Friday, April 19, 2013

Galileo and the Revisionists

Adam Gopnik is not a historian, but he understands something about science, and about history, that a plague of revisionist hacks with PhD's have all missed:
Contemporary historians of science have a tendency to deprecate the originality of the so-called scientific revolution, and to stress, instead, its continuities with medieval astrology and alchemy. And they have a point. It wasn’t that one day people were doing astrology in Europe and then there was this revolution and everyone started doing astronomy. Newton practiced alchemy; Galileo drew up horoscopes. But if you can’t tell the difference in tone and temperament between Galileo’s sound and that of what went before, then you can’t tell the difference between chalk and cheese. The difference is apparent if you compare what astrologers actually did and what the new astronomers were doing. The Arch-Conjuror of England, Glyn Parry’s entertaining new biography of Galileo’s contemporary the English magician and astrologer John Dee, shows that Dee was, in his own odd way, an honest man and a true intellectual. He races from Prague to Paris, holding conferences with other astrologers and publishing papers, consulting with allies and insulting rivals. He wasn’t a fraud. His life has all the look and sound of a fully respectable intellectual activity, rather like, one feels uneasily, the life of a string theorist today.

The look and the sound of science . . . but it does have a funny smell. Dee doesn’t once ask himself, “Is any of this real or is it all just bullshit?” If it works, sort of, and you draw up a chart that looks cool, it counts. Galileo never stopped asking himself that question, even when it wasn’t bullshit but sounded as though it might well be. That’s why he went wrong on the tides; the-moon-does-it-at-a-distance explanation sounds too much like the assertion of magic. The temperament is not all-seeing and curious; it is, instead, irritable and impatient with the usual stories. The new stories might be ugly, but they’re not crap. “It is true that the Copernican system creates disturbances in the Aristotelian universe,” Salviati admits in the Dialogue, “but we are dealing with our own real and actual universe.”
People have always been curious, and many self-proclaimed scientists have always been and still are mere repeaters of the conventional wisdom. There have always been people with insight, and people who can't see past what they were taught in school. Galileo and John Dee had much in common that neither one shares with anyone in our century.

Yet if you can't see that modern science is something genuinely new, something revolutionary, something that radically changed how we approach and understand the world, you are a moron. Obviously modern science did not appear overnight in Galileo's head, but something very important did happen in his time, of which he was a leader. Sometimes the world does change profoundly in a generation. The revisionists bent on knocking Galileo off his pedestal fail to touch him, and are only defenestrating themselves.

Gopnik also understands something about Galileo's trial that has been lost in some quarters:
Two new books by the historian Thomas F. Mayer take up exactly what happened to Galileo: The Trial of Galileo is specifically about the scientist’s persecution by the Inquisition, while his much longer The Roman Inquisition: A Papal Bureaucracy and Its Laws in the Age of Galileo delves into its social and intellectual context. Mayer deprecates the conventional account as, in the words of another scholar, “shrouded in myth and misunderstanding.” But, when you’ve read through his collected evidence, the myth seems pretty much right: Galileo wrote a book about the world saying that the earth goes around the sun, and the Church threatened to have him tortured or killed if he didn’t stop saying it, so he stopped saying it. Mayer believes that had Galileo been less pugnacious things would have worked out better for science; yet his argument is basically one of those “If you put it in context, threatening people with hideous torture in order to get them to shut up about their ideas was just one of the ways they did things then” efforts, much loved by contemporary historians.
Exactly. If the Pope can admit that Galileo was innocent and his persecution a crime, why can't tenured academics admit the same? Would they want to be treated as the church treated Galileo? You won't make any headway trying to convince me that this was only the custom of their time, because plenty of people at the time, in and out of the church, warned his persecutors that they were making a terrible mistake.

In our academic world, sophistication is all too often substituted for understanding. Even people who spend their careers studying Galileo, one of the greatest debunkers of nonsensical learning we have ever known, cannot see how far they have wandered from the simple truth. They have gotten lost in a maze of their own erudition, led astray by thirst for novelty. If only there were some simple way to shut them up, some experiment with balls dropped from a tower that would cut through their layers of contextuality. Sadly there is not, and their thousand footnote tomes will continued to be praised as path-breaking despite their weird flight from what is obviously so.


David said...

Wow--revisionist hacks with PhD's, thousand footnote tomes. You've become a Republican!

John said...

When it comes to scholarship and art, I am a thoroughgoing traditionalist. But when it comes to economics, and I red leveler.

David said...

I really meant my remark to be funny teasing, as a riff on Republican anti-intellectualism. But since you're being serious, why would you indulge in this Palin-like rhetorical claptrap about thousand footnote tomes? I rather like footnotes in principle, whether I agree or disagree with the author's argument. It's called evidence.

Next thing I know, you'll be slamming the reality-based community.

What is "and I red leveler"?

John said...

I do not understand how people can research and research something like Galileo's trial and end up arguing that nothing really happened. Like the people who say Charles I and the men who killed him were "not separated by great differences." Galileo was a genius who was persecuted for telling the truth. Is it so hard to say that? If you have done 20 twenty years of research and accumulated masses of evidence but have lost sight of the basic truth of the situation, what have you gained? Is all your insight into Italian church politics of any value if you use it to obscure the church's crime? Arguing that the traditional tale of Galileo's persecution is a fairy tale is just wrong, and it is a gross misuse of scholarship.

I like footnotes, too, but the real purpose of scholarship is to get things right, not to impress with your subtlety and learning.

John said...

I meant to say, "I am a red leveler."