In his book Galileo and the science deniers, which has recently had the wisdom to edit the Buridán Library in Spanish, explains the astrophysicist Mario Livio the usual argumentative fallacy known as “Galileo’s gambit”, which is frequently used by those who oppose facts overwhelmingly recognized by the scientific community about the basis of extra-scientific reasons (or unreasons). It serves so much for flat earthers as for the apostles of intelligent design who continue to resist the evidence of evolution, for deniers of climate change and, although they are not mentioned in the book, I imagine that because it was written earlier, for enemies of vaccines and deniers of the devastating pandemic that it has already killed more than four million people in the world.
The alibi is simple: just as Galileo was persecuted for opposing the dominant ideas of his time, they suffer persecution and are ominously silenced for dissenting from established ideas. Adding to the cocktail of dark conspiracies encouraged by global elites is naturally inevitable; In the absence of scientifically accredited facts, the conspiracy itself becomes proof of what, in any case, it was never intended to prove. The answer of the astrophysicist Mario Livio falls by its own weight: Galileo was not right because the Inquisition repressed him or because he opposed the dominant ideas of his time, but because the scientific evidence was on his side, because his position was the correct one given the knowledge of his time and the only one that made possible the advance in our understanding of the world.
There is no charlatan who is not tempted, when the inconsistency of his statements is exposed, to compare himself with Galileo or with Giordano Bruno or with Jesus Christ himself, according to the taste and affiliation of the would-be martyr. But it turns out that neither the majority support nor the mere fact of being a minority guarantee any affirmation of certainty. And not as long as the majority remove our reason, we will be misunderstood or victims of shady conspiracies; it is possible that, without further ado, we do not have it.
The bottom line of the dispute between Galileo and the Inquisition, however, lies in my judgment that only the former sought to expand human knowledge. There were no two scientific hypotheses that could later be classified as wrong or correct. The only scientific position was that of Galileo, and it would have remained so even if he had been wrong. Because the foundation of the inquisitors was a dogma taken from a book that was presumed inspired by God and the authority of an ancient philosopher, Aristotle, whom the Church had also reinterpreted to conform to its dogma (of an “Aristotle with tonsure” he spoke Russian publicist Herzen).
The Pisan sage was undoubtedly fully aware of the significance of this dispute. He proves it in his letters to Benedetto Castelli and Cristina de Lorena, but above all in his magnificent Dialogue of the two maximum systems, a book that should be required reading in all schools. And this tenacious struggle makes Galileo, not only the greatest of the founders of modern science, as Bertrand Russell put it, but one of the greatest defenders of freedom of thought and investigation in history.
The theological aspect of his argument, according to which it would be inconceivable that God had endowed man with the ability to seek knowledge and then lead him to erroneous conclusions, could be more or less forced by the suffocating censorship that he had to overcome. Contemplated today with the proper perspective, the objective becomes evident: the full freedom and autonomy of scientific research from any interference outside its own search paths. In other words: Galileo wanted to be allowed to work in peace. Science suffocates without freedom of investigation, and there is no freedom if there is a bible, religion, metaphysics, philosophical, political or any other kind of doctrine that values the acceptable results and conclusions of its exploration.
Because not only the Catholic Church has tried to mark the path of scientists from the outside, nor is the denial of scientific evidence exclusive to the extreme right, although now, to our horror, it has known how to take advantage of the cornering of reason with the obvious, and successful, purpose to thrive in the midst of the crisis.
For much of the 20th century, a stuffy version of Marxism popularized as diamat it justified that perfect incompetents dictated, perched on a supposed superior knowledge, which scientific theories were correct and which others were to be condemned as “bourgeois”. One of the most terrible and grotesque fruits of this way of approaching science was the “new” biology enlightened by the trickster Trofim Lysenko with which he aspired to challenge Darwinism and which, converted into an official scientific theory by the Soviet authorities in the past. The 1930s led to several catastrophic harvests and the purge of dozens of scientists until the 1960s.
It would not be fair to attribute such delusions to Marx and Engels themselves, both far more penetrated by the enlightened spirit than many of their epigones could ever understand. Nor has the new left completely detached itself from them. Not so many years ago, important left-wing leaders in this country encouraged the nonsense about the vaccines propagated by the Benedictine nun Teresa Forcades, at the time referring to those of influenza A but not very far from the propaganda against vaccines spread today on social networks by far-right fanatics.
Thus, the antiscientific irrationality is neither yesterday’s nor exclusive to a single ideological or political side. The chilling novelty lies, on the one hand, in the astonishing social support that it has achieved, ratified by the disturbing fact that it has occupied the government of such important countries as the United States or Brazil, and, on the other hand, that we no longer let us find ourselves facing only a cultural burden. The anti-vaccination movement, backed by influential groups and personalities, was not immune to the tragic increase in infections and deaths of children from measles already in 2019. In a pandemic of the current dimensions, its victims could number in the hundreds of thousands. And the denial of climate change could cost us the very survival of the species.
Naturally, the data that is handled may be erroneous or its interpretation may be. Science has made its history of a multitude of errors and proven successes over and over again. But, when the reliability of science as such is denied and credit is given to alleged unverifiable alternative facts, and when the right to be measured on equal terms with solidly contrasted scientific evidence is claimed for any nonsense, knowledge itself becomes impossible. The facts stop counting; only propaganda counts.
It does not matter whether the conspiracies are attributed to capitalism or to Reds infiltrating scientific institutions to strangle individual initiative. In reality, fables take more advantage of the powerful. From the perspective of social change, it is really foolish to think that, in a world in which the concentration of wealth reaches heights unprecedented since the beginning of the 20th century, elites hatch hidden conspiracies that put their own businesses at risk for the purposes of a uncertain social training. They have been recovering all the springs of power in broad daylight with hardly any resistance, perhaps because too many people are distracted by legends of subterranean terrors.
These days we have seen the most brutal face of irrationality in Afghanistan. It is urgent to recover the strength of reason and the spirit of the Enlightenment, the most promising and fertile adventure in our history. We need a citizen movement in defense of science in which those of us who are not scientists would have to commit ourselves. More than twenty years ago the physicists Sokal and Bricmont gave us a serious wake-up call in their delicious book Intellectual Impostures. Now we have less time, and instead our lives are about it.