Galileo and the Science Deniers
By Mario Livio Simon and Schuster, 304pp, £22.99/$22.50
The so-called champions of reason are the modern man’s saints and martyrs: individuals who benevolently unearthed scientific truths only to find that they had poked a hornets’ nest. Giordano Bruno and Galileo Galilei have become patterns of the type. For many, they are heroes of the Scientific Revolution who were unjustly rebuked by a draconian Catholic Church.
As usual, history provides a more nuanced account than this popular discourse. Bruno was not martyred for science as 19th-century intellectuals claimed. He was executed for his religious beliefs after denying Catholic teaching on the soul, Confession and penance.
Galileo’s case also falls a little short of the heroic myth. When the mathematician reiterated Copernicus’s theory that the earth moved around the sun, he challenged accepted interpretations of Holy Scripture. For this reason, in 1616 inquisitors challenged him to present convincing proof of the idea. When Galileo failed to do so, he was told that he could speak of Copernicus’s Heliocentrism as a hypothesis but not as a scientific truth.
The episode was hardly the Church’s finest hour. But equally, it was not a triumph of superstition over reason. Even when Galileo earnt the ire of the pope some 16 years later, it was not Heliocentrism alone that won him scorn. Galileo fell from favour when he mocked Urban VIII’s belief that the sun moved around the earth, lampooning the pope as the buffoon Simplicio in his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. Urban had lauded Galileo, honouring him with medals and an ode. In return, the pope had been publicly humiliated. In 1633, the Church banned the Dialogue. Galileo was sentenced to perpetual house arrest.
Although some details of Galileo’s biography deviate from his legend, he remains an icon of the battle between reason and wilful ignorance.
A celebrated astrophysicist himself, Mario Livio describes the achievements of his predecessor with a rare understanding. Tracing Galileo’s biography from his childhood through a life of perpetual experimentation, Livio paints the mathematician as a plucky agitator and true Renaissance man. Livio’s Galileo is the product of a world that was refreshingly alien to the notion of exclusive academic fields – a time in which Galileo could hypothesise “On the Shape, Location, and Size of Dante’s Inferno” and make pointed yet poetic literary critiques. Above all, Livio presents Galileo’s life as a cautionary tale for our age. In an era of fake news and climate change denial, Livio warns us to believe experts, lest we find ourselves on the wrong side of history.
There is logic to Livio’s argument. Modern science vindicated Galileo and the Catholic Church had to recognise that it had been wrong to doubt Heliocentrism. In 1835, Galileo’s Dialogue was omitted from the Index of Prohibited Books. And after ambivalent statements from earlier popes, Saint John Paul II praised Galileo’s brilliance and acknowledged the “error of theologians of the time”.
Yet broadly speaking, this celebration of Galileo as the founder of experimental science was not a significant change of tack. Yes, Catholic authorities have censored scientists. Nevertheless, the notion that the Catholic Church has undermined innovation as a matter of course is simply not borne out by history. From the foundation of medieval universities to the establishment of the Vatican Observatory, the Church has long supported scientific research. The conception of Catholicism as the natural enemy of reason is largely a construct of the 18th century when savants rejected religion and its secular supporters as the enemies of intellectual liberty.
It is even trickier to argue that the Church is a significant science denier in the present day. Livio would be hard-pressed to find a more fervent supporter of climate change science than our current Pope. Today, it cannot be argued that it is the Catholic Church that silences experts. This is the wont of authoritarian and populist politicians. Moreover, it is political ideology that motivates efforts to exclude experts from processes such as gender recognition. And it is political ideology that makes a controversy of the fact that human cells develop when sperm and egg fuse. Some climate change denial has religious justifications.
But its roots are principally found in the big corporations and conservative politics of America. Livio does cite the Creationist teachings of Biblical literalists, contrasting them with the statements of modern popes. But his account indicates that a great many science deniers now have purely secular motives.
This book is an absorbing retelling of the Galileo Affair with a salutary moral. Still, it could have greater potency if it addressed the significant contrast between the denial of science in the 17th century and our own time. Today, our most zealous censors are not concerned with truth, tradition and salvation. The science deniers of our time seek material and political gain.