The Galileo Gambit

i-e7a12c3d2598161273c9ed31d61fe694-ClassicInsolence.jpgWhile I am on vacation, I'm reprinting a number of "Classic Insolence" posts to keep the blog active while I'm gone. (It also has the salutory effect of allowing me to move some of my favorite posts from the old blog over to the new blog, and I'm guessing that quite a few of my readers have probably never seen many of these old posts.) These will appear at least twice a day while I'm gone (and that will probably leave some leftover for Christmas vacation, even). Enjoy, and please feel free to comment. I will be checking in from time to time when I have Internet access to see if the reaction to these old posts here on ScienceBlogs is any different from what it was when they originally appeared, and, blogging addict that I am, I'll probably even put up fresh material once or twice.

The appearance of the Herbinator on my blog last week and his sarcastic invocation of Galileo reminded me of a topic I've wanted to write about almost since the beginning of Respectful Insolence. It's a favorite tactic used by alties (not to mention pseudoscientists, pseudohistorians, and other cranks). Alties frequently invoke Galileo and other scientists like Ignaz Semmelweiss, who were at first rejected by the scientific orthodoxy of the time and had to fight to get their ideas accepted. The implication, of course, is that their ideas, whatever they may be (alternative medicine, intelligent design, Holocaust denial, psychic abilities, etc.), are on the same plane as those of Galileo or Semmelweiss. Frequently, they will add a list of famous scientists or experts who made predictions about the impossibility of something or other and were later found wrong, so much so that the statements sound ridiculous today. For example, here's a famous list that's been making the rounds on Usenet for years. Some of these quotes may in fact be urban legends (and, in fact, I'd be grateful to anyone who points out urban legends in here to me), but let's for the moment assume they are all legitimate quotes: many centuries after the Creation it is unlikely that anyone could find hitherto unknown lands of any value. - Committee advising Ferdinand and Isabella regarding Columbus' proposal, 1486

I would sooner believe that two Yankee professors lied, than that stones fell from the sky. - Thomas Jefferson, 1807 on hearing an eyewitness report of falling meteorites.

Drill for oil? You mean drill into the ground to try and find oil? You're crazy. - Drillers who Edwin L. Drake tried to enlist to his project to drill for oil in 1859.

Louis Pasteur's theory of germs is ridiculous fiction. - Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology at Toulouse, 1872

[Orac's note: This one is particularly amusing to me, given that so many alties reject Pasteur's theory in favor of Beauchamps. Here, they seem to want to have it both ways. They reject Pasteur when arguing against antibiotics, claiming that bacteria are not the cause of disease, or attacking vaccines as useless and harmful. However, they have no problem invoking this quote. Of course, they don't seem to realize that their use of this quote implicitly acknowledges that Pasteur's theories, although initially quite controversial, were ultimately proven correct.]

The abdomen, the chest, and the brain will forever be shut from the intrusion of the wise and humane surgeon. - Sir John Eric Ericksen, British surgeon, appointed Surgeon-Extraordinary to Queen Victoria 1873.

[Orac's note: As a surgeon, I have to point out that, at the time, this was not an entirely unreasonable statement. Operating in the abdomen was risky in the extreme, with a high rate of death from peritonitis that could approach 50% in some operations (that is, until the invention of antibiotics). In fact, I sometimes wonder how the great surgeons of 100 years ago managed to operate on anyone's abdomen and have the patient actually survive the procedure. Operating in the chest was also out of the question, given the problem of reinflating the lung afterward, and certainly the brain was completely off-limits. In any case, there was no way Sir Ericksen (or anyone else) could be faulted for failing to forsee the advancements in anaesthesia, antibiotics, surgical technique, and patient care that would ultimately allow such surgery to succeed and even become routine (although one does have to point out that surgeons were already operating in the abdomen reasonably successfully at the time).]

Such startling announcements as these should be deprecated as being unworthy of science and mischievious to to its true progress. - Sir William Siemens, 1880, on Edison's announcement of a sucessful light bulb.

We are probably nearing the limit of all we can know about astronomy. - Simon Newcomb, astronomer, 1888

Fooling around with alternating current is just a waste of time. Nobody will use it, ever. - Thomas Edison, 1889

[Orac's note: It's well-known that Thomas Edison wanted to promote the use of direct current rather than alternating current. It was a battle of rival technologies (sometimes called the War of Currents), not unlike the war between Betamax and VHS, but on a much larger scale. Edison ultimately lost.]

The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote.... Our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth place of decimals. - physicist Albert. A. Michelson, 1894

Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible. - Lord Kelvin, president, Royal Society, 1895.

It is apparent to me that the possibilities of the aeroplane, which two or three years ago were thought to hold the solution to the [flying machine] problem, have been exhausted, and that we must turn elsewhere. - Thomas Edison, 1895

The demonstration that no possible combination of known substances, known forms of machinery, and known forms of force can be united in a practicable machine by which men shall fly for long distances through the air, seems to the writer as complete as it is possible for the demonstration of any physical fact to be. - astronomer S. Newcomb, 1906

Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value. - Marechal Ferdinand Foch, Professor of Strategy, Ecole Superieure de Guerre.

Caterpillar landships are idiotic and useless. Those officers and men are wasting their time and are not pulling their proper weight in the war. - Fourth Lord of the British Admiralty, 1915, in regards to use of tanks in war.

Professor Goddard does not know the relation between action and reaction and the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react. He seems to lack the basic knowledge ladled out daily in high schools. - 1921 New York Times editorial about Robert Goddard's revolutionary rocket work.

[Orac's note: Why the New York Times would be considered an "expert" in rocketry such that it would be of interest to use it as an example of an "expert" making a statement that is later proven wrong, I have no idea. This quote is at best irrelevant.]

The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular? - David Sarnoff's associates in response to his urgings for investment in the radio in the 1920s.

"All a trick." "A Mere Mountebank." "Absolute swindler." "Doesn't know what he's about." "What's the good of it?" "What useful purpose will it serve?" - Members of Britain's Royal Society, 1926, after a demonstration of television.

This foolish idea of shooting at the moon is an example of the absurd lengths to which vicious specialisation will carry scientists. -A.W. Bickerton, physicist, NZ, 1926

Who the hell wants to hear actors talk? - H.M. Warner, Warner Brothers, 1927.

Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau. - Irving Fisher, Professor of Economics, Yale University, 1929.

[Orac's note: Of course, we had the same sort of idiotic statements coming from "experts" during the Internet bubble of the 1990's; for example, this book predicting that the Dow would reach 36,000. How many times did we hear that the Internet "changed everything" and that the stock market had no where to go but continually up?]

There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will. -- Albert Einstein, 1932

The energy produced by the atom is a very poor kind of thing. Anyone who expects a source of power from the transformation of these atoms is talking moonshine. - Ernst Rutherford, 1933

The whole procedure [of shooting rockets into space]...presents difficulties of so fundamental a nature, that we are forced to dismiss the notion as essentially impracticable, in spite of the author's insistent appeal to put aside prejudice and to recollect the supposed impossibility of heavier-than-air flight before it was actually accomplished. Richard van der Riet Wooley, British astronomer, reviewing P.E. Cleator's Rockets in Space, Nature, March 14, 1936

Space travel is utter bilge! -Sir Richard Van Der Riet Wolley, astronomer

I think there is a world market for maybe five computers. - Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943

Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons. - Popular Mechanics, forecasting the relentless march of science, 1949

[Orac's note: Heh heh. This statement isn't an incorrect prediction. Think about it. Most computers don't weigh more than 1.5 tons these days, do they?]

I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won't last out the year. - The editor in charge of business books for Prentice Hall, 1957

Space travel is bunk. -Sir Harold Spencer Jones, Astronomer Royal of Britain, 1957, two weeks before the launch of Sputnik

There is practically no chance communications space satellites will be used to provide better telephone, telegraph, television, or radio service inside the United States. -T. Craven, FCC Commissioner, 1961

We don't like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out. - Decca Recording Co. rejecting the Beatles, 1962.

But what... is it good for? - Engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, 1968, commenting on the microchip.

There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home. - Ken Olson, President, Chairman and Founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, 1977

The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a 'C,' the idea must be feasible. - A Yale University management professor in response to Fred Smith's paper proposing reliable overnight delivery service. (Smith went on to found Federal Express Corp.)

I'm just glad it'll be Clark Gable who's falling on his face and not Gary Cooper. - Gary Cooper on his decision not to take the leading role in Gone With The Wind.

A cookie store is a bad idea. Besides, the market research reports say America likes crispy cookies, not soft and chewy cookies like you make. - Response to Debbi Fields' idea of starting Mrs. Fields' Cookies.

If I had thought about it, I wouldn't have done the experiment. The literature was full of examples that said you can't do this. - Spencer Silver on the work that led to the unique adhesives for 3M "Post-It" Notepads.

So we went to Atari and said, 'Hey, we've got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts, and what do you think about funding us? Or we'll give it to you. We just want to do it. Pay our salary, we'll come work for you.' And they said, 'No.' So then we went to Hewlett-Packard, and they said, 'Hey, we don't need you. You haven't got through college yet.' - Apple Computer Inc. founder Steve Jobs on attempts to get Atari and H-P interested in his and Steve Wozniak's personal computer.

You want to have consistent and uniform muscle development across all of your muscles? It can't be done. It's just a fact of life. You just have to accept inconsistent muscle development as an unalterable condition of weight training. - Response to Arthur Jones, who solved the "unsolvable" problem by inventing Nautilus.

640K ought to be enough for anybody. - Bill Gates, 1981

[Orac's note: Of course, in 1981, Gates was correct. No one really needed more than 640K in a personal computer. There wasn't much you could actually do with more than that in 1981...]

So, again, what's the point of alties or other pseudoscientists invoking Galileo or any of the hideously incorrect prognostications listed above? Again, obviously, this technique seeks to denigrate the experts who reject the altie's claims as not knowing what they're talking about or as close-minded, unable to have the vision that they do. It also deceptively tries to associate the quack, crank, pseudoscientist, or pseudohistorian with the theories and findings of great visionaries that went against conventional wisdom and were thus rejected by the experts of the day--and then later shown to be correct. It's a transparent ploy, about which Michael Shermer once said, "Heresy does not equal correctness."

Some call it the Galileo gambit (although in actuality Galileo is probably a bad example for pseudoscientists to use, given that he was persecuted by the Church, and not by his fellow scientists). History is indeed full of tales of the lone scientist working in spite of his peers and flying in the face of the doctrines of the day in his or her field of study. No doubt there are still a fair number of such scientists today. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending upon your point of view), the vast majority of them turn out to be utterly wrong. They disappear into the mists of history, leaving not even a footnote in the grand history of science. As Shermer so correctly put it in his book Why People Believe Weird Things (a book I highly recommend to anyone interested in improving his or her critical thinking skills):

For every Galileo shown the instruments of torture for advocating scientific truth, there are a thousand (or ten thousand) unknowns whose 'truths' never pass scientific muster with other scientists. The scientific community cannot be expected to test every fanstastic claim that comes along, especially when so many are logically inconsistent.


For every Galileo, Ignaz Semmelweis, Nicolaus Copernicus, Charles Darwin, Louis Pasteur, etc., whose scientific ideas were either ignored, rejected, or vigorously attacked by the scientific community of his time and then later accepted, there are untold numbers of others whose ideas were either ignored or rejected initially and then were never accepted--and never will be accepted. Why? Because they were wrong! The reason the ideas of Galileo, Semmelweis, Copernicus, Darwin, Pasteur, et al, were ultimately accepted as correct by the scientific community is because they turned out to be correct! Their observations and ideas stood up to repeated observation and scientific experimentation by many scientists in many places over many years. The weight of data supporting their ideas was so overwhelming that eventually even the biggest skeptics could no longer stand. That's the way science works. It may be messy, and it may take longer, occasionally even decades or even longer, than we in the business might like to admit, but eventually in science the truth wins out. In fact, the best way for a scientist to become famous and successful in his or her field is to come up with evidence that strongly challenges established theories and concepts and then weave that evidence into a new theory. Albert Einstein didn't end up in the history books by simply reconfirming and recapitulating Newton's Laws. Semmelweis and Pasteur didn't wind up in the history books by confirming the concept that disease was caused by an "imbalance of humours" (although Semmelweis probably did hurt himself by refusing to publish his results for many years; his data was so compelling it remains puzzling why he did not do so). I daresay that none of the Nobel Prize winners won that prestigious award by demonstrating something that the scientific establishment already believed. No! They won it by discovering something new and important!

Unfortunately, to most lay people who don't have a strong background in science, the scientific method, or the history of science, such trickery can sound convincing on the surface. For example, you have a quack like Hulda Clark claiming she has a cure for cancer and AIDS and then claiming that the scientific establishment can't accept it. Add a dash of paranoia about big medicine and big pharma "suppressing" her "cure," and it's a potent brew of deception. This ploy is particularly appealing to Americans, because our whole national psyche has in its core a tendency to root for the outsider, the underdog. Alties, pseudoscientists, and cranks tap into that deep-seated sympathy we tend to have for the persecuted outsider and use it to their advantage. It's the same with creationists, who use every well-deserved debunking they get as evidence that they are a "threat" to the established scientific order. The only way to combat such deceptive comparisons is to point out again and again Shermer's dictum that "heresy does not equal correctness" and try to keep the discussion on the hard evidence.

I think it's appropriate to finish with another Michael Shermer quote: They laughed at Copernicus. They laughed at the Wright brothers. Yes, well, they also laughed at the Marx Brothers. Being laughed at does not mean you are right.

Use it the next time an altie tries to imply that the fact that the scientific establishment mocks their ideas means that they must be on to something. Except do what I do and use the Three Stooges instead of the Marx Brothers.

Especially Curly. Nyuck, nyuck, nyck.

This post originally appeared on March 28, 2005 on the old blog.


More like this

The perfect double quote to illustrate this post is:

Clarke's First Law: When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

Asimov's Corollary: When, however, the lay public rallies round an idea that is denounced by distinguished but elderly scientists and supports that idea with great fervor and emotion -- the distinguished but elderly scientists are then, after all, probably right.

Lots of quotes used in the Galileo gambit, so here's one I like:

"All great truths begin as blasphemies, but all blasphemies do not become great truths."
- George Bernard Shaw

You can usually bet on the authorities being right - especially factual (as opposed to legal or religious) authority. If you really think the authorities are wrong, you've got some digging to do.

My favorite relevant quote comes from Abbott and Costello: (somewhat quasi-quoted but the idea is there)

LC: "They said Gallileo was Crazy, they said Pasteur was crazy, they said Louie Hymowitz was crazy..."

BA: "wait a minute, Lou, who was Louie Hymowitz?"

LC: "My Uncle Louie. He WAS crazy."


decrepitoldfool, isn't that exactly the quote those Steorn people are using to parade their crap perpetual motion machine? Haha. I knew there had to be something awesome behind those ellipses. ;)

God, that makes me wonder if the whole thing is just some kinda prank.

That bit about "Our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth place of decimals" has been a pet peeve of mine for years. It misrepresents nineteenth-century science in a bad way. Quoting Richard Feynman's Lectures on Physics, section 40-6:

The first great paper on the dynamical theory of gases was by Maxwell in 1859. On the basis of ideas we have been discussing, he was able accurately to explain a great many known relations, such as Boyle's law, the diffusion theory, the viscosity of gases, and things we shall talk about in the next chapter. He listed all these great successes in a final summary, and at the end he said, "Finally, by establishing a necessary relation between the motions of translation and rotation (he is talking about the 1/2 kT theorem) of all particles not spherical, we proved that a system of such particles could not possibly satisfy the known relation between the two specific heats." He is referring to γ (which we shall see later is related to two ways of measuring specific heat), and he says we know we cannot get the right answer.

Ten years later, in a lecture, he said, "I have now put before you what I consider to be the greatest difficulty yet encountered by the molecular theory." These words represent the first discovery that the laws of classical physics were wrong. This was the first indication that there was something fundamentally impossible, because a rigorously proved theorem did not agree with experiment. About 1890, Jeans was to talk about this puzzle again. One often hears it said that physicists at the latter part of the nineteenth century thought they knew all the significant physical laws and that all they had to do was to calculate more decimal places. Someone may have said that once, and others copied it. But a thorough reading of the literature of the time shows they were all worrying about something. Jeans said about this puzzle that it is a very mysterious phenomenon, and it seems as though as the temperature falls, certain kinds of motions "freeze out." [emphasis added]

The solution to the "freeze out" problem came with the twentieth century and quantum mechanics.

The current favorite I've seen is Barry Marshall, MD's discovery of H.pylori as the cause of peptic ulcer disease, and his supposed trials and tribulations to gain acceptance by the medical community. CSICOP doesn't concur:

Alas, I am informed in an email that the Shaw quote I contributed above, while perhaps correct in spirit, is inaccurate. Part of it is from Shaw, part from a later commentator. My fault for not searching the original provenance.

Apologies. I thought it was a true quote. Now I will have to go find another, hopefully right.

"The reason the ideas of Galileo, Semmelweis, Copernicus, Darwin, Pasteur, et al, were ultimately accepted as correct by the scientific community is because they turned out to be correct!"

In the same way, people that we think are crazy now, may someday be proved correct. Improvements in technology in some cases were what was required to prove the scientific greats were in fact correct, so go ahead and call the alties quacks and fakers... but it happened once and it can happen again. Some of them MIGHT be right.

By Rick Henderson (not verified) on 08 Sep 2006 #permalink

Yes, well, they also laughed at the Marx Brothers. Being laughed at does not mean you are right.

Are you suggesting that the Marx Brothers were wrong??

By Scott Belyea (not verified) on 29 Mar 2007 #permalink

Part of this is a linguistic problem. [Great Man] claimed something crazy and he was right. Note the verb there "claimed." Unlike the crazies, the Great Men PROVED something, not just blathered on about it. People forget, science isn't about throwing out ideas, its about backing up that idea with hours and hours of painstaking research. If Galileo had just claimed the Earth moved, then he wouldn't have been a scientist, he would have been a crank (albeit correct). Even if the woomeisters are right about something, the lack of evidence disqualifies them from discovery. The hard working researcher who finally measures chi or bottles a ghost or whatever will be the Galileo, not the street corner preachers.

There is practically no chance communications space satellites will be used to provide better telephone, telegraph, television, or radio service inside the United States. -T. Craven, FCC Commissioner, 1961

Have satellites used to provide telephone, telegraph or radio services inside the USA? The speed of light delay for signals from earth to geosynchronous satellites and back makes telephone calls relayed by satellite unpleasant.

TV over satellite for distribution to cable TV providers seems to have started in 1975 and direct to home in 1989, so he was wrong on television, but seems to have been right on the other three.