The Galileo Gambit
I’ve been thinking about a common argument made by the woo brigade and their supporters, usually referred to as the Galileo Gambit. It’s the one that goes something like ‘they laughed at Galileo/ Newton/Copernicus/Einstein too. You are just too short sighted to see how my/his/her genius will change the world’. There’s also the variant that goes ‘if people like Galileo/Edison/The Wright Brothers didn’t think outside of the box, we’d have no new technology or discoveries, so cut me/him/her some slack because they’re just thinking outside the box’ – this last paraphrased from a recent comment on this blog, which is what got me thinking.
These are of course all fallacious arguments, for a number of reasons that others have put forward very eloquently. Just because someone once upon a time was laughed at and was right all along, doesn’t mean you are. Just because someone went out on a limb once and discovered something amazing, doesn’t mean that by going out on a limb you are guaranteed to do the same. For every one person who is laughed at by the establishment and is right, there are thousands who are laughed at and are wrong. The logical failings of the gambit are obvious, but sometimes I find that the refutation does not give adequate weight to the sheer historical absurdity of the arguments put across. Somewhere in our collective mythology, we’ve created these stories about great inventors, pariahs of their day, spurned by their colleagues for challenging orthodox ideas, but eventually vindicated by the annals of history. Yet often the truth is far more prosaic: a lifetime of painstaking research, supported on the work of those who went before, constant communication with colleagues in the field, and finally a published result that is met with initial skepticism, followed by general acceptance, and potentially unending opposition by an unnecessarily vocal minority, who get all the attention in the history books.
For one thing, many of the great inventions and discoveries have been convergent – in other words, the scientific understanding was ripe for someone to make that critical leap, and in some cases more than one person did just that. Darwin and Wallace hit upon the idea of gradual evolution of species at the same time, but Darwin published first. The doubt over who invented calculus first, Newton or Leibniz, has lead to entire countries adopting either one notation or the other. By the time the Wright Brothers finally launched their first plane, they were only one team in a global race to be the first to solve the final puzzles of manned flight. By that point, people had been gliding, ballooning and propelling for years, with only a few technical issues to iron out before it was practical and safe – and most in the field were certain it was only a matter of time before those issues were solved. In fact there is plenty of argument over who exactly was first, the race was so close at the time. But history records that it was the Wright Brothers, and when we are introduced to them in school it is often in the form of a context-free factoid, devoid of the preceding history of flight, creating the impression that the aeroplane sprang fully formed from Orville’s forehead.
Another interesting misconception is that these people worked in isolation. For some reason, school left me with the idea that Thomas Edison worked tirelessly on his own, in a little room lit by candles, slaving away until he literally had a ‘lightbulb moment’. The truth couldn’t be further from that: Edison actually started the first major industrial research lab, including the now-standard proviso that any patents discovered as a result of work at that facility would be filed under his name. The discovery of the electric lightbulb was actually made by one of his engineers, working in a fully kitted-out lab with all the amenities an inventor could wish for, on a problem for which all the physics was already understood. Edison then improved on the design and made it more practical. While Edison was certainly a genius in his own right, the lightbulb is itself a product of the sort of commercial research that is all too common today, a process which should hardly be invoked as an argument for the garage inventor.
Another example is the opposition faced by Ignaz Semmelweis when he put forward clinical trials proving that washing your hands could decrease the chance of infection. To put the resistance of the medical orthodoxy in perspective, one has to take into account other ideas they were resisting at the time – among them, Samual Hahnemann’s theory of Homeopathy. Both hygeine and homeopathy were alternate explanations for disease that stood in contrast to the favoured ‘balance of the humours’ theory, and both met with opposition. Yet the one that had evidence on its side became the orthodoxy, while the other still languishes on the fringes after 200 years of trying. The orthodoxy is not always wrong when it resists an idea – it’s necessary to ensure that ideas like homeopathy don’t slither through the cracks, while still allowing ideas like hygeine to force their way through by sheer weight of evidence. It is even more telling to investigate the reason that Semmelweiss’s idea won out in the end. Initially, while Semmelweiss could demonstrate that there was a causal connection between hygeine and decreased infection, he couldn’t explain why – which is always a humdinger when you’re trying to flip accepted understanding on its head. It was only when germ theory was proven that Semmelweiss was finally vindicated. Yet while Louis Pasteur is given credit for discovering germs, he was actually one of many who were investigating the theory at the time. The difference was that Pasteur was able to put forward more convincing evidence than his peers, and thus he is regarded as the father of modern bacteriology – not because he had a revolutionary idea and was laughed at, but because he was able to take a puzzle that had been worked on for some time, and provide the final missing pieces that would allow everyone to see the big picture.
And finally to Galileo, who, while giving his name to the argument by sheer frequency of use, is actually the worst possible example in the batch. In Galileo’s case, it wasn’t other scientists who suppressed his discovery, it was the Catholic Church – hardly paragons of scientific accuracy over the years. If the best argument you can make against your detractors is that, once upon a time, a bunch of old bullies in dresses and funny hats told a scientist he was wrong because his theories offended their imaginary friend, and he was right, ergo you must also be right because educated people in lab coats are telling you you’re wrong… well, then you might want to take some time to come up with a better excuse. And while you are comparing yourselves to these great men, may I ask why you have not published clinical trials, like Semmelweis? Why you cannot put forward evidence that shuts up the detractors for good, like Pasteur? Why you do not patent your designs, like Edison? Why you cannot openly demonstrate a working prototype to the public, like the Wright Brothers?
Next time, maybe you should pick someone more appropriate to compare yourselves to. Like the Marx Brothers.