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Galileo Syndrome and the Principle of Exclusion

by Steven Novella, Mar 19 2012

The other night I was looking through a telescope at Jupiter and Venus with my daughters (they are next to each other and in good view – the planets, not my daughters). These are the very two planets that Galileo viewed with a telescope that ultimately led him to conclude that not everything in the universe revolves about the earth. Venus goes through phases, like the moon, and Galileo concluded that it must go around the Sun. Around Jupiter he discovered four moons that clearly were revolving about Jupiter. It was exciting to show my daughters the very thing that led to such a profound change in our view of the universe and our place in it.

This led to a discussion of Galileo. I believe I am one of the many scientists and skeptics who independently observed that cranks of various kinds have a tendency to compare themselves to the great Italian astronomer. Galileo Galilei was persecuted and his claims were dismissed out of hand, the logic goes, and so when the crank’s claims are likewise dismissed they feel that means they must be analogous to Galileo in other ways. There are multiple problems with the line of reasoning, however.

The definitive assessment of this comparison comes from the original version of the movie, Bedazzled (highly recommended). Dudley Moore’s character calls Satan a nutcase (for claiming to be Satan), and Satan replies, “They said the same of Jesus Christ, Freud and Galileo.” Moore then replies, “They said it of a lot of nutcases too.”

For every visionary scientist whose claims are initially rejected because they are so radical, only to be later confirmed and change our view of the universe, there are uncountable wannabes whose ideas are rejected because they are hopelessly flawed. Being rejected is not the best manner in which to be compared to Galileo, and in itself does not imply that one is a visionary or that one’s ideas are correct. Making the comparison, however, does imply a distorted self-view, and a certain lack of humility that if anything is predictive of being cranky rather than a visionary scientist.

In any case, there is an even greater flaw in the comparison. Galileo was persecuted by the church for making statements that were heretical because they went against the authority and dogma of the time. Galileo had been ordered by the Pope not to defend Copernican heliocentrism, because it was felt to contradict the scriptures. Galileo promised he would not, and then in 1632 published Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems – written as a dialogue in which one character defends heliocentrism, and another, named Simplicio, defends geocentrism. It was widely believed that Simplicio was speaking the words of Pope Urban, who took exception to being called a simpleton. There are other political complexities to the story, but at its core Galileo was tried and convicted of heresy and sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life.

Galileo’s persecution was at the hands of the church who based its beliefs on revelation and authority, not scientific investigation. There is therefore no meaningful analogy to be drawn to those whose ideas are criticized on scientific grounds. Before I discuss that further I will note that Galileo’s ideas were rejected by his fellow astronomers. Specifically it was believed that if the earth revolves about the sun then we should observe stellar parallax – a shifting in the relative position of stars caused by the changing position of the earth. Stellar parallax had not been observed, however. This is because the stars are a lot farther away than astronomers at the time imagined. There is stellar parallax, but it is a very small effect and even today can only be observed for the closest stars.

Scientific differences can be addressed by scientific evidence and arguments. Anyone hoping to change our view of reality must provide evidence to support the proposed change, and that evidence should be proportional to the evidence that is being overturned. Take the recent episode with the scientists who believed they clocked neutrinos travelling faster than light. This claim was put forward cautiously and was met with skepticism. The scientists involved and their colleagues then went to work making further observations and checking everything carefully. It now seems the original claim was in error, but still scientists will put this issue to bed with definitive observations.

Expanding on the notion that there is a big difference between rejecting a scientific claim because it violates current dogma, and meeting a claim with initial skepticism because it contradicts established science, we should also discuss the principle of exclusion. There are certain ideas in science that have been established to such a high degree that we can treat them as laws, in fact not to would be intellectually perverse. We always recognize that our knowledge is incomplete, but that does not add up to the notion that “anything is possible.” Certain things are impossible. Mark Crislip summarized the situation in a recent SBM post:

This iteration of the multiverse has what appear to be be rules that cannot be broken. There are real impossibilities. The circle cannot be squared. The Laws of Thermodynamics cannot be circumvented, and those who try to develop perpetual motion machines are bound to fail as it is impossible. The speed of light is as fast as one can go.

Thermodynamics is a good example. Many a crank has bashed their head endlessly against the laws of thermodynamics, all with the same predictable result. You cannot get energy from nothing. Scientists do not use the term “impossible” lightly, but there are certain things that are simply impossible.

Functionally “impossible” means that any claim to have performed the impossible will be assumed to be a mistake or error as the default rational position. This leaves open a crack the possibility of proving the impossible is real, but it will take an amount and quality of evidence that is on the same order of magnitude as all the evidence that tells us the thing is impossible in the first place. Only after surviving exhaustive attempts to demonstrate that the claim for the impossible is false have failed, and we are left with no other possibility, is it reasonable to entertain the idea that the impossible may be possible.

For some things that has never happened and probably never will. So far so one has violated the laws of thermodynamics, has broken the speed of light, or has violated the arrow of time. I have written about Daryl Bem’s research that claims to show the transfer of information into the past. Like all such research that purports to show the impossible, it is not faring well under close scrutiny and attempts at replication.

The chief problem, therefore, with the Galileo gambit is the failure to understand the difference between a well-established scientific law and religious dogma. Beware the person who claims they have fundamentally changed our understanding of the universe, but doesn’t seem to grasp this distinction, and further doesn’t understand the heavy burden of proof that rests upon their shoulders for claiming the impossible to be true.

30 Responses to “Galileo Syndrome and the Principle of Exclusion”

  1. Deen says:

    The definitive assessment of this comparison comes from the original version of the movie, Bedazzled.

    I think Carl Sagan said it even better:

    They laughed at Galileo. They laughed at Newton. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown. ~ Carl Sagan

  2. Trimegistus says:

    The “Galileo Syndrome” also plugs into the very prevalent narrative of victimhood and rebellion in modern society. For at least thirty years now rebellion against “authority” is defined as good (witness all the support for the incoherent Occupy movement, simply because they are holding demonstrations). Moreover, we are continually told that any difference in outcomes must be due to systematic oppression and wrongdoing. People have internalized this, so that a lone nut ranting against Einstein is perceived as a heroic rebel and a victim of the establishment.

    It’s amusing how Creationists have adopted and internalized the thinking of the Left in this case, which makes the sputtering indignation of the Left positively hilarious.

    • tmac57 says:

      I once saw a contortionist at Cirque du Soleil who couldn’t have done a better job of what you just did.

    • Max says:

      Both the Tea Party and the Occupy movement are supposedly anti-establishment.

    • Loren Petrich says:

      Trimegistus, what do *you* think that the Good Old Days were like? Do you have *direct* evidence for your contentions?

      Martin Gardner noted that about crackpots comparing themselves to Galileo back in 1950, which was over 60 years ago. Needless to say, his examples go even farther back. So when did that great corruption of society start?

      • Trimegistus says:

        I don’t have personal knowledge, but a number of writers (Isaac Asimov among them) suggested that World War I marked the shift. Authority so thoroughly discredited itself that the heroic rebel became the icon of the 20th Century. Note that the most oppressive totalitarian regimes of the last century all specifically called themselves revolutionary. By contrast, 19th century oppression (in Tsarist Russia or Habsburg Austria-Hungary) was explicitly conservative.

        World War I also marks a shift away from the gung-ho Victorian view of progress, though not as sharp or as strong. Still, in postwar writers like Thurber, Mencken, Chesterton — and of course fantasists like Tolkein and Lewis — there’s a strong distrust of scientists. Asimov claims the “Mad Scientist” became iconic around that time.

  3. Max says:

    “They laughed at Danny Shechtman” would be a more accurate analogy. Also at Semmelweis, Wegener, and other paradigm-shifting scientists.
    What I want to know is whether there’s a way to tell paradigm-shifting scientists from cranks. Can you tell just by the plausibility of their claims and results? Is there a difference between Hahnemann’s hunch about homeopathy and Jenner’s hunch about vaccinating against smallpox?

    Steve’s post on cranks and physics described how cranks have a different approach: Lack of formal education, little understanding of the mainstream science, failure to question their own results. But that applies more to laymen than to professionals like the psi researchers. I’m interested in what they’re doing wrong, not just what they’re getting wrong.

  4. BillG says:

    “Beware the person who claims they have fundamentally changed our understanding of the universe…”

    You have the obvious crank and then there are theoretical physicist(s) – plural, who are constantly challenging the status quo.
    Though fundamental laws are preserved, string theory, M-theory, many worlds, p-branes, are just some of the untestable that only look good on paper(back). “A beautiful theory” – whatever that means, doesn’t mean jack without true observations. Otherwise you have educated conjectures that one day may find a shelf in the massive library of crank ideas.

  5. Bill – you have to include the rest of that quote to put it into context, the whole burden of proof thing.

    Max – yeah, the same 3-4 guys are always trotted out when it comes to paradigm changing research. That’s my point – we have have a few examples on one side, and thousands, perhaps more, who all think they are in that very select group. Plus, in my opinion the farther back in time you have to go to get your example the less relevant it is, because the institution of science was different back then. Semmelweis, for example, was going up against authoritarian medicine before medicine was really science based.

    Regarding what they are doing wrong, please read the recent article I published for the JREF on the failure to replicate Bem’s (linked above) research, and listen to my interview with Wagenmakers. Essentially they exploit the researcher degrees of freedom in order to massage the data into false positive, and then accept barely significant results with high noise to signal ratio and make excuses for failure to replicate.

    Bottom line, in my opinion – they are trying to prove that Psi is real, rather than honestly trying to find out if it is real. There are examples of this throughout science, but in my opinion the entire field of psi falls prey to this kind of error. Those who don’t, like Susan Blackmore, eventually accept the negative results and get out.

    • Max says:

      Hmm, the paper on researcher degrees of freedom says, “Although the Bayesian approach has many virtues, it actually increases researcher degrees of freedom. First, it offers a new set of analyses (in addition to all frequentist ones) that authors could flexibly try out on their data. Second, Bayesian statistics require making additional judgments (e.g., the prior distribution) on a case-by-case basis, providing yet more researcher degrees of freedom.”

      I know that Ray Hyman criticized skeptics of psi research who didn’t know what they were talking about.

  6. Pete says:

    Here’s how you tell a crank from a paradigm shifter – the shifter will say “I think that I’ve found something interesting” – the Crank says “I’ve discovered something that will change the universe!”

  7. MadScientist says:

    I disagree about the “uncountable” bozos – in principle they are in the class of “finite, countable” objects. However, counting them would be a Sisyphean task – after all, there are several born every minute.

  8. Other Paul says:

    “When I said I was going to become a comedian, they all laughed. Well, they’re not laughing now.” — Bob Monkhouse

    The fact they aren’t laughing at you doesn’t make you right either.

  9. Deborah Mayo says:

    Affirming the consequent—invalid argument (e.g., all billionaires can afford a subway ticket, I can afford a subway ticket, therefore I am a billionaire.)

  10. Loren Petrich says:

    Many more recent crackpots have a variation of the Galileo Syndrome: they claim that their theories are “paradigm shifts”. That’s from Thomas Kuhn’s “Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, published back in 1962.

    However, paradigm shifts are not necessarily replacements. Several previously-successful paradigms have continued to live on as special cases of more recent ones, and several paradigms have been created where there had been nothing before.

    Newtonianism > relativity, quantum mechanics > relativistic quantum field theory

    molecular biology: nucleic-acid information handling, metabolic pathways, …

  11. Mario says:

    This article made me think of people like Dr. Kevorkian and people that defend gay rights, 50 years from now our grandsons will read in books that there was a time in which people were force to suffer a painful death(not like dogs, cats and serial killers/rapist whom were put down in a more “humane way”) if an incurable disease was diagnosed or that gay were not allowed to have the exact same rights regarding marriage and child bearing as heterosexuals and all based in religious nonsense and prejudice, but they would not be able to grasp with their minds how terrible was that, I know that cause no matter how many books or movies I watch about the Holocaust or slavery I can’t believe how terrible humans can behave with their fellows ones…but the real heroes are way to busy fighting right now, for these and others causes , to even try to compare with one of those great figures of human history.

  12. Guerilla surgeon says:

    Once worked with a panbiogeographer, who claimed persecution – papers not published, jobs not ‘available’ blah blah. Now they’re respectable, if not paradigm shifting?

  13. d brown says:

    Off the top of my head I can think of two very big things the experts were wrong about and the loners were right. But that’s not the way to bet. For what its worth I’ve read the church was going around to Galileo’s ideas before Galileo. The bloody calender riots were not that long before and they were feeling there way. Galileo’s main trouble was calling the pope a moron. And even then they supported him and let him keep thinking. Carefully.

  14. d brown says:

    One true fact should kill any beautiful theory. Those old dead Greeks knew that.

    • Max says:

      The fact that neutrinos were clocked traveling faster than light kills the theory of relativity or the assumption that the clock was accurate or some other assumption.

      • Ubi Dubium says:

        Yes, but when we look at the probability of relativity being wrong (small), versus the probability of a measurement error (large), we must lean heavily in favor of the measurement error being correct, until we have a large quantity of evidence pointing the other way.

      • Artor says:

        If it were proven to be a fact, then yes, it would. However, the most recent developments are that other labs have been unable to replicate the results, and suspicion has fallen on a particular loose cable that introduced a delay in the signal. Relativity still stands supreme.

  15. noen says:

    There are real impossibilities. The circle cannot be squared. The Laws of Thermodynamics cannot be circumvented

    This is poor reasoning. The whole article is extremely poorly thought out. (I am a skeptic btw, and read the blog and listen to the podcasts but rarely comment)

    There exists a formal proof the circle cannot be squared given the axioms of Euclidean geometry. There is no such proof for thermodynamics nor for ANY physical law nor could there ever be such a proof. The truths of geometry or algebra or other mathematics are analytic truths. Scientific truths do not exist. All that exist for science are facts and all facts a contingent. Mathematical or analytic truths are necessary.

    It is necessarily true in all possible worlds that 2 + 2 = 4 or that one cannot “square the circle”. There are no necessary truths of science, only contingent facts. We cannot deduce scientific facts from pure logic. Facts could be different in other possible worlds. The article confuses the analytic/synthetic distinction.

    The claim that some result is impossible is tantamount to making an analytic claim about scientific facts and is therefore false. Why? Because science cannot verify truths. It can only falsify claims. The belief that science can verify as true claims such a the speed of light or the 2nd Law and therefore rule their violation impossible is called Scientific Positivism or Scientism and has been refuted.

    None of which means that cranks are wrong to claim their oppression is just like that of Galileo’s. That is also an invalid inference. But it does mean that we cannot declare there exist immutable laws of science that are necessarily true and that therefor we can *know* their violation is impossible.

    We have no such knowledge.

    • noen says:

      “None of which means that cranks are wrong to claim their oppression is just like that of Galileo’s.”

      Replace “wrong” with “right”. I wish it was possible to edit one’s comments to remove errors.

    • Phea says:

      Uh… 2 raindrops + 2 raindrops do NOT equal 4 raindrops… in any world.

      • noen says:

        “2 raindrops + 2 raindrops do NOT equal 4 raindrops”

        You have performed an illegal operation. Addition is a well defined operation as is “equals”. Combining or mixing drops of water is not addition.

        The reason that people were so excited about the FTL neutrinos is because everyone knew that there exists a real possibility that the so-called immutable laws of relativity are not in fact immutable after all. It is conceivable some future experiment could overturn any past results. In that situation we would have to find a new description that would include FTL neutrinos along with all our previous beliefs.

        I think it is unfair and a bit of the same old tired atheist strawman view of religion to see the Galileo affair as motivated *purely* by orthodox dogma. People of the past were just like us for the most part and not the caricature that some would like to portray them to be. Galileo had *no* empirical evidence for his claims. Worse, his detractors could point to the lack of parallax to bolster their criticism.

        Galileo’s argument was purely aesthetic and he could not point to any facts to support his conclusions. What they did to him was reprehensible of course but there were no democratic states around nor even the idea of what that would be.