END-OF-YEAR HOUSECLEANING PART 4: Bad History
Welcome to part four of my year-end housecleaning, in which I dump out all the stuff that I never got around to writing about this year. Part one dealt with my 2012 experiences with plagiarism. Part two, a Muslim apologist at Cracked.com. Part three – my tussle with NBC News. And now part four, which is a story that technically began in 2011, but I’m counting it as an unused 2012 story, because the crux of it is a series of emails that bled into this year.
As a historian (note that I do not use the antiquated an historian), nothing bugs me more than the misuse of history, especially to score political points. And that’s the subject of today’s end-of-the-year dump…a disturbing instance in which a historian twisted the truth in pursuit of a high-profile GOP target.
Remember during the Republican primaries, when Governor Rick Perry invoked Galileo during one of the debates? Here’s a link to a New York Times article to remind you: “Divining Perry’s Meaning on Galileo Remark.” But if you don’t want to read the whole thing, here’s the meat of it:
In one of the more curious moments in the Republican debate on Wednesday night, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas invoked 17th-century science in discussing his doubts about climate change. He cited the astronomer and mathematician Galileo Galilei — often called the father of modern science — in suggesting that the current thinking that climate change is a result of human activity could be overturned. “Galileo got outvoted for a spell,” he said.
Was Mr. Perry trying to depict Galileo as a maverick among scientific thinkers of his time? If so, the governor was wrong, says one historian who has studied the trial of Galileo.
“If Perry means to say that at some point some body of scientists said Galileo was wrong, that didn’t happen,” said the historian, Thomas F. Mayer, who teaches at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill. Galileo and Copernicus were long ago proved right, but even in Galileo’s day there were scientists who supported him, Dr. Mayer said. “His notions about science were not that far out there,” he said. “There were a lot of other scientists, especially in Rome, who more or less agreed with his scientific observations.”
Well, I might not be a historian of Galileo’s period, but I do know a thing or two about it. And Dr. Mayer’s comments seemed pretty wrong to me. So, we corresponded a bit. I’ll paste two of the emails below (a few of them were off-topic, so I won’t run everything, for brevity’s sake), and then I’ll comment on the exchange.
Dear Professor Mayer,
My name is David Stein. I’m a documentary filmmaker and part-time blogger in L.A. I have two brief questions for you regarding remarks you were quoted as making in a recent New York Times article.
1) Regarding Galileo, you were quoted as saying, “If (Rick) Perry means to say that at some point some body of scientists said Galileo was wrong, that didn’t happen.” Yet isn’t it true that, at the time he first began publishing his theories about heliocentrism, that was NOT the consensus view? Not that he had no supporters; he did. But isn’t it safe to say that the majority of his fellow scientists still believed in either geocentrism or Brahe’s hybrid theory?
2) Galileo might not have been condemned by a scientific “body” per se, but didn’t he arouse the disdain and ire of many then-respected academics (the geocentrists, and the Aristotelians in general)?
My thanks in advance for your kind assistance.
Dear Mr. Stein,
You’re right about 1. But I stand by the quotation.
You’re right about 2, too. But the matter was a much closer-run thing than most people think. The campaign for Copernicus was at least as carefully managed (despite Galileo’s penchant for grandstanding that often wrecked other people’s careful plans) as the conspiracy against. If Galileo had taken the best advice he was given, especially to stay away from the bible, the result might have been profoundly different. For what it’s worth, the closest any “scientific body” (vaguely anachronistic terms) came to pronouncing on Galileo came in 1611 when four Jesuit astronomers at the Collegio Romano replied to Cardinal Bellarmino mainly endorsing Galileo’s telescopic observations.
Okay, let’s break this down. Dr. Mayer states that he “stands by” his quotation, “If Perry means to say that at some point some body of scientists said Galileo was wrong, that didn’t happen….His notions about science were not that far out there. There were a lot of other scientists, especially in Rome, who more or less agreed with his scientific observations.”
But he also states that I am correct to say, “At the time he first began publishing his theories about heliocentrism, that was NOT the consensus view. Not that he had no supporters; he did. But isn’t it safe to say that the majority of his fellow scientists still believed in either geocentrism or Brahe’s hybrid theory?”
Dr. Mayer seems like a very nice guy, but I’m sorry – it’s just deceitful to tell The Times that no body of scientists said Galileo was wrong and “a lot” of other scientists agreed with him, while later ceding that not only were Galileo’s views not “consensus,” but they were a minority opinion.
It’s a misuse of the term “a lot.” Galileo’s views were not widely accepted by the scientific community at the time. That’s a fact. Did he have “a lot” of supporters? Not if measured against his detractors. I can easily claim to have “a lot” of blog followers, but not if measured against the traffic at Huffpost, Breitbart, FrontPageMag, etc. It’s all about context.
But notice what Dr. Mayer does in the second part of his answer. He places great emphasis on the fact that no “scientific body” condemned Galileo. But Perry never used that term – only Mayer did! Perry merely claimed that Galileo was “outvoted for a spell” by his peers. And, since Dr, Mayer admits that the anti-Galileans were the “majority,” then yeah – that’s getting “outvoted” (it was clear that Perry was speaking figuratively and not in the sense of an actual “vote”). Indeed, Perry’s “for a spell” line even accounts for the fact that Galileo’s views grew in acceptance as he got older. What Perry said was totally accurate.
The history of Galileo and his peers was distorted in a cheap-shot attempt to not only slam Perry, but to portray him as some hick conservative with no knowledge of that higher lernin’ stuff.
And Mayer wasn’t the only one doing it! Enter Josh Rosenau, editor of Scienceblogs.com. He slammed Perry’s “outvoted” statement as well:
His opening passage, like his comments on evolution, seem to forthrightly endorse the legitimacy of letting religious and political authority suppress (“outvote,” in his words) scientific results. By the time Galileo was publishing on heliocentrism, the idea was already circulating and widely accepted in scientific circles, including Jesuits. He wasn’t outvoted by scientists, he was outvoted by the political and religious leadership of his country. If that’s what Perry is endorsing, then it’s a deeply troubling sign. More likely, he’s just flaunting his ignorance.
Okay, first of all, look at what this jackass does. He actually claims that Perry’s statement that Galileo was “outvoted” means that Perry is “forthrightly endorsing the legitimacy of letting religious and political authority suppress scientific results.” In other words, because Perry DISAPPROVINGLY said that Galileo was “outvoted,” he’s somehow advocating allowing religious and political authorities to outvote scientific results.
You do realize that Rosenau’s conclusion is irrational, I hope? Because it you’re reading this, and you can’t see the irrationality, please stop reading and get yourself sterilized. Your genes are not needed in this world.
But there’s more. Rosenau’s OWN CIRCLE OF SCIENCE PALS called him out on his bad history. In a follow-up post, Rosenau confessed…
Yesterday’s post on Rick Perry’s Galileo gaffe has gotten a lot of attention, much supportive, but some critical. On twitter, historians of science Rebekah Higgit and Thony Christie have helped me sort out some of the threads…. Higgit responded first, writing: “Be careful here: Perry’s right. *Geocentrism* was the scientific consensus in 1610,” and linking to an excellent post by Thony Christie on why everyone didn’t become a Copernican in the 16th century. I noted that I hadn’t asserted a consensus, and asked if I’d overstepped by saying it was “widely accepted.” Christie said I had, because “Amongst scientists heliocentric supporters were a minority till 1650 at the very earliest.” Of course, something could have wide, but minority, support, but it was pointed out that “Between 1543 [when Copernicus published De revolutionibus] and 1600 [before Galileo and Kepler started publishing on these issues] there were 10 Copernicans in the world.” And “On astronomical issues Galileo did not enjoy the support of the majority of astronomers. His views were respected but not accepted.”
I’ll give credit to Rosenau for publishing the follow-up post, even if he does devote the majority of the text that follows his admission of error to attacking religion and religious organizations (like a child, after being force-fed his medicine, he thinks he deserves some candy as a reward).
Rosenau’s initial, factually inaccurate remarks were quoted by such publications as The Atlantic, Discover Magazine, National Journal, and (of course) The New York Times. Guess how many ran a retraction after Rosenau conceded his error? If you guessed anything other than zero, please stop reading this blog and go get yourself sterilized.
I never contacted Rosenau at the time of the Perry incident, but I did contact him in March of this year, after President Obama likened opponents of his “green energy” policies to the “flat earthers” of Columbus’ day. Unlike Perry’s non-gaffe, that was a real gaffe, as it’s a myth that Columbus was opposed by people who thought the world was flat. I was curious if Rosenau would go after Obama as he’d done with Perry:
A few days ago, President Obama compared “green energy” opponents to Christopher Columbus’ “flat earth” opponents. I’m curious why you didn’t write about that, as you did about Perry’s “gaffe.” After all, Columbus’ opponents were not flat-earthers. Indeed, among the educated classes, the flat earth theory had already long, long been abandoned. The debate between Columbus and his opponents was about the earth’s circumference, not whether it’s round or flat.
Indeed, an additional irony of the President’s analogy, in comparing himself (and other green energy proponents) to Columbus, and his opponents to Columbus’ critics, is that Columbus was actually wrong! He greatly underestimated the size of the earth, and he got pretty damn lucky to bump into some unexpected land.
So, I’m curious – are you planning to write about President Obama’s flawed analogy, as you wrote about Gov. Perry’s? Surely, the president has an even greater responsibility to not spread that kind of misinformation, no?
Thanks! I look forward to your reply.
You raise an interesting question. As I started thinking about how to reply, it struck me that the response would work well as a blog post, which I’ll try to put up this weekend.
Of course, he never wrote one damn word about it! And you know what? I was half expecting he might. So I better stop reading this and go get myself…well, you know the rest.