Four hundred years ago this week, the Inquisition met in Rome to discuss Galileo’s support for the Copernican model of the cosmos, which placed the Sun at the center of the solar system. After five days of deliberation, a commission of inquisitors ruled that heliocentrism was “foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of the Holy Scripture.” Not a good moment for the Church. Two days later, Galileo was summoned to the Vatican and ordered “to abstain completely from teaching or defending this doctrine and opinion or from discussing it . . . to abandon it completely . . . and henceforth not to hold, teach, or defend it in any way whatever, either orally or in writing.”
Last summer, taking his lead from the Inquisition, Democratic senator Sheldon Whitehouse proposed that anti-racketeering laws be used to shut down the “climate denial network” and the work of scientists who have “consistently published papers downplaying the role of carbon emissions in climate change.”
Most people have a pretty casual acquaintance with the Galileo debate; it was not simply a fight between religion and science. Many clerics — who tended to be well educated — supported Galileo; likewise, many scientists were on the side of the Church. This was not because they believed science should be subordinated to the Bible; in fact, geocentrists had an extremely well-reasoned argument in defense of the Sun orbiting the Earth: If the Earth is orbiting the Sun, said the geocentrists, parallax should be observed in stars.
Parallax is the apparent shift in the relative position of objects when viewed from different vantage points. When you’re driving, and the telephone poles along the side of the road seem to move much faster than the mountains a mile away, that’s parallax. Some of the most remarkably astute and imaginative scientists in history reasoned that if the Earth were moving, the relative position of the stars would appear to change, with nearer stars being displaced more than more distant ones. Since no such parallax was evident, the Earth had to be stationary.
Their logic was flawless; unfortunately, their equipment wasn’t. Scientific instruments wouldn’t be refined enough to measure such minuscule relative movement until 200 years after Galileo’s death. But the geocentrists’ conception of stellar parallax remains a tremendous milestone in the development of mathematics and astronomy.
People tend to think that proponents of an Earth-centered solar system were nothing but intransigent religious fanatics. In fact, they included scientists of Galileo-level genius, like Ptolemy and Aristotle.
People tend to think that proponents of an Earth-centered solar system were nothing but intransigent religious fanatics. In fact, they included scientists of Galileo-level genius, like Ptolemy and Aristotle. When their theories were weakened and their opponents’ strengthened, they switched sides — and the “scientific consensus” changed. The intransigence belonged to the government, seated in the Vatican, which refused to accept new data because a deviation from the consensus-ante would have proved politically difficult.
There have, in the past, been strong arguments for anthropogenic climate change. Data showed industrialization-correlated warming, and computer models said that the warming would continue. But a lot of those data turned out to be wrong, or falsified, and — according to a study performed by former NASA scientist Dr. Roy Spencer — 95 percent of those climate models “failed miserably,” with the global climate proving too complex for computer simulation. The pro-anthropogenesis arguments were thrown into doubt, and new data showed a pause in global temperature change. So scientists started to change their minds.
But our government — or parts of it, like Senator Whitehouse — prefer the status quo. Global warming is (literally and metaphorically) cash in the bank for many of our men in Washington, and a lot of their supporters. They want the new heliocentrists excommunicated and in prison. But remember: The lesson of Galileo’s inquisition is that truth will out.