LOOKING THROUGH GALILEO’S LENS OR THROUGH THE IMAGINARY LOOKING GLASS
It is paradoxical that in populations supportive of science and democracy scientific issues have become politicized to the degree that objective evidence is ignored to rejected in favor of “alternative” opinions.
Jeanne Goldberg, MD,
Retired Radiologist and Science Writer, Former Chair, Florida Division of the American Cancer Society Breast Cancer Task Force.
“My dear Kepler, what would you say of the learned here, who, replete with the pertinacity of the asp, have steadfastly refused to case a glance through the telescope? What shall we make of this? Shall we laugh, or shall we cry?”
These words of Galileo, written in a letter to his friend Johannes Kepler, expressed his frustration related to the fact that evidence clearly supportive of heliocentrism was not respected and was in fact rejected as being heretical, in direct opposition of biblical scripture. Galileo was hopeful that if people who believed in the ancient theory of geocentrism would, to paraphrase him, “just look through the lens” of his telescope, they would see evidence to support the theory of heliocentrism (in which the Earth and its planets revolve around the Sun), first contemplated in Hellenistic times and then later supported by Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus’s work On the Revolutions of the Celestial Orbs, published in 1543.
Aristotle’s work in physics and astronomy was largely respected among astronomers at the time Copernicus’s book was published, and they had difficulty accepting Copernicus’s work. In addition, biblical views were prevalent among the population. Galileo was well aware of this fact but stated that “the Bible is written in the language of the common person who is not an expert in astronomy.” He argued that “Scripture teaches us how to go to heaven, now how the heavens go” (Van Helden 1995). His discoveries, published in 1632 in Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, and those of Kepler further supported the scientific foundation of Copernicus’s work, ensuring that most serious astronomers subsequently were Copernicans.
Galileo’s book, however, was incendiary by espousing a world view that contradicted one long accepted. There are striking similarities of Galileo’s world with ours today in the twenty-first century. Since his time, however, scientific research has furthered our understanding of the world and led to advances that have transformed the lives of billions of global citizens.
Why, then, have partisan politics permeated the discussions and decisions related to science-based issues such as climate change, evolution, vaccination, GMO technology, stem cell research, and other topics not only here in the United States but globally? Is a lack of understanding, disinterest, or ignorance of scientific facts to blame? Is scientific literacy and research not prioritized in our nation? What threats to people’s lives are posed by accepting – or at least considering – scientific evidence? If citizens would “just look through” (Galileo’s) telescope rather than the proverbial looking glass, would they understand the importance of science for themselves and be more accepting of the findings of scientific experts?
It is illuminating to step back in history again and consider the important role that philosophy played in the ancient world. Philosophy, the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, is regarded as a distinct academic subject today. Philosophy in the ancient world, however, represented the discipline of studying the natural world in a rational way, as a variety of scientific disciplines do today. Science and philosophy, considered to be such distinctly different disciplines today, were in effect one branch of knowledge in the ancient world.
Anti-Science views have been amplified by the political wave of populism that is sweeping not only America but also Europe.
A respect for science continued into the Revolutionary Era as the American Founding Fathers demonstrated their support of science and reason. Although Christianity was an important cultural feature of U.S. history, they embraced the secular values of Christianity in preference to its dogma. There is a plethora of quotations to support this fact. In Poor Richard’s Almanack, Benjamin Franklin stated that “The way to see by faith is to shut the eye of reason.” Thomas Paine wrote, “To argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason, and whose philosophy consists in holding humanity in contempt, is like administering medicine to the dead” (Paine 1778). (Interestingly, George Washington, John Adams, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson were citizen scientists who found, to quote Thomas Jefferson, “supreme delight” in pursuing scientific topics by conducting their own experiments.)
As science became more complex and differentiated, the common man began to feel dependent upon “experts”, many of whom were located in coastal eastern urban areas. Individuals’ treasured feelings of self-sufficiency and independence were compromised, leading to resentment. Americans respected intelligence but not intellectuals, and they complained that the value of an idea was governed by its utility – it had no value in itself. This belief pervaded the business world as well, creating Americans’ strong admiration for a self-made man, one whose path led to economic and social success without much education, often in spite of it.
Anti-science views have been amplified by the political wave populism that is sweeping not only America but also Europe. Key elements of populism are anti-elitism and nativism, which can translate into anti-immigrant views (Toker 2016). The role of globalization in the creation of not only economic but also knowledge inequality has amplified these feelings of resentment.
Unfortunately, the public’s respect for scientific developments can be modulated by fear. Progressive Democrats have traditionally been strong supporters of scientific research and have endorsed the validity of evolution and climate change; nevertheless, some regard GM foods, vaccination, fluoridation of drinking water, and a variety of chemicals as threatening developments. Even many scientifically literate progressive are skeptical about the safety of GM foods and are concerned that the food industry’s vested interests may outweigh safety issues. Conservative Republicans, on the other hand, may or may not personally approve of GM foods, and business interests could override their safety concerns (Funk and Kennedy 2016).
The issue of vaccination is complex, involving strange bedfellows. This debate arose in recent times as a result of a Lancet medical journal article that contained fraudulent information indicating that autism could result from vaccination (General Medical Council 2010). Some progressive Democrats, usually supportive of regulations that they see as contributing to public welfare, object to vaccination on the (faulty) grounds that it may result in autism. Some conservatives, mainly Republicans, object to it because they feel that their personal freedom is threatened by school requirements for vaccination.
Another issue with strange bedfellows is food supplements.
In conclusion, there is no doubt that a threat to our democracy exists when there is scientific illiteracy, complacency, or extreme polarization regarding scientific issues among the general public. This is fertile ground for powerful vested interests to use baseless “information” (i.e., “fake news”) to lobby for their positions on issues that threaten or support their views. This constitutes a form of authoritarianism that can be used to impede scientific progress and, in the long run, cause a government to fail. We have only to look at examples where that has occurred (e.g., China during the Cultural Revolution, Nazi Germany, and the Ottoman and Roman Empires) to see the catastrophic results. We must “look through Galileo’s lens” rather than through an imaginary looking glass and respect the power of science to preserve our democracy in the Unites States and globally.
Courtesy: Skeptical Inquirer, Vol.41, No.5