Galileo groupies.

The state of the universe.
Feb. 3 2006 12:14 PM

Galileo Groupies

The unlikely rock star of intelligent design.

Galileo Galilei. Click image to expand.
Galileo Galilei

In a column late last month in the Catholic Church's official newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, Italian biologist Fiorenzo Facchini scolded intelligent design advocates for "pretending to do science." It was the Vatican's signal that the church had jumped ship on ID. That will no doubt rankle creationists who hoped for a potential ally in Rome. But there's a bright side for them: The church's rejection could help the ID-ers identify with their favorite scientist, Galileo Galilei.

Yes, that Galileo. In opinion pieces, speeches, and interviews, ID advocates commonly cite the 17th-century Italian astronomer and physicist as a forebear. It's not his views on biology they want a piece of, but rather his plight as a man before his time. "In my opinion, we must train students in the 21st century to do exactly as Galileo did … think outside the box," says William Harris, one of the key players in Kansas' rebellion against evolution last year. In his 1996 book Darwin's Black Box, leading ID-er Michael Behe calls the idea of a heliocentric universe, proposed by Copernicus and backed by Galileo, a prescient "assault on the senses." So, too, Behe says, will his own work be vindicated. Last fall, an interviewer for the British newspaper the Guardian asked Behe if the criticism of ID he faces brings Galileo to mind. The self-appointed science rebel had a simple answer: "Yeah. In a way it's flattery."

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Welcome to creationism's absurdist history of science. During the inquisition, the Catholic Church put Galileo on trial in 1633 and forced him under threat of torture to recant his belief, presented unapologetically in the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems,that the earth revolved around the sun. Galileo's story has nuances—Pope Urban VIII tolerated his ideas more than hard-line cardinals—but it is unquestionably a tale of science squelched by organized religion. That is not exactly a problem today's ID backers face.

Creationist references to Galileo are almost always limited to his support for the heliocentric system. Perhaps that's because Galileo's larger legacy is a rebuke to the methodology of ID. From his astronomical discoveries using a telescope to his mathematical codification of laws of motion, Galileo was above all a determined empiricist—"first and foremost in advancing the new art of experimental science," as the historian of science I. Bernard Cohen has written. When Galileo doubted Aristotle's claim that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones, he famously rolled balls of different weights down inclines to prove the existing wisdom wrong. ID-ers, on the other hand, seem to consider actual experiments unnecessary. The Kansas creationists have scrapped the state's previous definition of science as a "human activity systematically seeking natural explanations." Testing hypotheses: how very 17th century.

Still, if you're trying to be a science, you need scientist heroes. Creationism used to consist mostly of biblical literalism. But since a 1987 U.S. Supreme Court decision found that the presence of Bible-based "creation science" in public schools violates the separation of church and state, creationists have gradually embraced intelligent design, with its scientific veneer of mathematical precision and handful of well-funded backers with academic titles. Galileo's willingness to tackle opponents feeds the scrappy-underdog self-image that the ID movement cultivates. Never mind October's Gallup poll showing that 53 percent of Americans believe that God created humans in their present form, while just 12 percent think we evolved without divine help: Creationists who complain they cannot get their work published cite Galileo as a fellow desert wanderer.

But here too they distort history. "Galileo was not considered reputable when he came out with his theory," said Kathy Cox, Georgia's schools superintendent, while backing creationism in 2004. In reality, Galileo was a prominent university professor in the 1590s, before he turned 30. It was precisely because of his scientific eminence that the church made an example of him. A full two decades before his trial, Galileo had discovered Jupiter's moons, observed mountains on our own moon, helped prove the heliocentric thesis with his observations of Venus, formulated what we now call the first law of motion, and defined uniform acceleration. He wasn't a rogue scientist to his many admiring colleagues—only to the inquisition.

But those are mere facts. For creationists, it's the Galileo legend that matters. Now that Rome has also rejected ID, albeit for wholly different reasons, expect more tailored-to-fit comparisons. What would Galileo say about all this? Perhaps what he wrote in the Dialogue: "The deeper I go in considering the vanities of popular reasoning, the lighter and more foolish I find them."

Peter Dizikes is a journalist living in Boston. He often writes about science and technology.

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