During last night’s Republican presidential debate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry defended his position as a climate change skeptic. When asked by Poiltico’s John Harris to name a scientist whose work on manmade global warming has informed his thinking, Perry said:
Well, I do agree that there is—the science is—is not settled on this. The idea that we would put Americans' economy at—at—at jeopardy based on scientific theory that's not settled yet, to me, is just—is nonsense. I mean, it—I mean—and I tell somebody, I said, just because you have a group of scientists that have stood up and said here is the fact, Galileo got outvoted for a spell.
Let’s leave aside the obvious problem, which is that in Galileo’s case, science was “outvoted for a spell” by religious authorities who believed that the Bible was the final wold on the natural order. (That calls to mind Perry’s stance on evolution, no?) I understand what he’s trying to say, which is that ideological zealots are ignoring scientific evidence in favor of their own worldview. I disagree with it, but that’s his argument.
Instead, I would like to propose a corollary to the Internet rule of Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies, which stipulates that the first person to cite Hitler in a Web debate automatically loses. Let’s call this new beast the Perry’s Rule: If you cite Galileo to support your claim of scientific persecution, you lose.
Galileo’s persecution by the Catholic Church for his astronomy research is such an extreme example as to shut down discussion. Who can argue with the fact that Galileo was absolutely right and the church was absolutely wrong? In Wired in 2000, Mike Godwin wrote, “It was the kind of thing that made you wonder how debates had ever occurred without having that handy rhetorical hammer.” That’s what’s going on here: Galileo is a “rhetorical hammer.”
Galileo has been cited by all sorts of people whose views are marginalized because the research against them is so compelling—9/11 truthers, anti-vaccine activists. Tthe blog Age of Autism gave the discredited Andrew Wakefield its 2008 “Galileo Award.” (My colleague Daniel Engber has written about this paranoia-infused science in America, and it's well worth the read.)
The Internet has made it possible for activists with fringe viewpoints to gather and share data. This can be a good thing. Science is ever-evolving and innovation can take us in strange, unexpected directions. But Galileo should not be the poster boy. It’s such a reflexive, obvious example that it suggests a lack of critical thinking. Better would be for Perry to cite, say, Barry Marshall, the Australian who proved that ulcers were caused not by stress but by bacteria. (Read a great interview with Barry Marshall on Slate.) Science is full of mavericks. Many of them are crazy. A few of them may be brilliant and ahead of their time. Let’s let Galileo lie.