No, they did not laugh at Galileo

It’s like a junk science equivalent of Godwin’s Law. Pseudoscientific theories are defended with “Well, they laughed at Galileo too!”, as if the only reason these ideas were being rejected by scientists was that they were new and different. There are two big problems with this defense.

The scientific community was not overly resistant to Galileo’s ideas. It was the church that persecuted Galileo for his ideas about a heliocentric solar system, who had him tried for heresy, forced him to recant his position, put him under house arrest for the rest of his life, and didn’t forgive him until almost four hundred years later. When religion and state are as tightly welded together as they were in Galileo’s Italy, ideas that contradict religion can be treated as crimes.

The scientific community, on the other hand, wasn’t bothered. While Galileo was the first to observe direct evidence of objects orbiting something other than the Earth (specifically, four little moons orbiting Jupiter), he was not the first to come up with the idea of the Sun at the centre of the solar system.  Nicolaus Copernicus published his heliocentric model in 1543, and Johannes Kepler formulated his laws of planetary motion (which rely on a heliocentric view) in 1605 — both prior to Galileo’s first look at Jupiter’s moons through a telescope in 1610. By the 1670s, Isaac Newton was working on a theory of gravity that could explain the motions of heavenly bodies, and which took heliocentrism for granted in order to do so.

In other words, the idea was already out there by the time Galileo started his work on it, and the only entity actively trying to stop Galileo’s work from spreading was the Vatican — not some vast worldwide conspiracy of cliquey scientists.

For that matter, information did not travel fast enough for any resistance or lack thereof to be universally agreed upon by scientists everywhere — it’s probably safe to say that there was not a worldwide scientific community at the time at all. If it took sixty years between Galileo’s discovery and other scientists (like Newton) accepting heliocentrism with open arms, that’s not long at all (considering how slowly information travelled in those times). But it didn’t take that long, because the idea already existed and was being used even before Galileo came onto the scene.

There are more bad ideas than there are good ones. There have been good ideas that genuinely met with resistance from the scientific community and were proven later on to have merit. Evolution and plate tectonics come to mind, or the idea that animals have conscious thought and emotion. The reasons for the resistance are many — perhaps people weren’t convinced by the evidence at hand, or perhaps cultural bias had a hand in it (scientists are people, after all, raised in human cultures). Maybe science would be more advanced in some areas today if these ideas had been accepted sooner than they were.

On the other hand, there are far more bad ideas out there — hypotheses that are not supported by good evidence or predicted by solid theory — than there are good ones that are not getting taken as seriously as they should. If we’re overly accepting of new ideas, a lot of bad ideas would be taken more seriously than they deserve.

The goal of science is to create the most accurate picture of the world that we can. If you have two hypotheses to choose from, you choose the one that is backed up by more evidence, and make that your working model. (If you choose the weaker one, your working model is going to lead you in the wrong direction because you’re building your own ideas on a shaky foundation.) It’s a slow process, but it moves forward as every generation of scientists discovers new things and makes little tweaks and edits to old ideas — as long as said scientists are rigorous about choosing the right foundations for their work.

The next time someone tells you “they laughed at Galileo”, tell them to give Galileo’s contemporary scientists more respect. They weren’t as short-sighted as some people would have us believe.

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1 Comment

  1. trinalin said,

    2 July 2009 at 5:28 pm

    Whenever someone says “They laughed at Gallileo” you can follow up with “No, they laughed at Carlin.” 🙂


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