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.

20 responses so far

20 thoughts on “Galileo Syndrome and the Principle of Exclusion”

  1. SARA says:

    Analogies are dangerous things. Inviting the inference that one is just like Galileo is an example.

    I love analogies and they often do help people understand something. In fact, most of my limited understanding of Quantam physics is through analogy. And because its based on those analogies, it is often quite flawed.

    Its odd that one of the easiest ways to learn something new is also a rather tricky stumbling block to critical thinking.

  2. Bernard Leikind says:

    “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 sun.”

    I think you meant for the last word of this sentence to be “earth.”

  3. Enzo says:

    @ Bernard: Heretic!

  4. davidsmith says:

    Like all such research that purports to show the impossible…

    Except that the results of Bem’s research are not theoretically impossible. There was an AAAS symposium on retro-causation in 2006 (procedings here ). The synopsis says:

    “Traditional causation posits that the past alone influences the present. In principle, however, the basic laws of physics permit the future an equal measure of influence: retrocausation.”

    Amongst some physicists, it seems that the time-symmetry of physical formalisms is taken seriously.

  5. cwfong says:

    It’s functionally impossible to reverse a sequence of causation. Reverse time’s apparent direction and you’ll watch it happen sequentially. Try at a quantum level to reverse what I just wrote and at the same time causatively rearrange the sequence. You can’t even do it in your imagination, except in sequence.

  6. ConspicuousCarl says:

    (I can’t find the script online, but in goes something like this…)

    WOODY ALLEN: [rambles about evil plot]
    HOSTAGE: You’re crazy!
    WOODY ALLEN: They said Einstein was crazy.
    HOSTAGE: Nobody said Einstein was crazy.
    WOODY ALLEN: They would have if he carried on like this.

  7. jre says:

    “Alas, to wear the mantle of Galileo it is not enough that you be persecuted by an unkind establishment, you must also be right.” — Robert L. Park

    (Park dropped this gem into an academic events bulletin at the University of Maryland as a casual remark, and the world has been quoting it ever since.)

    “The probability that you are a genius, given that you are persecuted, is the probability that you are persecuted, given that you are a genius, times the probability that you are a genius, divided by the probability that you are persecuted.” The Rev. Tommy Bayes

  8. NewRon says:

    If one accepts Kuhn’s position, Galileo using the conjectures of Copernicus was able to initiate a new scientific paradigm that was incommensurable with then existing worldviews. Unless one believes we live within the ultimate paradigm, there will be others. But one cannot rely on scientists working within the existing models to recognise it, indeed like 16th century ecclesiastics they will fight tooth and nail to preserve the scientific methods with which they feel comfortable. A reliance on scientific consensus may, perhaps, be the equivalent of relying on antiquated ecclesiastic consensus.

    In his 2006 study Daniel B O’Leary cautions against the progress trap that expands that which works on a small scale into the large scale (perhaps a version of the mereological fallacy). Science, or rather the technology emanating from it, created the conditions that, for instance, may have led to global climate change. We are now in the position of relying on scientific methodology to solve the problems it has created. There must be a better way forward. I wish I knew what it is!

  9. NewRon – not even Kuhn was a Kuhnian in that sense. That is a misconception, propagated by postmodernists. Paradigms are not mutually exclusive, and there is a range of magnitude of changes of scientific view, and further Kuhn acknowledged that even within his paradigm idea progress is possible and happens in science.

    So – while paradigms may change to a greater or lesser degree, one paradigm can be said to be objectively better than another and actually represent scientific progress.

    In other words- rather than viewing paradigm shifts and a lateral move to a separate but objectively equal view, scientific paradigm shifts represent a deepening of knowledge that does not invalidate earlier models but just gives them a deeper context.

    The classic example – Newton was not invalidated by Einstein, Einstein jut put Newton into a deeper relativity context.

  10. ConspicuousCarl says:


    You are using a false analogy by switching without comment between the “worldviews” popular for non- or weekly-scientific reasons in Galileo’s time, and the knowledge now established by proper sciences. You dilute your own understanding by labeling all of it as paradigms, as if mystical beliefs about the necessary perfection of geocentrism were somehow on par with the methods which established modern scientific knowledge.

  11. sonic says:

    Re: Newton–

    Newton founded classical mechanics on absolute space and absolute time.
    (Space and time exist separate from matter and motion).
    These ideas are very different from Einstein’s — when asked to summarize general relativity Einstein said–“Time and space and gravitation have no separate existence from matter.”
    So Newton was wrong about time and space if general relativity is correct.

    “In recent literature, Newton’s theses regarding the ontology of space and time have come to be called substantivalism in contrast to relationism. It should be emphasized, though, that Newton did not regard space and time as genuine substances (as are, paradigmatically, bodies and minds), but rather as real entities with their own manner of existence as necessitated by God’s existence (more specifically, his omnipresence and eternality).”

    Einstein didn’t put this into context– Einstein blew it out the water.

    I used to think of space and time as absolute in some way. This thought was crippling to my ability to understand relativity or quantum mechanics (physics).
    So while Newton left us a wonderful legacy for science and engineering– we must recognize the fail as well.
    And his basic ideas about space and time are crippling to any understanding of physics as it is understood today.
    So while his work is irreplaceable for a certain type of engineering problem (one that covers most engineering problems– I don’t want to minimize the usefulness)- the idea that it is ‘true’ cripples any chance of understanding physics as it is understood today.

    Further Newton’s optics included an ‘aethereal medium’ that transmitted vibrations faster than light.
    It is generally acknowledged that Einstein’s special theory of relativity took out the notion of the aether by generating the answers without reference to it. This is an example of where Occam’s Razor actually applies.

    I’m not trying to talk bad about Newton– he was a great thinker and scientist and his work was invaluable and continues to be.
    But let’s admit he was wrong about some very important things.
    Very wrong about very important things.

  12. ccbowers says:

    I think that Sonic has made some very good points here. I think I mostly agree with him. Hmm

  13. sonic – you are correct, I did not go into detail with my brief reference.

    To clarify – Newtons laws of motion are not invalidated. They can be seen as a special case, although one that applies in most everyday situations, to the more complete theory of relativity. You can still use Newtons laws of motion in situations where relativistic effects are not signfiicant and get the correct answer.

    But of course he was wrong in terms of the underlying concept of the universe and his cosmology. He thought we lived in a classical universe when in fact we live in a relativistic universe – or whatever will be the next step in our understanding.
    Not all types of “wrong” are the same, however. Sometimes wrong means incomplete or superfiicial, but still correct in some ways or as far as it goes.

    I think it is more accurate to say that Einstein built on Newton, he did not replace him wholesale with a separate and incompatible paradigm. As an example of this, Einstein knew that his relativity equations had to reduce to Newtons laws in the frame of reference in which we live.

    And I am not trying to defend Newton. He was brilliant, but wrong about many things. He thought alchemy was the missing piece to the grand synthesis of science with the mind of God. That was not productive research.

  14. SARA says:

    Does anyone wonder if we need the crazy Galileo wannabes? The scientists who wasted time researching alchemy?

    If no one ever does the nutty stuff, will we miss completely some subtly of the universe or biology or chemistry or whatever? Do their failures teach us as well?

    I agree that they make a great deal of distracting and often destructive noise in our current culture. Noise that skeptics spend a great deal of time trying to correct.

    But in the bigger picture, maybe they just need to be in order for some stuff to be figured out. Because while most of them are nuts, once in blue moon one of them is right and if we were able to squelch all of them, we would squelch our blue moon discovery as well.

    In fact, how many scientists don’t pursue an unpopular idea because it would be a bad career choice or at least open them up to ridicule. How many things don’t get learned because they didn’t pursue the idea?

    Its just a thought.

  15. dwayne says:

    Great post.

    I know I’m going to get this wrong or misattribute it, but I like it, so I’m going to, anyway. … Wasn’t it Sagan who said, “Geniuses are often eccentric, but being eccentric does not make you a genius?”

    And @SARA, I’d say we need people to pursue those ideas to the point where they can be confidently discarded, but no further. And I think we already have plenty of those people. Steven is focusing on the people who cling to ideas long past the point where it is constructive.

  16. BillyJoe7 says:

    Another way to look at the question about physicists being wrong is to look at the historical context.
    In his day, Newton was not wrong. He revealed more about the world than those who had come before him. Similarly Einstein is not wrong now because, in the future, his theories may be supplanted by a more overarching theory that, for example, links relativity and quantum physics.
    In other words, you can’t really be wrong if you have advanced scientific understanding.

  17. ccbowers says:

    I’m glad Steve clarified, because it is now clearer that he was talking more narrowly than his previous comments indicated.

    “In other words, you can’t really be wrong if you have advanced scientific understanding.”

    BJ7 – really? Better read that one again. Being wrong has nothing to do with whether you have furthered scientific understanding.

  18. ccbowers says:

    …although I agree that looking back in history, one has to put things in the proper context.

  19. sonic says:

    Warning Will Robinson Danger- danger– 🙂 (Lost in Space?? I think- where does this stuff come from?)

    Dr. N.-
    That is a good clarification. I would note that Feynman suggested starting with Newton in a lecture I read-

    What is cool is that I live in a universe in which I can feel still and have everything move around me.
    Of course everyone else is the center of the universe too.
    What an amazing place this is…

    can I kiss you? 🙂
    Perhaps we should be glad the internet has advanced that far… 🙂

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