The Lonely Grave of Galileo Galilei

Galileo would be turning in his grave. His achievement was to set science on the course which has made it into an astonishingly successful means of generating knowledge. Yet some people not only reject the truths of the science that Galileo did so much to advance; they do it in his name.

Intro: In Denial?

Scientific truth is increasingly disbelieved, and this is a new phenomenon, so much so that new words have been invented to describe it. Leah Ceccarelli defines manufacturoversy as a public controversy over some question (usually scientific) which is not considered by experts on the topic to be in dispute; the controversy is not a legitimate scientific debate but a PR tool created by commercial or ideological interests.

Probably the best example is the attempts by tobacco companies to cast doubt on the association between tobacco smoking and cancer. The techniques involved are now well known. The number of smokers who didn't quit smoking because there was "doubt" over the link with cancer is less clear. More recently, there have been energy industry-sponsored attempts to do the same to the science on anthropogenic global warming. Other cases often cited are the MMR-autism link, Intelligent Design, and HIV/AIDS denial, although the agendas behind these "controversies" are less about money and more about politics and cultural warfare.

Many manufacturoversies are also examples of denialism, which Wikipedia defines as

the position of governments, political parties, business groups, interest groups, or individuals who reject propositions on which a scientific or scholarly consensus exists
although the two terms are not synonymous; one could be a denialist without having any ulterior motives, while conversely, one could manufacture a controversy which did not involve denying anything (e.g. the media-manufactured MMR-causes-autism theory, while completely wrong, didn't contradict any established science, it was just an assertion with no evidence and plenty of reasons to think it was wrong.) Denialism is very often accompanied by invokations of Galileo (or occasionally other "rebel scientists"), in an attempt to rhetorically paint the theory under attack as no more than an established dogma.

Just a caveat: in the wrong hands, the concepts of manufacturoversy and denialism could become a means of rubbishing legitimate dissent. The slogan of the denialism blog is "Don't mistake denialism for debate", but the line is sometimes very fine(*). For example, I'm critical of the idea that psychiatric medications and electroconvulsive therapy are of little or no benefit to patients. If one wanted to, it would be possible to make a coherent-sounding case as to why this debate was a manufacturoversy on the part of the psychotherapy industry to undermine confidence in a competing form of treatment which is overwhelmingly supported by the scientific evidence. This would be wrong (mostly).

A History of Error

Anyway. What's interesting is that the idea of inappropriate or manufactured doubt about scientific or historical claims is a very new phenomenon. Indeed, it's very hard to think of any examples before 1950, with the possible exception of the first wave of Creationism in the 1920s. Leah Ceccarelli points out that many of the rhetorical tricks used go back to the Greek Sophists but until recently the concept of denialism would have been almost meaningless, for the simple reason that this requires a truth to be inappropriately called into question and before about the 19th century, to a first approximation, we didn't have access to any such truths.

It's easy to forget just how ignorant we were until recently. The average schoolkid today has a more accurate picture of the universe than the greatest genius of 500 years ago, or of 300 years ago, and even of 100 years ago (assuming that the schoolkid knows about the Big Bang, plate tectonics, and DNA - all 20th century discoveries).

To exaggerate, but not very much: until the last couple of centuries of human history, no-one correctly believed in anything, and people had many beliefs that were actively wrong - they believed in ghosts, and witches, and Hiranyagarbha, and Penglai. People erred by believing. Those who disbelieved were likely to be right.

Things have changed. There is more knowledge now; today, when people err, it is increasingly because they reject the truth. No-one in the West now believes in witches, but hundreds of millions of us don't believe that the visible universe originated in a singularity about 13.5 billion years ago, although this is arguably a much bigger mistake to make. In other words, whereas in the past the main problem was belief in false ideas ("dogma"); increasingly the problem is doubting true ones ("denialism").

Myths & Legends of Science

The problem is that the way most people think about science hasn't caught up with the pace of scientific change. In just a couple of hundred years, science has gone from being an assortment of separate, largely bad notions, to being a vast construct of interlinking and mutually supporting theories, the foundations of which are supported by mountains of evidence. Yet all of our most popular myths about science are Robin Hood stories - the hero is the underdog, the rebel, the Maverick who stands up to authority, battles the entrenched beliefs of the Establishment, and challenges dogma. In other words, the hero is a denialist - albeit one who turns out to be right.

Once, this was realistic. Galileo was an Aristotelean cosmology denier; Pasteur was a miasma theory denier; Einstein was a Newtonian physics denier. (In fact, the historical facts are a bit more complicated, as they often are, but this is true enough.) But these stories are out of date. Thanks to the great deniers of the past, there are few, if any, inappropriate dogmas in mainstream science. There, I said it. Thanks to the efforts of scientists past and present, science has become a professional activity with, generally, a very good success rate.

The HIV/AIDS hypothesis and anti-retroviral drugs were developed by orthodox career scientists with proper qualifications working within the mainstream of biology and medicine. They probably wore boring, conventional white coats. There were no exciting paradigm shifts in HIV science. There was no Galileo of HIV; there was Robert Gallo. Yet orthodox science has been successful in delivering treatments for HIV and understanding of the disease (anti-retrovirals are not perfect, but they're a hell of a lot better than untreated AIDS, and just 20 years ago that was what all patients faced.) The skeptics, the rebels, the Robin Hoods of HIV/AIDS - they have been a disaster. If global warming deniers succeed, the consequences will be much worse.

Of coure, we do still need intelligent rebels. It would be a foolhardy person(**) who predicted that there will never be another paradigm shifts in science; neuroscience, at least, is due at least one more and there are parts of the remoter provinces of science, such as behavioural genetics, which are in serious need of a critical eye. But the vast majority of modern science, unlike the science of the past, is actually quite good. Hence, rebels are most likely wrong. To make a foolhardy prediction: there will never be another Galileo in the sense of a single figure who denies the scientific consensus and turns out to be right. There can only be a finite number of Galileos in history - once one succeeds in reforming some field, there is no need for another - and we may well have run out. My previous post on this topic included the bold claim that
if most scientists believe something you probably should believe it, just because scientists say so.
Yet this wasn't always true. To pluck a nice round number out of the air, I'd say that science has only been this trustworthy for 50 years. Most of our myths and ideas about science date from before that era. Science has moved on since the time of Galileo, thanks to his efforts and those of they who came after him, but he is still invoked as a hero by those who deny scientific truth. He would be turning in his grave, in the earth which, as we now know, turns around the sun.

(*) and of course as we know, "it's such a fine line between stupid and clever".
(**) As foolhardy as Francis Fukuyama who in 1989 proclaimed that history had ended and that the world was past the era of ideological struggles.


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