Ever since the Republican presidential debate last week, science watchers have been shaking their heads over Rick Perry’s ridiculous invocation of Galileo Galilei to defend his denialist position on climate change.
“Galileo got outvoted for a spell,” Perry said–presumably meaning to suggest that climate “skeptics,” too, will have their day in the sun (the sun that, thanks to Galileo, we know lies at the center of the solar system).
Not only is this junk history on Perry’s part. A more accurate analogy would liken today’s climate researchers to Galileo—delivering an inconvenient truth that some right wing ideologues (then and now) just can’t handle—and Perry to the Inquisition.
Let’s face it: In the context of his times, Galileo was a liberal. He was a fearless explorer of new knowledge, as well as a puckish challenger of assumed wisdom. He famously argued that science and religion don’t have to be in conflict—so long as religionists don’t insist on reading Scripture literally (as so many of Perry’s anti-evolutionist supporters today do).
So to find a conservative Texas governor, backed by the religious right, invoking this canonical questioner of authority is really precious.
But forget historical accuracy for a moment. Climate “skeptics” have long been invoking Galileo as their mascot, and the interesting question is why.
At least as popularly remembered (what actually happened is far more complex), the Galileo story is about the ideological suppression of a lone scientist who has discovered a deep truth.
So if you find yourself in a scientific controversy, on either side–and you have enough hubris–Galileo may be an appealing reference point for you. After all, you feel that you have the truth, and the other side is ignoring or quashing your point of view.
And suddenly—tah dah—you’re Galileo.
The misuse and abuse of Galileo’s story, in other words, is a case study in how people reason about history—just as they do with science–in a biased, motivated way, seeking to cast themselves as the good guys, the victors, and their foes as the opposite.
And once you see things in this way, you realize there’s a very close analogy in our politics to the Perry-Galileo flap. Climate “skeptics” invoking Galileo is really quite a lot like right wingers calling themselves the “Tea Party.”
The great architects of the United States—Jefferson, Franklin, Madison—were men of reason and the Enlightenment, just as Galileo was a man of the Scientific Revolution. They were freethinkers and, in Jefferson’s and Franklin’s case, scientists and inventors. And they didn’t want religion shoved down anybody’s throat.
And yet we now find a movement in America that wants more religion in politics, and that rejects science on climate change and evolution alike, trying to claim the mantle of the country’s founding.
Rick Perry’s invocation of Galileo, then, is much more than merely ridiculous. It gives us quite the window on the right wing mind, and demonstrates just how much it has managed to turn reality upside-down.
Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength…and Galileo and Rick Perry ride off together into the Texas sunset.