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.

26 Responses to “The Galileo Gambit”

  1. […] wrote an interesting post today on The Galileo GambitHere’s a quick excerpt 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 […]

  2. don’t be rediculous. if the smart people did that then they would steal their ideas for themselves and use it for evil.

    wow – i was going to get snarky, but i can’t bring myself to continue this line of thought it’s so shameful.

  3. see? i fail the turing test again too! akismet needs a good kick in the ol’ power supply, if you ask me.

  4. *beats firefox with a large stick*: sorry about that. bad cache.

  5. Just you wait! History will have the final say on the genius of the Marx Brothers.

  6. Con-Tester Says:

    Two more recent examples:
    (1) Alfred Wegener’s ideas about continental drift were initially rejected by the scientific community not for want of data suggesting common geology between far-apart continents – there existed quite a lot, in fact – but because Wegener was not able to propose a mechanism that could drive continental drift. Once plate tectonics was recognised and developed, Wegener’s ideas were readily incorporated into geology and geophysics. Note that none of Velikovsky, Flat Earthers or Geocentrists contributed to this in any way.

    (2) Helicobacter pylori is a bacterium implicated in the majority of recurrent peptic and gastric ulcers. In 1983 the Australian (I know, I know – but let’s give credit where it’s due, okay?) researchers Warren and Marshall published a paper that suggested the link between H. pylori and these digestive tract afflictions. The medical community at first rejected the link, citing stress and diet as the primary causes. However, such was the evidence, er…, marshalled by Warren and Marshall, that it, er…, warranted a reappraisal, and by 1994 (about a decade later), the H. pylori link was entered as a full and respected member of the medical orthodoxy. Note that no iridologist, homeopath, aromatherapist, applied kinesiologist, or any other kind of fringe quack disdainful of evidence had any hand in this.

    The bottom line is that the forces of woo who are given to using this argument fail to recognise their own fallibility and that there are infinitely more ways of being wrong than of being right. There’s only one of the latter.

  7. Con-Tester Says:

    BTW, beautiful post, moonflake, really first-rate. 🙂

    Now if only we could convince WordPress to work on evidence instead of intuition…

  8. GeneMachine Says:

    Great post, MF.

    But I still hang my head in despair that homeopathy is still with us after 200 years and not one shred of evidence yet produced for its efficacy. I got ill over the festive season and had to find a doctor – a registered medical doctor who turned out to also “practice” homeopathy. I immediately cancelled and found a proper doctor.

  9. Paul Putter Says:

    Yes, I too object to using the Marx Brothers’ name in vain. Do you seriously suggest that guys in white coats were laughing at them?

  10. You’re right about historical facts given without context imparting a somewhat distorted impression of events. No one remembers the people who came second, and thus a maverick is born.

    That said I’m as guilty of ignorance as anyone else. Up until a few years ago I had no idea the Wright Brothers weren’t universally recognised as the fathers of flight. (Well Ok I just hadn’t given it any thought, nevertheless Brazil’s support of Santos-Dumont was news to me.)


  11. The Jesuits who opposed Galileo WERE “scientists” as conceived at the time, working within an orthodox interpretation. They were just bad scientists, in that they used physical coercion to supplant evidence. Other Church scientists, such as Mersenne, defended him as far as politically possible, their position made more difficult by Galileo’s political ineptitude. It really was largely as the cranks describe it. Which isn’t of course to say they are right.

    If Pasteur’s experimental boy had succumbed to rabies, it’s probable that acceptance of germ theory would have been set back by generations. Wegener’s continental drift had to wait on evidence provided by fossil magnetism before it was accepted. the situation is complicated, because until evidence accumulates, it’s often hard to distinguish a change of paradigm from an insane rant.

    Thomson put an upper age limit on the Earth of 400 million years, based on the physics of the time, and it wasn’t until radiactivity had been appreciated that Darwinian evolution was given time to work.

    I suppose the real answer is that exceptional claims require exceptional evidence, and doubly so when studies have been carried out that show no effect, and that’s the best answer we can give them- if we can be bothered to talk at all.

    We’ll all look green when they come up with perpetual motion…

  12. Con-Tester Says:

    That would be Karl Marx and his lesser known elder brother Wolfi who owned controlling stock in a slave-trading consortium, yes?

  13. Sprocket: I think the fundamental difference was that the ‘scientific’ orthodoxy in Galileo’s time were hardly comparable to the scientific orthodoxy today, despite said comparison being the purpose of the Galileo Gambit. The altie putting it forward is usually comparing himself to Galileo, and today’s scientists/skeptics to, effectively, the Catholic Church. Neither comparison is likely to be close enough to be a valid argumentative premise.

    When using Pasteur’s vaccination example (as opposed to his germ theory example, which was already settled two decades earlier) in the Galileo Gambit, alties would fail again for the very reason that Pasteur’s uncontrolled human trial of one would be considered both unethical and insufficient as evidence by today’s standards, and even by the standards of his time (he was in some significant personal danger of being prosecuted for the act if the boy had not survived). Therefore alties choosing to compare their antics to Pasteur’s are starting a whole new argument of ethics and the purpose of controlled trials! That, and the fact that Jenner had already discovered the smallpox vaccine, which was in common use by the time Pasteur tried his rabies vaccine on young Joseph Meister.

    I guess the point i’m trying to get across is that the history of science is a much more complicated and rich subject that most of us are taught at school, yet their schoolboy understanding of it is all alties use when putting forward the Galileo Gambit. One may say in these cases that their grasp of history certainly reflects their grasp of science, medicine, or whatever other field it is that they’re challenging with their ‘out of the box’ thinking.

  14. Con-Tester Says:

    In certain cases, one might be tempted to agree when such a comparison is made to Giordano Bruno. Actively to agree, I mean.

  15. Con-Tester: didn’t Warren and Marshall win the Nobel Prize for medicine a few years ago for discovering H. Pylori’s link to ulcers?

  16. Con-Tester Says:

    moonflake: Indeed, they did in 2005. But let’s not tell the woo-woos; it’ll only make them even more pushy and insufferable.

  17. residentRSole Says:

    Con-Tester: A while ago I decided to read up to see whether Marshall was being shouted down and ridiculed. I found this instead: Bacteria, Ulcers, and Ostracism? H. pylori and the Making of a Myth.

    Can we add Marshall to the list that includes Mullis, Pauling and Josephson ?

  18. residentRsole: great article! thanks for the link. I really do love the family of sites that Stephen Barrett has set up… they are a brilliant source for well written articles by people who know what they’re talking about and do the research.

  19. Con-Tester Says:

    residentRsole: Yup, that makes for good reading. Perhaps I’m missing the plot here, but I mentioned the two examples of Wegener and Marshall/Warren because the woo-woos regularly trot them out as examples of scientific myopia, not because those accusations withstand scrutiny.

  20. residentRSole Says:

    Con-Tester: No, it was I who was missing the plot. Sort of. For about a year I had been hearing from colleagues (with science degrees) that Marshall had faced some very unpleasant enemies. Then I decided to check it out. And I found that link. I get very pissed off when scientists with star credentials encourage misleading ideas – because I got mislead. Which is why I suggested adding Marshall to that particular list of Nobel Laureates.

    On the other hand, we have stories about how the French scientific community used to operate e.g. Beneviste (see the Randi lecture about this) and that HIV scandal during the early eighties. What scientific community is safe if it has its own “Kenneth Lays” ?

  21. residentRSole Says:

    PS. Don’t take my comment about Kenneth Lays in science too seriously 🙂

  22. Con-Tester Says:

    Understood. My N-Rays were scattering too much… 😉

  23. residentRSole Says:

    Con-Tester: Oh yes, I forgot about N-Rays. It took the French quite a while to learn the error of their ways. Here is the video of Randi lecturing about Beneviste. As I have mentioned months ago, I get annoyed when science is disrupted due to politics, whether from within the scientific community or without. Just think where we could have been by now if things were done properly. Or maybe we shouldn’t dwell on it.

  24. Con-Tester Says:

    There is another supremely daft argument often deployed by woo-woos. Since a catchy acronym or label escapes me, I’ll call it the “you can’t criticise ’til you’ve tried it yourself” manoeuvre, which translates into “we can’t learn anything from the experiences of others”. So let’s do away with any and all warning signs and safety regulations, shall we? After all, we can only properly know that smoking causes lung cancer if we ourselves smoke and contract the disease.

    Perhaps you would care to write about this one too at some point, moonflake.

  25. […] Research more about this from here […]

  26. […] f you’re still not convinced that the Galileo Gambit is a useless bit of self-delusion, see moonflake’s eloquent and always entertaining discussion . […]

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