Galileo and the Scientific Pose of the Left
Galileo and the Scientific Pose of the Left
February 17, 2011 By Robert Tracinski RealClearPolitics
If you ever visit Florence-and you really ought to see the birthplace of the Renaissance-there is a fascinating little museum, next to the more famous Uffizi, devoted to the history of science. There you can see one of Galileo's original telescopes, as well as a fascinatingly grotesque and revealing artifact: one of Galileo's fingers, preserved in an elaborately decorated container of the style used for holy relics belonging to the Church. Legend has it that this is his middle finger-a fitting message for Galileo to send to the Church that persecuted him.
That relic sums up the contradictions of Galileo's era, as well as the fate that tends to befall independent men who break through the hostility of the establishment to defend a great new truth. They are viciously opposed when they are alive-but when they are safely dead, they are co-opted by the establishment and turned into just another mummified authority figure.
I was reminded of this yesterday when I came across an opinion piece by Mark Hertsgaard in The Politico, where he cites Galileo in defense of the current global warming hysteria. Hertsgaard appropriates the name and legacy of a man who defied the established scientific dogmas of his day-and uses it to enforce the established scientific dogmas of today.
The man who dedicated his life to defending the idea that the Earth moves around the sun is doing a little turning of his own right now-in his grave.
Hertsgaard accuses the Republicans of a "Galileo moment"-i.e, that they are acting like Galileo's persecutors-because "This week, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the chairman of the House Energy Committee, introduced legislation that would 'repeal' the Environmental Protection Agency's scientific determination that greenhouse gases threaten human health and welfare."
Never mind that he's getting the politics wrong. (This is not a Galileo moment, but a James Madison moment. The point of the House legislation is not to "repeal science" but to reassert the separation of powers, preventing the EPA from imposing through regulation what congressional Democrats could not achieve through legislation.)
More fundamentally, Hertsgaard gets his science and history comprehensively wrong. Galileo is just a talking point; he doesn't know who Galileo was, what he did, and what was at stake in his struggle against the Church.
Galileo was persecuted-threatened with torture and forced to recant-for advocating the theory that the planets revolve around the Sun, which contradicted the Church-sanctioned dogma that the Sun and planets revolve around the Earth. But what exactly did Galileo do? He didn't originate the heliocentric system of astronomy; Copernicus did that. Nor did he refine the system and make it more accurate in describing the orbits and speeds of the planets; Kepler did that. Galileo's specific contribution was to demonstrate the physical basis for the heliocentric system.
Copernicus had presented his theory as a mathematical model which could explain the apparent motion of the planets in the sky, but the strictures of the Church prevented him from arguing for it as a real description of the actual solar system.
Galileo rejected these restrictions and set out to show how the physics of the heliocentric system would work, solving the apparent absurdities and dilemmas of the system-for example, if the Earth is spinning on its axis, why doesn't everything fly off of it? To answer these questions, Galileo performed his famous experiments on the science of motion.
Galileo also contributed crucial observational evidence to back the new theory. He perfected the design of an early telescope and was the first to use it to make observations of the moon and planets, which reinforced the heliocentric system. For example, he was the first to observe mountains and valleys on the moon, refuting the idea that celestial bodies are fundamentally different from the Earth and operate according to different physical laws. He was the first to observe the moons of Jupiter, revealing a kind of solar system in miniature. And he was the first to observe the phases of Venus, which could only be explained if both the Earth and Venus orbit the sun.
But physical explanations and observational evidence are precisely the weak points of the global warming dogma. The whole global warming theory began with mathematical computer models. But the actual observational data isn't there. Climategate helped produce revelations about the corruption and unreliability of global temperature data, which in any case has shown a lack of continued warming over the past decade.
In one of the Climategate e-mails , a consensus scientist complains that it is a "travesty" that they cannot explain recent cooling. In another, Michael Mann gives the most notorious line of the scandal, explaining how he is manipulating a graph of proxy temperature data to "hide the decline" it shows in recent decades.
And as for physical explanations, a recent study by MIT atmospheric scientist Richard Lindzen brings into question the "greenhouse effect" itself. Rather than retaining heat to produce a self-reinforcing warming, Lindzen's data indicates that the atmosphere will actually bleed off excess heat, dampening any warming effect.
So the global warming dogma is based on the exact opposite of Galileo's achievement, elevating speculative mathematical models above physical explanations and direct observation.
The more profound distortion in Hertsgaard's argument is his inversion of Galileo's cultural role. Galileo was not speaking on behalf of the kind of government-backed scientific "consensus" that we are constantly told is behind global warming. He was a cantankerous polemicist who challenged the scientific establishment and its consensus. This included not just the Catholic Church but also the entrenched scholastics at the University of Pisa.
As Galileo scholar Stillman Drake puts it, "In an age when authority was everywhere taken for granted, Galileo's watchword was the rejection of authority of any kind." Or as Galileo himself advised a fellow scientist, by doing experiments "you will be able to find out just how much force human authority has upon the facts of nature, which remains deaf and inexorable to our wishes."
The irony is that the entirety of Hertsgaard's argument is an appeal to authorities and institutions and "mainstream climate science," a phrase he keeps repeating. Here is the whole of his scientific argument:
When virtually every major scientific organization in the world, including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and its counterparts in 18 other industrial countries, has affirmed that man-made climate change is real and extremely dangerous, only a crank would continue to insist that it's all a left-wing plot.
Hertsgaard acknowledges that "skepticism is invaluable to the scientific method"-but then calls for the skeptics to be "called to account" for their "sabotage." Cardinal Bellarmine, call your office.
Hertsgaard's article is partly a cautionary tale about one of the occupational vices of the political polemicist: using historical examples and symbols to score rhetorical points, without really understanding them. Perhaps Godwin's Law should be extended to cover Galileo and the Inquisition.
But it is also an example of the way the left uses science, not as a vital thinking method, but as a political pose. They drag out science as a prop, without understanding the basic method and attitude of science.
Part of the reason why Galileo is remembered as one of the fathers of modern science is his thoroughgoing rejection of this subordination to authority. His achievement is reflected in the motto of Britain's Royal Society: nullius in verba , "on no one's word." The idea is that even if a Galileo or a Newton were to present a new theory, his prestige should count for nothing. He still has to show his data and prove it.
The same goes for climate scientists, environmentalist activists, and hack political writers.