Worth a read: Galileo and the Science Deniers by Mario Livio

“[T]he present Pope, who abhors the liberal arts and this kind of mind, cannot stand these novelties and subtleties; and everyone here tries to adjust his mind and his nature to that of the ruler.” Piero Guicciardini, describing Pope Paul V (1550–1621)

Astrophysicist and Hubble Telescope guru Mario Livio suggests that you substitute the name of some current political ruler that you may know for that of the 17th century Pope in this quote. Past and present can at times look eerily familiar. Pope Paul V had a complicated relationship with the great Italian scientist Galileo Galilei (1564–1642), part of an intriguing story told in Livio’s new biography, Galileo and the Science Deniers (Simon & Schuster, 2020).

It was Paul V who sent the first “shot across the bow” forbidding Galileo from teaching the “Copernican” model of the universe, describing how the Earth is in orbit around the Sun. But it seems this pope also protected Galileo from a formal charge of heresy until a subsequent pope needed a political scalp some 17 years later. Politics, religion, and science dance uncomfortably around one another in this fresh take on an often-told story. And here we are dancing again.

Science class in 1965

I learned the principles of Darwinian evolution and the multi-billion-year age of the Earth in a ninth grade Earth Science class in 1965. The school was in a very conservative ethnic Dutch Reformed community, with the appropriately named Mr. VanderJagt as the science teacher. He taught these topics as straight science, and I liked him. As far as I can remember, there was no community controversy over the content of this class. We were in the middle of a race to the Moon and science was hopping. I had four years of science courses in my high school schedule, as I was headed for Engineering school (which I did not finish).

This community was so conservative that my Grand Rapids Press newspaper route had only half the number of Sunday customers (a very profitable day for normal paper carriers) as there were weekday subscribers. In my neighborhood, it was a sin to read the newspaper on Sunday, or perhaps just to be seen with a newspaper in your driveway. As a Rolling Stone article in 1973 joked about the Michigan hometown of my congressman, and new Vice President, Gerald Ford, “even the Jews in Grand Rapids are Dutch Reformed.”

When you live in our current world of politically-powerful science deniers, pseudoscience believers, anti-vaxxers, flat-earthers, and rampant innumeracy, it is natural to think that it has always been this way. Political forces and religious forces must have always been at odds with the scientists. But that would be bad history. ‘Twas not always so, at least in the halls of power and polite society in Western Michigan in that era.

By the 1950s and 1960s the nation had used science to conquered smallpox (for which I still bear the vaccination scar) and polio. We built a rocket to the Moon using computers less powerful than your $200 Smart TV. My first professional job in 1972 (the last year that Americans were on the Moon) was writing computer code to design and display complex automobile manufacturing tools using only 64 thousand bytes of computer memory. This was innovative stuff!

Perhaps I was blind or naïve, but I recall none of the widespread, dogmatic opposition in those years to basic math and science that we are seeing from half of the government and population today. As I have written in the past, a Republican governor named Romney during my high school years was pumping huge dollars into “baby boomer” universities, and his wife was a Mormon feminist. Almost 50 years later, we finally have a new “Space Tesla” after nearly a decade without any U.S. crewed launch capability at all. But we are a long way from getting back to the Moon, let alone going beyond it in crewed flight.

The Galileo parallels

Author Mario Livio did not intend for his new biography of Galileo to come out at a time of multiple natural and political disasters, and while America was being led by the most science-illiterate President ever. The multiple strands of Fate just worked out that way. Livio documents a compelling story of how a similar convergence of political and religious events came together in time to send Galileo into house arrest for the last nine years of his life.

Livio’s primary intended parallel tying Galileo’s demonstrations of heliocentrism (a sun-centered Cosmos) to today was our leaders’ head-in-the-sand challenges to the concept of anthropogenic climate change. [1] He describes the commonality this way:

The current debate on global warming had to go (and to a large extent it is still going) through a similarly painful type of confirmation process. First, people have to be persuaded that the phenomenon itself is real; then they have to accept that the identification of its causes is correct; and finally, they have to embrace at least some of the recommended solutions.

This was the similar path of the Copernicans against the science deniers of their day. We no longer execute the scientists, as the Church did with astronomer Giordano Bruno, who Livio notes was burned alive in 1600, the year Galileo’s first daughter was born. In the age of social media, a concerted online trashing of a scientist’s reputation is instead a common tactic. Climatologist Michael Mann, who first described the climate “hockey stick,” continues to be the target of organized online harassment over twenty years later.

When politics and religion merge

Of course, the Catholic Church had tremendous political power in Italy during the 1600s, but scientists who kept their heads low were treated much more benignly by the Church for long periods of history. Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) himself remained in the good graces of the Church throughout his long life, despite giving his name to the cosmological model that got Galileo into trouble.

Catholicism has staked its religious authority through equal parts Biblical authority and Papal tradition for most of its existence. But the Protestant Reformation’s successful inroads stressing the primacy and inerrancy of the Bible alone (“Sola Scriptura”) forced the Vatican to convene the Council of Trent from 1545 to 1563. This council pushed the Church toward a more literal scriptural view, which put Old Testament tales like Joshua commanding the Sun to stop in the sky in direct conflict with the Copernican view of a moving Earth.

In 1633, the Roman Inquisition under Pope Urban VIII formally charged Galileo with heresy. [2] Urban’s personal stresses had been triggered by Galileo’s writing of Dialogo (the extended title in English being Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems). The book was an imagined dialogue with three characters, one of whom was a thinly veiled caricature of Pope Urban, and he personally interpreted this as being offensive. In addition, Livio suggests, some political “payback” was being directed from Urban toward Galileo’s primary patrons, the powerful Medici family. Galileo had used theological language and the dialogue format to dance between a veiled argument for the Copernican system while at the same time giving patronizing deference to Papal authority over science itself to try to cover his behind. Livio writes:

The crucial act that really brought about the Church’s wrath was what Catholic officials regarded as an unacceptable, impudent invasion into the Church’s exclusive provinces—theology and the interpretation of Scripture…As Pope John Paul II admitted in 1992: “This led them [the theologians who condemned Galileo] unduly to transpose into the realm of the doctrine of the faith, a question which in fact pertained to scientific investigation.”

Galileo was famously forced to publicly recant his belief in the heliocentric universe in order to save his life. Already in ill health, Galileo then retreated into a resigned house arrest for the last nine years of his life.

Livio does not make Galileo so much the hero here as instead perhaps a brilliant but aging man “getting too far out over his skis.” The author pokes some holes in the myth-making that started soon after Galileo’s death. The famous experiment of dropping objects off the Leaning Tower of Pisa likely did not happen, at least as the driving demonstration of gravity long portrayed. The author demonstrates how this story grows more and more embellished over time. Instead, it was the innovative use and “experimental method” of long inclined planes that allowed Galileo to “slow down gravity” in order to measure it more precisely.

Galileo also missed the mark on other conjectures, such as the nature of comets and the causes of the tides. However, he remained committed to learning, to experiment, and to the demonstration of fact as his guiding principles throughout his life, writing:

“Facts, which at first seem improbable, will, even on scant explanation, drop the cloak which has hidden them and stand forth in naked and simple beauty.”

The push-down stack of science crises

Science seems to get only limited bandwidth in the human mind-space and media, just like those tiny-memory computers of old. A primary way my aforementioned first exercises in computer coding dealt with constrained computer memory was a classic code structure called a push-down stack. Think of an overflowing inbox sitting on a tiny desk, but you have a spring-loaded hole into which you can stuff issues that you can’t deal with right now. You instead push them down the hole “out of mind” until later when you “pop” those old issues back out to address one at a time, coming “off the stack” in a last-in-first-out sequence. [3]

The climate crisis that dominated the science news for a long time seemed seems to have been “pushed down” off the front pages by the Coronavirus crisis, which in turn has been pushed down by more recent domestic unrest in the wake of police violence. And now, for us living in the South, the earliest hurricane season on record has begun, and that has overtaken the attention of many people. The virus has not gone away, and it will surely come back in force to haunt us this autumn. Pseudoscience nonsense abounds here, much of it coming from the President of the United States himself. And ironically, the early hurricane season is a reminder that the climate crisis is still down there bubbling away in our “push-down stack” of science denial.

Mario Livio’s biography of Galileo went to press before the Coronavirus crisis hit, but he notes somewhat prophetically that Galileo’s trip from Florence to Rome for his heresy trial was delayed. The Bubonic Plague was raging Europe at the time, and Galileo was forced to hold in quarantine for a three weeks before he could enter the Vatican.

And meanwhile in church

Mario Livio ends his chronicle by tracing various attempts in the centuries since by Catholic scientists and theologians to clear Galileo’s name. It wasn’t until 1835 that the Dialogo was removed from the Index of Forbidden Books. It took until 1992 for Pope John Paul II to formally acknowledge the Church’s error in prosecuting Galileo, and most of official Catholic education had by that time worked out how to talk about science in a positive way.

in its place, evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity had launched its own campaign against several areas of science, especially Darwinian evolution. Indeed, they are still the primary source of vocal opposition to the teaching of evolution in American schools. As far back as CE 400, the “church father” Augustine of Hippo cautioned Christians against arguing science with the Greeks, lest they sound like they were “talking nonsense.” Even by that point in time, the early Greek “natural philosophers” had figured out that the Earth was neither flat nor young. More theologically literate Christians today, those who typically treat Genesis as allegory rather than literal history, have no trouble with Darwin and most of science.

Lest these Christians think that these conflicts of science and religion are behind them, however, there remain issues where the two are still at odds. Most Christians are “mind-body dualists.” In other words, they believe that the mind or “the soul” that defines their personhood is something separate from their physical bodies, and that this “being” will survive their physical death. In what I have called “the hard debate,” the consensus of neuroscientists today is quite strongly in support of the concept that “the mind is a product of the brain,” or of the entire body more generally.

Galileo was sometimes wrong in his science, and today’s scientists might well be wrong on issues like climate, viruses, and human minds. However, as I have noted in the past, the actuaries, those mathematicians who drive the insurance markets, are betting heavily on the reality of continued climate change. And the Coronavirus does not care about your religion. Just like Galileo, at some point we all need to lay down our own bets on what reality is, and there is a cost to that.


  1. And of course, here Galileo was only partially correct, as the Sun as well moves on a path, far from the center of the universe, if indeed there is one.
  2. The church institution knows as the Inquisition was charged with punishing doctrinal heresy.  While the earlier “Spanish Inquisition” is better known, Galileo was called before the “Roman Inquisition” in 1633. This office of the Church was renamed in 1965 as “the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.” Interesting side note: Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, later to become Pope Benedict XVI, headed this office for many years, issuing many controversial, sometimes anti-science, edicts in a more recent rightward move. That trend has begun to be reversed by the current Jesuit Pope Francis.
  3. One of my favorite computer languages of that era was called FORTH, developed in 1970. It basically treats computer memory as a couple of large push-down stacks, allowing it to do complex operations with little computing power. Mathematical functions are done in this language using Reverse Polish Notation, which was popularized by the first Hewlett-Packard calculators.

3 thoughts on “Worth a read: Galileo and the Science Deniers by Mario Livio

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  3. Pingback: When good Christians disagree – part 2 – When God Plays Dice

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