William Dembski on Galileo

02 April 2007

William Dembski recently posted the following quote from Koestler on his website, in an attempt to rewrite history and paint the persecution of Galileo as really being just a quarrel with an entrenched and opressive scientific establishment:

“Galileo’s conflict with the church could have probably been avoided if he had been endowed with less passion and more diplomacy; but long before that conflict, he had incurred the implacable hostility of the orthodox Aristotelians who held key positions at the Italian universities. Religion and political oppression play only an incidental part in the history of science; its erratic course and recurrent crises are caused by internal factors. One of the conspicuous handicaps is the conservatism of the scientific mind in its corporate aspect. The collective matrix of a science at a given time is determined by a kind of establishment, which includes universities, learned societies, and, more recently, the editorial offices of technical journals. Like other establishments, they are consciously or unconsciously bent on preserving the status quo — partly because unorthodox innovations are a threat to their authority, but also because of a deeper fear that that their laboriously erected intellectual edifice might collapse under the impact. Corporate orthodoxy has been the curse of genius from Aristarchus to Galileo, to Harvey, Darwin and Freud; throughout the centuries its phalanxes have sturdily defended habit against originality.” (Koestler, The Act of Creation, 1969, p. 239)
What Dembski and Koestler fail to mention is that Galileo was brought before the Inquisition by then-pope Urban VIII and threatened with torture unless he retracted all his previous statements regarding heliocentrism. Galileo knew that they meant business, since they had recently burned Giordano Bruno alive for exactly the same crime, and complied. He was placed under house arrest for the rest of his life and his ideas were declared by the church itself to be "contrary to the sacred Scriptures," "opposed to the true faith," and "false and absurd in theology and philosophy." To suggest that this was merely a quibble with a bunch of huffy scientists protecting their reputations, and that religion and political oppression played only a minor role, is way off the mark.

That being said, of course there is a degree of inertia in the scientific community. But that's what makes it so effective. Once an idea has been well supported, there will be some reluctance to replace it with another. Not just any new idea will do. You have to demonstrate that the new idea is worthwhile or better than the old one. This isn't a sign of close-mindedness, but rather a rigorous standard of proof. Scientific communities are extraordinarily open-minded to those who can back up their claims. Galileo was eventually accepted because he could demonstrate his correctness. Einstein was accepted, despite his really weird ideas, because he could back them up. Quantum theory, a supremely weird one, was also accepted because it had evidence on its side. It's no secret what point Dembski was trying to get across with this (in addition to downplaying the church's resistance to Galileo), but the conservatism of scientific communities is certainly open to those who actually have something worthwhile to say.

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