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Zombie History — Using Galileo to Whack Intelligent Design


A useful myth is hard to put down. The Galileo myth gives a premiere illustration. Ever since John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White fostered the “warfare thesis” of “science vs religion” in the late 19th century, appealing to the Galileo affair as the example par excellence, historians have had little luck convincing the scientific establishment that their version of the Galileo story is flawed. Fortunately, we have the new book by Michael Keas to help set the story straight: Unbelievable: 7 Myths About the History and Future of Science and Religion.

Keas traces the development of the warfare thesis through the 19th century. Despite being largely discredited by historians, the warfare thesis lives on into our time. For instance, Mario Livio has a new book out, Galileo and the Science Deniers, which Alison Abbott reviewed in Nature. According to Livio, there are only two types of people in the world: those who “believe in science,” and those pesky “science deniers” who keep hindering progress. Abbott comments:

In particular, he argues, the charges of heresy that Galileo faced for his scientific claims in the seventeenth century have their counterparts in science deniers’ condemnations today. [Emphasis added.]

And who might those deniers be? Those who hold any doubt about consensus opinion on climate change, and evolution.

And what of today’s science deniers? Livio briefly addresses how religion and business interests still conspire to attack evidence for evolution and anthropogenic climate change.

The book itself inveighs against a “policy today that encourage the teaching of creationism as thinly veiled ‘intelligent design,’” which is wrong on multiple levels. (Intelligent design isn’t creationism, whether “thinly veiled” or otherwise, and if the “policy” he has in mind is Discovery Institute’s, that policy warns against teaching either ID or creationism in public schools.)


In Nature’s podcast, Livio makes it clear that his purpose in writing was to advance the warfare thesis. The podcast speaks flippantly of the “science denialism that we see today.” Surely there is plenty of that in various quarters, but this broad-brush categorization needs clarification that never comes.

Livio: This is one of the main reasons why I decided to write the book. We see science denial all over the place today….

Interviewer: Do you think that there can be any lessons that can be learned?

Livio: Well, the real lesson is “believe in science.” It’s not that science is always right, but science has this ability to self-correct. So we have to believe in science, and we have to put the science first, and before any kind of political considerations, conservatism, religious beliefs and things like that. This is a big lesson.

It seems ironic to advocate “belief in science” when science is about demonstration, not belief. Does Livio mean to imply that belief in science means acquiescence to the scientific consensus at a given time? If the evidence of empirical research contradicts the consensus, would he advocate for denying the evidence to keep the consensus secure? Or alternatively, if he were to exercise the “intellectual freedom” he praises in Galileo, by critiquing a flawed consensus, would that not make him a science denier himself?

To her credit, Abbott notes some weaknesses in the book’s evidential support:

It’s a chillingly relevant theme, yet the parallels he draws between Galileo’s trial and contemporary science wars feel thin, and there’s a frustrating lack of examples to demonstrate the continuity of denialism through the centuries.

The Real Galileo

The reality of the events surrounding Galileo’s condemnation and house arrest in 1633 is far too complex to submit to the unnuanced “science vs religion” dichotomy. In fact, a skilled debater could turn the tables on Livio, and show that the scientific establishment today is like the 17th-century Inquisition, condemning its own heretics. If science were as self-correcting as Livio thinks, Darwinism would have been rejected by now. Livio considers Galileo “a symbol of the fight for intellectual freedom,” but denies that freedom to the bold scientists who critique the consensus dogmas on some scientific issues.

Livio’s history needs some self-correction. True, he corrects some minor myths about Galileo, like the story about his dropping weights from the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and the myth about his saying “And yet it moves” at the end of his trial. Those are minor matters for Livio as he sweeps on to the grand fallacy: portraying Galileo as the champion of “science vs religion.” Better historians quote Galileo to show he never doubted the providence of God, and actually believed his position would help the Church. 

Michael Keas, in his excellent chapter on the Galileo affair in Unbelievable, describes the individuals who troubled Galileo but balances that with the many friends in the church who supported him. 

He debunks myths about Galileo having been imprisoned and tortured and forced to confess to heresy, myths unfortunately fostered by 19th-century textbook writers, some of whom lacked access to primary sources. Bad as it was, Galileo’s treatment was much more accommodating than these agenda-driven accounts suggested. Keas concludes with a summary of the forces that led to the result:

The Galileo affair was not a simple or inevitable instance of science versus Christianity. Many complicated alliances and personal idiosyncrasies came into play. Contingency, not historical inevitability, was at work. The majority of Church leaders had allied themselves with the majority Aristotelian scientific viewpoint of the day. Together they opposed Copernican astronomy, which a theological and scientific minority held. If Galileo had been more tactful, modest, and patient in his attempt to reform his own church, there might have been no trial of 1633. Minority scientists such as Galileo argued that a heliocentric cosmos was scientifically superior. But given the scientific data available up through 1633, the Copernican system had not yet been shown to be superior to the Tychonic system of astronomy…. He made the arguments for the Copernican system seem stronger than they were at the time. This is part of what got him in trouble with the Inquisition….

Rather than reflecting a fundamental conflict between science and Christianity, the Galileo affair is better characterized as the fruit of rapid scientific change, political turmoil, and personal vanity.

Blame to Go Around

While few today would excuse the condemnation and house arrest of Galileo, there’s plenty of blame to go around. Galileo was a self-assured individual who mocked his opponents in his writings, portraying them as fools. Pope Urban VIII — a former friend who had encouraged him — took this as a personal slight. 

This all happened, furthermore, at a very inopportune time politically, during the Thirty Years War. Galileo was advancing a view without sufficient observational evidence, which only became convincing to scientists decades later. Leading scientists of Galileo’s day had their own evidences for the geocentric theory, and for the Tychonian model, which was preferred to both. Galileo wasn’t opposing theologians as much as the establishment science of his day. The church didn’t mind his holding to the Copernican theory as long as it was held tentatively, as an opinion or working hypothesis, as long as Galileo didn’t teach it as the truth. Copernicus himself, who was a churchman supported by the church, had presented his model as attractive for its simplicity, not because he had superior evidence it was true.

Modern astronomers have complicated both the Copernican view and the Galilean view. The Earth moves about the sun only in the sun’s frame of reference. The sun itself is in motion around the Milky Way. The Milky Way, furthermore, is moving with respect to the Local Group and the local supercluster. Looked at this way, without a preferred frame of reference, the Earth moves neither in circles (as Copernicus and Galileo believed) nor in ellipses (as Kepler believed); it traces an erratic path in a universe of competing forces. 

Knowing this to be the case in modern astrophysical thinking, Livio has grounds for condemning Galileo as a “science denier.” Absurd as that would be, it illustrates the historicity of science, the view that science is inextricably bound up with the information available at a given time. Galileo and the Catholic Church in 1633 did not have access to all the information we have now. Nor do astronomers in 2020 know everything. There are profound mysteries still to be solved that are hotly debated today, such as the existence and nature of dark matter and dark energy. Today’s astronomers believe they can only observe and describe some 5 percent of the universe. Who are we to boast?

In this light, Livio should be praising honest scientists willing to buck the consensus if they can make a better evidential case than what the establishment offers. The “deniers” might just be the pioneers of a “scientific revolution” which, rejecting hoary dogmas, can bring fresh understanding to the study of nature. ID advocates are trying to do that with the compelling evidence for design in genetics, molecular biology, and the fine-tuning of the universe. 

Jonathan Wells calls attempts to keep discarded icons of evolution alive “Zombie Science.” Michael Keas could call the warfare thesis “Zombie History.” The pursuit of truth should be, contrary to Nature’s perpetuation of the Galileo myth, the primary value for which all honest investigators strive.

Image: Galileo interrogated, by Cristiano Banti [Public domain].