Mar 19 2012

Galileo Syndrome and the Principle of Exclusion

The other night I was looking through a telescope at Jupiter and Venus with my daughters (they are next to each other and in good view – the planets, not my daughters). These are the very two planets that Galileo viewed with a telescope that ultimately led him to conclude that not everything in the universe revolves about the earth. Venus goes through phases, like the moon, and Galileo concluded that it must go around the Sun. Around Jupiter he discovered four moons that clearly were revolving about Jupiter. It was exciting to show my daughters the very thing that led to such a profound change in our view of the universe and our place in it.

This led to a discussion of Galileo. I believe I am one of the many scientists and skeptics who independently observed that cranks of various kinds have a tendency to compare themselves to the great Italian astronomer. Galileo Galilei was persecuted and his claims were dismissed out of hand, the logic goes, and so when the crank’s claims are likewise dismissed they feel that means they must be analogous to Galileo in other ways. There are multiple problems with the line of reasoning, however.

The definitive assessment of this comparison comes from the original version of the movie, Bedazzled (highly recommended). Dudley Moore’s character calls Satan a nutcase (for claiming to be Satan), and Satan replies, “They said the same of Jesus Christ, Freud and Galileo.” Moore then replies, “They said it of a lot of nutcases too.”

For every visionary scientist whose claims are initially rejected because they are so radical, only to be later confirmed and change our view of the universe, there are uncountable wannabes whose ideas are rejected because they are hopelessly flawed. Being rejected is not the best manner in which to be compared to Galileo, and in itself does not imply that one is a visionary or that one’s ideas are correct. Making the comparison, however, does imply a distorted self-view, and a certain lack of humility that if anything is predictive of being cranky rather than a visionary scientist.

In any case, there is an even greater flaw in the comparison. Galileo was persecuted by the church for making statements that were heretical because they went against the authority and dogma of the time. Galileo had been ordered by the Pope not to defend Copernican heliocentrism, because it was felt to contradict the scriptures. Galileo promised he would not, and then in 1632 published Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems – written as a dialogue in which one character defends heliocentrism, and another, named Simplicio, defends geocentrism. It was widely believed that Simplicio was speaking the words of Pope Urban, who took exception to being called a simpleton. There are other political complexities to the story, but at its core Galileo was tried and convicted of heresy and sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life.

Galileo’s persecution was at the hands of the church who based its beliefs on revelation and authority, not scientific investigation. There is therefore no meaningful analogy to be drawn to those whose ideas are criticized on scientific grounds. Before I discuss that further I will note that Galileo’s ideas were rejected by his fellow astronomers. Specifically it was believed that if the earth revolves about the sun then we should observe stellar parallax – a shifting in the relative position of stars caused by the changing position of the earth. Stellar parallax had not been observed, however. This is because the stars are a lot farther away than astronomers at the time imagined. There is stellar parallax, but it is a very small effect and even today can only be observed for the closest stars.

Scientific differences can be addressed by scientific evidence and arguments. Anyone hoping to change our view of reality must provide evidence to support the proposed change, and that evidence should be proportional to the evidence that is being overturned. Take the recent episode with the scientists who believed they clocked neutrinos travelling faster than light. This claim was put forward cautiously and was met with skepticism. The scientists involved and their colleagues then went to work making further observations and checking everything carefully. It now seems the original claim was in error, but still scientists will put this issue to bed with definitive observations.

Expanding on the notion that there is a big difference between rejecting a scientific claim because it violates current dogma, and meeting a claim with initial skepticism because it contradicts established science, we should also discuss the principle of exclusion. There are certain ideas in science that have been established to such a high degree that we can treat them as laws, in fact not to would be intellectually perverse. We always recognize that our knowledge is incomplete, but that does not add up to the notion that “anything is possible.” Certain things are impossible. Mark Crislip summarized the situation in a recent SBM post:

This iteration of the multiverse has what appear to be be rules that cannot be broken. There are real impossibilities. The circle cannot be squared. The Laws of Thermodynamics cannot be circumvented, and those who try to develop perpetual motion machines are bound to fail as it is impossible. The speed of light is as fast as one can go.

Thermodynamics is a good example. Many a crank has bashed their head endlessly against the laws of thermodynamics, all with the same predictable result. You cannot get energy from nothing. Scientists do not use the term “impossible” lightly, but there are certain things that are simply impossible.

Functionally “impossible” means that any claim to have performed the impossible will be assumed to be a mistake or error as the default rational position. This leaves open a crack the possibility of proving the impossible is real, but it will take an amount and quality of evidence that is on the same order of magnitude as all the evidence that tells us the thing is impossible in the first place. Only after surviving exhaustive attempts to demonstrate that the claim for the impossible is false have failed, and we are left with no other possibility, is it reasonable to entertain the idea that the impossible may be possible.

For some things that has never happened and probably never will. So far so one has violated the laws of thermodynamics, has broken the speed of light, or has violated the arrow of time. I have written about Daryl Bem’s research that claims to show the transfer of information into the past. Like all such research that purports to show the impossible, it is not faring well under close scrutiny and attempts at replication.

The chief problem, therefore, with the Galileo gambit is the failure to understand the difference between a well-established scientific law and religious dogma. Beware the person who claims they have fundamentally changed our understanding of the universe, but doesn’t seem to grasp this distinction, and further doesn’t understand the heavy burden of proof that rests upon their shoulders for claiming the impossible to be true.

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