Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics


I can’t remember who it was who referred to Galileo that way. Ted Cruz, the right-wing US senator, presidential candidate, and one-time Ivy League super-elitist has invoked the protection of this saint to defend his position on climate change, in opposition to the overwhelming consensus of the experts:

Today the global warming alarmists are the equivalent of the flat-earthers. You know it used to be: ‘It is accepted scientific wisdom the Earth is flat.’ And this heretic named Galileo was branded a denier.

This is standard crank-Galileo stuff, impressive for the number of misconceptions it builds into such a small space. Of course, Galileo’s critics didn’t think the Earth is flat. It was certainly not “accepted scientific wisdom” in his day. (Beyond any theoretical or cultural understanding, it was nearly a century since Portuguese sailors had circumnavigated the globe.) Galileo was not dismissed by the scientific experts of his day. His theories and discoveries were controversial, but he was generally acclaimed by scientific authorities. He was punished for contradicting the Church’s entrenched philosophical commitments, by a panel that, while not completely devoid of expertise in astronomy and Aristotelian physics, was chosen for its institutional commitment to the Church. It’s not really the most felicitous comparison for a climate-change denier to bring up.

Logical fallacies aside — “They laughed at the Wright brothers. They also laughed at the Marx brothers.” — there aren’t many cases of new ideas being dismissed as ridiculous by the scientific community, and later proved right. There is often entrenched conservative resistance (as there should be) to radical new ideas, but almost never is a single thinker so far beyond everyone else that his ideas don’t elicit significant support. Perhaps the best exception is Alfred Wegener, with his obviously crackpot theory of continental drift. For some reason Galileo, who was very much respected and mainstream, gets called into service to defend the crazies, and not Wegener. I imagine that Cruz’s backers would be almost as uncomfortable with plate tectonics as they are with evolution, if they knew anything about it. At that point the USGS would be banned from using plate tectonics to predict earthquakes.

In any case, Wegener wasn’t sitting in a Senate office reading Heritage Foundation talking points; he learned everything that was known about geophysics (which wasn’t much at the time) conducting expeditions to Greenland to collect evidence.

Comments on: "The patron saint of cranks and charlatans" (1)

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