Monday, September 12, 2011

On Continuing to get Galileo Wrong: NCSE's Josh Rosenau still can't get science history right

After botching his science history in a post about Texas Governor Rick Perry, and having several people, including Yours Truly, call him on the carpet for it, Josh Roseau of the National Center for Science Education's Department of Historical Revisionism now writes a post trying to explain himself which basically ends up as a sort of data dump of everything he was able to find out about the Galileo incident on short notice and under the gun.

In a passing remark on the issue of whether global warming is caused by humans, Rick Perry had said, "Just because you have a group of scientists that stood up and said, this is the fact ... Galileo got outvoted for a spell." Rosenau responded by charging Perry, on the basis of that one statement, with endorsing "the legitimacy of letting religious and political authority suppress ('outvote,' in his words) scientific results." Then, going from the not very sublime to the clearly ridiculous, he declared:
By the time Galileo was publishing on heliocentrism, the idea was already circulating and widely accepted in scientific circles, including Jesuits. He wasn't outvoted by scientists, he was outvoted by the political and religious leadership of his country. [Emphasis in original]
Rosenau was then beset by several of his own natural allies who pointed out that he screwed up.

Rosenau partly tries to hang his hat on Perry not knowing what he was talking about. Yeah, well, there's not much argument there. Perry's a politician without a very good education in science or history and was speaking out of the side of his mouth. Rosenau tried to blow it up into some significant gaffe. What's amusing about it is that Perry got more right by accident than Rosenau got right speaking intentionally from his NCSE high horse.

Rosenau quotes Thony Christie saying that Perry was "speaking through his arse..." So if Perry was "speaking through his arse" and getting it largely right and Rosenau is speaking out of the more conventional orifice and getting it wrong, then, in the contest of competing orifices, Rosenau' mouth isn't comparing too well.

After beginning his post with his obligatory personal insults which he keeps repeating, hoping, in doing so, that it will make them true, he says, "[I]t's worth teasing out some of the history." Well, I suppose that's better than running roughshod over it like he did in his first post. And "teasing out" the history of the Galileo affair, had he actually done it, would have been better than what he actually does do, which is to practically torture it to death.

His new post begins promisingly, with indications that he is now listening to other people who actually know what happened in the Galileo affair and admissions that he got key points of his post wrong. But then, all of a sudden, the points he got wrong are not keys points any more. "I don't think this alters any of the basic results," he says. No it doesn't alter any of the basic results: it blows them out of the water.

Heliocentrism, he says, "was already circulating and widely accepted in scientific circles, including Jesuits." When it was pointed out that this was not true, Rosenau then says, "When Galileo's heliocentrism was first taken up by church authorities in 1610, heliocentrism didn't have wide support, but I don't think I claimed it did." "Widely accepted" doesn't mean "wide support"?

Not, apparently, in Josh's world.

No historian who delves below the level of popular legend on the Galileo controversy thinks that heliocentrism (and Copernicanism in particular) was a proven theory of how reality really was at the time Galileo pressed the issue in the early 1600s. But there were many scholars inside and outside the official church who accepted the heliocentric theory as a more useful mathematical construct than the Ptolemaic system--as a better way, in Bellarmine's terms to "save the appearances." In fact, most scholars seemed to realize the insufficiency of the Ptolemaic system and supported either Copernican heliocentrism or, more commonly, Tycho Brahe's geoheliocentrism (in which the earth and moon are stationary and the other planets revolve around the sun) as constructs that made better sense of the data.

Rosenau then launches on his version of the history of the debate over heliocentirism, presumably to back up his point that Galileo was "outvoted by the political and religious leadership of his country." He says the period of the acceptance of heliocentrism was "extended by Galileo's persecution in the1610s." Persecution? In what way was Galileo "persecuted" in the 1610s--particularly by the "political and religious leadership of his country"?

After becoming the "Chief Mathematician and Philosopher" to the Medicis, he went to Rome, where he received a hero's welcome. Fredrico Cesi gave him a banquet; Pope Paul V give him a friendly audience; the Jesuit Roman College had ceremonies all day. This was largely the treatment Galileo received from the very politicians and religious leadership Rosenau thinks were persecuting him. And he received this kind of adulatory treatment repeatedly throughout his career by the fashionable politicians of  his time.

He was equally well treated by the religious leaders. After Barberini became Pope, Galileo's stock rose even higher. "He had six long audiences with Urban in the course of six weeks," says Arthur Koestler in his great history of science, The Sleepwalkers:
The Pope showered favors on him--a pension for Galileo's son, a precious painting, a gold and sliver medal. He also provided him with a glowing testimonial, addressed to the new Grand Duke, extolling the virtues and piety "of this great man, whose fame shines in the heavens, and goes on earth far and wide."
The Jesuits, who were perhaps the most astronomically sophisticated group of the time, were also great admirers--until, that is, Galileo began showing his posterior. After a Jesuit astronomer and several others had published their discovery of sunspots, Galileo publicly attacked them and claimed he had discovered them first, saying he had witnesses to prove it, but refused to name any.  Whenever he heard that anyone had disagreed with him in private conversations, he sent them surly letters demanding explanations, most notably the Letter to Cassini. In the the whole debate his frequent method was to level personal attacks at his opponents, questioning their integrity, calling them names, and confusing the issue (no wonder Rosenau likes this guy).

"You cannot help it, Signor Sarsi," he wrote to the Pope's Chamberlain, "that it was granted to me alone to discover all the new phenomena in the sky and nothing to anybody else. This is the truth which neither malice nor envy can suppress."

It was all about Galileo all the time.

Was it the fact that people challenged him? Is this the "persecution" Rosenau refers to? In 1614 Father Niccolo Lorini filed a complaint against him to the Consultor for the Holy Office, but it was dismissed. Then, in 1615, a rabble rousing priest came to Rome to accuse him, but the same Holy Office ruled these complaints fabrications. "For the next 18 years," says Koestler, "Galileo lived honoured and unmolested, befriended by Pope Urban VIII and an impressive array of cardinals."

What precisely is this "persecution" Galileo suffered during this period? And who were the politicians and religious leaders who perpetrated it? The only physical danger Galileo was in was eating too much at all the dinner parties his admirers were constantly throwing for him.

And then we come to the decree of 1616, where Rosenau becomes completely confused.

He writes that Galileo "chafed" at restrictions the Church placed on him, "and the 1616 ruling of a jury of theologians who declared heliocentrism 'foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture,'" he says, "further constrained him."


Rosenau is apparently unaware that the document he is quoting from is the "Consultant's Report on Copernicanism," which was issued by the Qualifiers (or theologians) of the Holy Office who met on Feb. 23, 1616, and which was quickly overruled by a higher panel of cardinals--and only became public some 17 years later. Galileo was never even aware of it until 1633, when it was referenced in his trial.

How can you be "chafed" at a document you never even knew the existence of?

The document which was made public at the time and which Galileo did see was the ruling by the General Congregation of the Index, issued on March 5, 1616. But there was no mention of "heresy" in the decree of March 5 nor was there any mention of Galileo in it. In fact, it was not even directed at Galileo. And Galileo didn't seem to be particularly "chafed" about it, writing to Picchena, on the following June 3, "I am not in the least concerned..." In fact, six days after the decree was issued, Galileo was enjoying, by his own account, a pleasant audience with the Pope that lasted for three quarters of an hour.

When a rumor began making the rounds that Galileo had somehow been personally indicted in the decree, Cardinal Bellarmine, two months later, issued a formal declaration in Galileo's defense, pointing out that "Galileo has not abjured in our hands, or in the hands of others here in Rome, or anywhere else that we know, any opinion or doctrine of his." Ironically, this is in the very documentation Rosenau links to in his post!

Rosenau then makes the strange claim that the Church was simply trying to impose theological restrictions on Galileo that science could never overcome. He quotes the part of Cardinal Bellarmine's letter in which he discusses the distinction between Copernicanism as way to "save the appearances" and as a way to see the reality of the world (something I said in my post, but which Rosenau dismissed as whiggishness), and concludes:
Again, this is not a question of being outvoted by scientists, but of holding scientific claims up to theological standards, and to absurd ones at that. Bellarmine never suggests a way to demonstrate heliocentrism, nor is it clear why the burden should be on Galileo to supply both the empirical findings and a theological justification for them.
This is utter nonsense based on a selective use of sources. What Rosenau doesn't quote is the rest of the letter, in which Bellarmine says:
Third, I say that, if there were a real proof that the Sun is in the center of the universe, that the Earth is in the third sphere, and that the Sun does not go round the Earth but the Earth round the Sun, then we should have to proceed with great circumspection in explaining passages of Scripture which appear to teach the contrary, and we should rather have to say that we did not understand them than declare an opinion to be false which is proved to be true. [Emphasis mine]
This is not "holding scientific claims up to theological standards," this is a clear statement that the Church would be forced to change its theological position if scientific evidence turned up that rendered the previous theological interpretations mistaken. Rosenau has completely misrepresented Bellarmine and the Church's position.

Rosenau then says "Galileo's books built on solid observational science to argue that not only was heliocentric math easier, it better described the shape of the solar system."

Solid observational evidence?

Galileo repeatedly attacked those who agreed with him that heliocentrism was a more economical way to interpret the data of heavenly movements but disagreed with him that it was proven. In fact he finally ended up alienating most the Jesuits who had formerly supported him. When he was challenged by Bellarmine and others to prove his case he simply obfuscated the issue with personal attacks and rhetorical demonstrations that did nothing to supply a proof. He eventually raised the stakes so high by continuing to push the issue that he was forced to offer something.

What "solid observational evidence" did Galileo finally produced to prove heliocentrism as a reality?

His theory of tides.

Galileo had repeatedly hinted that he had the decisive physical proof of the Copernican theory, and it was the idea that the tides could be explained by the combined motions of the earth that caused the water to move at a different speed from the land. Never mind that Kepler had already figured out that the movement of the tides resulted from lunar gravity several years earlier, Galileo dismissed Kepler's idea as a superstition--just like he dismissed Tycho Brahe's largely correct view of comets, calling them "optical illusions."

He also argued tried to establish heliocentrism on the basis of a spurious theory of sunspots.

Galileo produced no "solid observational evidence" for heliocentrism and to say so is to demonstrate an utter lack of knowledge of the facts of the case. The only thing "solid" about Galileo's evidence is that it was solidly wrong.

"Copernicanism was a slogan," says Koestler, "but not a defendable system of astronomy." As E. A. Burtt says in The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science:
It is safe to say that even had there been no religious scruples whatever against the Copernican astronomy, sensible men all over Europe, especially the most empirically minded, would have pronounced it a wild appeal to accept the premature fruits of an uncontrolled imagination, in preference to the solid inductions, built up gradually through the ages of men's confirmed sense experience ... Contemporary empiricists, had the lived in the 16th century, would have been the first to scoff out of court the new philosophy of the universe.
And then of course, there was the problem with the stellar parallax, a problem which Galileo just avoided: If the earth really orbited round the sun, then, given the beliefs at the time in regard to the distance of the stars, the stars should have appeared to move in relation to the earth. They didn't. It was only in the 19th century that this problem was resolved.

"The truth is," says Koestler, "after his sensational discoveries in 1610, Galileo neglected both observational research and astronomic theory in favour of his propaganda crusade. By the time he wrote the Dialogue he had lost touch with new developments in that field, and forgotten even what Copernicus had said."

Despite the fact that Galileo did not have proof of heliocentrism (nor did anyone else at the time), he tried to claim that the burden of proof was on those who disagreed with it. Go figure. It was a silly gambit that Bellarmine threw back in his face, resulting in the spurious tides theory.

Finally, at his trial, Galileo defended himself at his trial by simply lying. After writing his Dialogue on the Great World Systems (which Galileo wanted to call Dialogue on the Flux and Reflux of the Tides, highlighting what would later be shown to be his mistaken view of tides, but which the Pope convinced him, in an attempt to help him, to rename), in which he clearly argued for Copernicanism as an explanation of reality, he denied that that's what he had done.

"... I held," he said, "as I still hold, as most true and indisputable the opinion of Ptolemy, that is to say, the stability of the earth." He knew he was lying and the Inquisitors knew he was lying. But, as Church officials had continually done throughout the history of the dispute: they gave him a break. They could have easily convicted him of perjury and imprisoned him, but they didn't. "And as nothing further could be done in execution of the decree," said the Inquisitors, "his signature was obtained to his deposition and he was sent back."

Was the Church wrong in putting him on trial? Probably. But the Church attempted in numerous ways to avoid a confrontation and Galileo did everything in his power to provoke it. After tricking the Pope by breaking an agreement concerning the publication of his book and publicly embarrassing him, Urban (not one of the better popes mind you) finally had had it. But all they basically did was to embarrass Galileo. They shouldna oughta done it. But historically speaking, the motivation was at least understandable.

What is clear, however, is that the real story is nothing like it is portrayed in the popular accounts.

What happened to him? He was sentenced to ... reject the Copernican opinion (which he already claimed he had done), and say weekly for three years to come the seven penitential Psalms.

Oh, and then there's that little matter of "imprisonment," a term Rosenau uses to characterize what happened to him afterward although, and then in another part of the post, in typical Rosenauian fashion, he says he wasn't. In fact, he went to the Grand Duke's villa at Trinita del Monte where he was furnished with an apartment "covered in silk and most richly furnished." Then he returned to his farm and later to his house in Florence. Not exactly what you call "hard time."

And those penitential Psalms? He had his daughter say them for him.

1 comment:

Kristen said...

Which Galileo legacy which many of these creation where superb which we are using nowadays. In which his greatest invention the telescope now is powerful tool today.