

The misuse and abuse of Galileo’s story, in other words, is a case study in how people reason about history—just as they do with science—in a biased, motivated way, seeking to cast themselves as the good guys, the victors, and their foes as the opposite.

And once you see things in this way, you realize there’s a very close analogy in our politics to the Perry-Galileo flap. Climate “skeptics” invoking Galileo is really quite a lot like right wingers calling themselves the “Tea Party.”

The great architects of the United States—Jefferson, Franklin, Madison—were men of reason and the Enlightenment, just as Galileo was a man of the Scientific Revolution. They were freethinkers and, in Jefferson’s and Franklin’s case, scientists and inventors. And they didn’t want religion shoved down anybody’s throat.

And yet we now find a movement in America that wants more religion in politics, and that rejects science on climate change and evolution alike, trying to claim the mantle of the country’s founding.

Rick Perry’s invocation of Galileo, then, is much more than merely ridiculous. It gives us quite the window on the right wing mind, and demonstrates just how much it has managed to turn reality upside-down.

Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength…and Galileo and Rick Perry ride off together into the Texas sunset.

Full piece here.

Comments (15)

Links to this Post

  1. CNN, GOP Spend A Night On Tea Party Tiger | Neon Tommy | September 13, 2011
  1. Nullius in Verba

    “the Galileo story is about the ideological suppression of a lone scientist who has discovered a deep truth”

    I think you may be missing Perry’s point. The Galileo story is about trusting “experts”, and accepting argument from authority. It wasn’t just the church – most well-educated scholars of the time accepted the Ptolemaic model, on Aristotle’s authority.

    The point of Galileo’s argument was that evidence and reason takes priority over the opinions of experts – no matter how many experts there might be. As he said: “In questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual.”

    It’s not about the fact that it is one opinion against many, it is the fact that the one’s opinion is backed by reason and evidence, while that of the many is not. It is a call for us to reject the citations of learned papers and lists of experts and the pronoucements of august authorities, and instead learn to reason and argue based on the evidence itself.

    Whether Perry himself could do so is another matter, but he evidently thinks others can do so and should be allowed to. Freedom of belief and freedom of expression are not simply about religion. (They were never intended as any kind of atheists’ charter for banning religious belief, either.) Freedom of belief and freedom of expression are essential for enabling society to correct those cases when the mainstream gets it badly wrong, and feels the need to impose its views on everyone else. Freedom of expression guarantees that alternative views will be able to argue their case, and if they can muster the necessary reason and evidence, to persuade others to their view.
    It’s not perfect – nothing is – but we’ve seen the dangers of the alternatives too often.

  2. Jon Winsor

    Nullius: The point of Galileo’s argument was that evidence and reason takes priority over the opinions of experts…

    You could keep widening the scope of what’s “opinion” until there are no empirical facts or laws at all:

    Anything could be true. The so-called laws of Nature were nonsense. The law of gravity was nonsense. ‘If I wished,’ O’Brien had said, ‘I could float off this floor like a soap bubble.’ Winston worked it out. ‘If he thinks he floats off the floor, and if I simultaneously think I see him do it, then the thing happens.’

  3. Nullius in Verba


    Good point. Orwell took the concept several stages further.

    In the Big Brother state, the opinions of the Party took precedence over reason and evidence. Winston tried to make the point by giving an example of something he took to be so ridiculously obvious to intuition and reason, that two plus two equals four, and declared that freedom was the freedom to say so, even if the Party and every scientist, teacher, and expert in the world said otherwise. He couldn’t understand how anybody could see things otherwise – how anybody could genuinely believe something that was obviously untrue just because the state said so.

    But O’Brien showed him with the machine that it was actually possible. Human reasoning is fallible, people can genuinely and honestly believe anything, even obvious nonsense, if you take away any prior conviction that it is otherwise and tell them so with unquestionable authority.

    The satire was an exaggeration, of course, to make the point. But the point was that the world of Nineteen Eighty Four was really the world of Nineteen Forty Eight, seen from an unfamiliar perspective. The concept of doublethink was a really sharp observation on how people really do believe mutually contradictory assertions, each in their own internally-supporting narrative context. A lot of what people believe is untrue.

    Just as a simple (and fun!) example, let’s take gravity. The Earth is pulled by gravity directly towards the centre of the sun, and the sun is pulled by an equal and opposite force towards the Earth. Do you believe it? Have you ever sat down and thought about why you do?

    Now let’s ask another classic question: if the sun disappeared, how long would it be before the Earth noticed? We know the light from the sun takes 8 minutes to get to us, so if the sun vanished we wouldn’t see anything different for 8 minutes, but would the Earth continue to circle where the sun was, or would it immediately fly off in a straight line? Now we “know” the separate fact, that there is no way to send a signal faster than light. So obviously the Earth keeps circling for another 8 minutes. Think for a moment: do you believe that?

    But now we try to think how all this fits together. The Earth sees the sun as it was 8 minutes ago and is pulled towards it, and the sun sees the Earth where it was 8 minutes ago, and is pulled towards that, but where it was 8 minutes ago is not where it is now! The force vectors are not equal and opposite. The beliefs are contradictory.

    And yet many scientists believe them both implicitly, absolutely, simultaneously. Both have been stated with the authority of science. But (at least) one of them must be wrong! How do we decide?

    The way people approach solving this conundrum is of interest – do they try to weigh authorities, or do they try to go back to first principles? Do they start off by quoting from textbooks for one position or the other, or saying Einstein supercedes Newton, or that there can’t be any real conflict because thousands of physicists would have noticed? Would each lot call the other names – conservation-law-denier or FTL-believer?

    In this case the answer happens to be known, but the point is that there are a lot of people who don’t know it, and yet who believe their scientific understanding of gravity is relatively complete and consistent. Is Newton’s Law of Gravity an “empirical fact” or “law” in the sense you mean? Does the sheer number of people who state it as “fact” have any weight over somebody who knows about the above conflict? The humble reasoning of a single individual? How wide is the scope of opinion, really?

  4. Somite

    Whatever. The facts lead to the conclusion that the earth is warming and the cause is likely anthropogenic. Deal with it.

  5. Somite

    This is the difference between the Galileo situation and climate change deniers like Rick Perry. The people that judged Galileo did so in spite of the data and conclusions. This is exactly what the Tea Party and deniers do. They deny the data and conclusions. It is not a matter of expertise; the issue is denial.

  6. Sean McCorkle

    Self-comparison with Galileo scores 40 points (high) on John Baez’s crackpot index. (So does claims of conspiracy by the scientific establishment to suppress one’s work).

  7. TTT

    The Galileo story is nothing but an Argument From Authority. “Look who else spoke out against the majority, just like I’m doing!”

    Sorry guys, but you also have to be *right*.

  8. Nullius in Verba


    That may be, but it isn’t what I’m arguing about.


    “Denying the data” looks rather more like this: “Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it?” That’s what we call denying sceptics the data.

    We’ve got plenty more. Here’s another. “I wouldn’t worry about the code. If FOIA does ever get used by anyone, there is also IPR to consider as well. Data is covered by all the agreements we sign with people, so I will be hiding behind them.” Or Think I’ve managed to persuade UEA to ignore all further FOIA requests if the people have anything to do with Climate Audit. Or “p.s. I know I probably don’t need to mention this, but just to insure absolutely clarify on this, I’m providing these for your own personal use, since you’re a trusted colleague. So please don’t pass this along to others without checking w/ me first. This is the sort of “dirty laundry” one doesn’t want to fall into the hands of those who might potentially try to distort things…” Or “The two MMs have been after the CRU station data for years. If they ever hear there is a Freedom of Information Act now in the UK, I think I’ll delete the file rather than send to anyone.”

    So much for the data.


    That’s an illogical argument. John Baez ought to know better.


    Of course one has to be *right*! So do *you*. And to be right, you need more than arguments from authority and weather anecdotes.

  9. Ian

    You say, “Galileo was a man of the Scientific Revolution. They were freethinkers and, in Jefferson’s and Franklin’s case, scientists and inventors. And they didn’t want religion shoved down anybody’s throat.”

    But you forget that Galileo could not prove the Earth spun or moved in an orbit around the Sun. Foucault’s pendulum and Stellar parallax and aberration some 100 years later did that – Galileo did not even come close.

    Furthermore Galileo bruised the pope’s ego by identifying his words with the simpleton in his ‘Two Worlds’, and demanded Scripture be re-interpreted on the basis of a hypothesis he could not prove.

    It’s interesting to note you missed out Kepler, who was excommunicated from the Protestant church.

  10. Chris Mooney

    #10 yes, galileo was, as I said, a “puckish” challenger of conventional wisdom, and needling the pope (authority) is precisely what I meant by that.

  11. Sean McCorkle

    Galileo’s observations of the phases of Venus coupled with their constrained elongations from the Sun, not to mention moons orbiting Jupiter, certainly falsified the Aristotlean-Ptolemaic universe which was the official teaching of his day. During his trial his prosecutors presented the Tychonic system (all planets EXCEPT for the Earth move around the Sun, and the Sun moves around the Earth) as explaining his observations but allowing the Earth to remain stationary. The Church was thus forced to adopt a highly contrived explanation in order to cling to a motionless Earth. If Galileo didn’t actually kill the dogma, he dealt the mortal blow.


    What little I know of Galileo was that he successfully challenged the authorities of the day by conducting his own experiments, demonstrations, and observations which tested their claims. I don’t remember ever reading about him complaining about the authorities not sharing their data. I think there’s a lesson there.

    That’s an illogical argument. John Baez ought to know better.

    Its humor—one way of coping with crackpots.

  12. TTT

    @9: Of course one has to be *right*! So do *you*. And to be right, you need more than arguments from authority and weather anecdotes.

    You’ve already admitted we are right about how human emissions of CO2 are causing a warming effect.

    The rest is obfuscatory quibbling and your own arguments from authority, be they Galileo or “Harry.” Much as you ritualistically cut-n-paste from the CRU emails as though they were holy writ, you have never, ever demonstrated that any of them are true: that the thoughts expressed therein were turned into deeds. Neither you nor anyone else has ever shown that, because no one can. There is no evidence the emails are “right,” but the ritual litany of cut-n-pasting their doctrines is supposed to be authoritative enough in and of itself.

  13. Nullius in Verba

    “You’ve already admitted we are right about how human emissions of CO2 are causing a warming effect.”

    No I haven’t. I’ve said that increased CO2 will make a positive contribution towards warming, and that I don’t consider it that unlikely that it could have caused more than 50% of the warming between 1950 and 2000. That doesn’t mean that I say it did, or even that the contribution it makes is detectable against the natural background noise, or that you’re right about the mechanism.

    It certainly doesn’t mean you’re right about the predictions of future warming, or that it would be a catastrophe, or even anything to worry about, or that we need do anything at all to avert.

    There is this constant effort to conflate claims, to say that if you accept one point of the climate canon you must accept them all, or that if you reject one point you must reject them all. The predictions of doom and disaster do not follow from the basic physics. I understand the basic physics. I do not agree with the disaster predictions.

    So please don’t say I’ve agreed with you, unless it’s your way of saying that you don’t believe in the oncoming climate apocalypse either.

    “you have never, ever demonstrated that any of them are true: that the thoughts expressed therein were turned into deeds.”

    That’s a very interesting answer in the context of the present conversation. A climate scientist says he made data up, that it’s going to cause databases to be corrupted, that precisely this attitude caused the already existing corruption, and that this is common practice where he works. Your answer is that because I haven’t proved 100% via (non-existent) independent sources that what he says is true, that we can ignore it. You don’t and won’t believe it. More than that, you have an absolutely unshakable conviction that it’s not.

    Given the conversation about the fundamentalist intolerance for uncertainty on the previous page, that’s very interesting, don’t you think?

    (As I’m sure you know, Harry pasted in output from the programs he wrote to do what he said he was going to do. I suppose you think he faked that, too.)

    “Neither you nor anyone else has ever shown that, because no one can.”

    Actually, the official enquiries could have, if they’d wanted to. If it wasn’t true, it would be trivial for them to prove it – just publish the software and its documentation. (In fact, they should have published it anyway.) They chose to leave the matter unexamined, however.

    And thus we see the ultimate logic of climate science’s “proof” – you prevent anyone seeing the evidence that would allow them to test your claims, and then say that because nobody has any solid 100% proof that the claims are not true, we have to accept them without question.

    Orwell would have been pleased to have thought that one up.

  14. Perry’s invocation of Galileo is not making an argument about reason, but about emotion. He is making it to appeal (emotionally) to like-minded people who feel their beliefs are being belittled. They do not understand that Galileo was troubled by the ignorance of Copernicus’ work, which he touted and ultimately what got him punished. Galileo backed down (something being asked of various climate scientists through threat of prosecution, such as Mann) under emotional appeals against his reason. He relented, forswore his previous avowals. Perry wants, not thinks that it should be true, that the appeals for his position are in accord with Galileo’s persecution, that his persecuted premises will eventually be accepted. There is no triumph here of reason over belief, but of “my view will eventually win out.”

    It is, to Perry, belief versus belief, only Perry feels that his belief is more morally based (authoritarianism argued for Gods’ gift of dominion from Himself to Man for the earth [read: exploitation is allowable, and indeed is right]) than that of those he argues against. It really doesn’t matter what is being used: up is down, down is left, left is hubwards, all useful for making the emotional appeal. He can spout nonsense as long as you GROK it in your gut (reason don’t belong here, folks).


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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