History of science

Suppressing science

The Lord is king, he is robed in majesty;
the Lord is robed, he is girded with strength.
He has established the world; it shall never be moved.
—Psalm 93.1

That was then (February 26, 1616)

On February 26, 1616 Robert Cardinal Bellarmine communicated to Galileo Galilei (15 February 15, 1564 – January 8, 1642) that by order of the Pope Paul V, Galileo was “to abandon completely the…opinion that the sun stands still at the center of the world and the earth moves, and henceforth not to hold, teach, or defend it in any way whatever, either orally or in writing.” Two days earlier, a special commission of theologians had studied the published heliocentric claims of Galileo and concluded that the idea that the Sun is stationary and that the Earth moves is “foolish and absurd in philosophy; and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture.” Among the scriptures cited were Psalm 93.1, cited above, and several other passages saying the world shall never be moved, including Psalm 96.10:

Say among the nations, “The Lord is king!
The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved.
He will judge the peoples with equity.”

Shortly after this prohibition, the book De revolutionibus erbium coelestium published in 1543 by Nicolaus Copernicus (Mikołaj Kopernik, February 19, 1473 – May 24, 1543), a book that postulated the theory that the earth revolves around the sun, was banned. Galileo’s telescopic observations of the phases of Venus and some of the moons of Jupiter had led him to agree with the Copernican heliocentric theory. In 1610 Galileo had published his book Sidereus Nuncius, in which he said that his observations supported Copernicus. Along with the banning of work by Copernicus, the writings of Galileo that agreed with the Copernican view were placed on the index of prohibited books, as were works by Johannes Kepler (December 27, 1571 – November 15, 1630). Despite being warned to abandon his heretical view, Galileo went on to publish a work in 1616 arguing that the ocean’s tides were further evidence of the movement of the earth. In 1632 Galileo published a book in Italian entitled Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo (Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems) in which the Copernican heliocentric system was compared with the Ptolemaic geocentric system. The book presents a fictional account of a dialogue between two philosophers and a lay person. This book was also eventually banned by Pope Urban VIII. A year later, Galileo was put on trial for heresy “for holding as true the false doctrine taught by some that the sun is the center of the world.” At this trial it was pointed out that he had been warned in February 1616 that persisting in defending the heliocentric view would result in his being imprisoned. On June 22, 1633, Galileo, then 69 years old, was found guilty of heresy and was sentenced to prison “at the pleasure of the Inquisition,” and the Dialogue was placed on the Index of Prohibited Books. The next day, the prison sentence was commuted to house arrest, a condition under which Galileo lived until he died nine years later.

In 1758 the Catholic Church removed works advocating heliocentrism from the Index of Prohibited Books, but it was not until 1835 that Copernicus’s De revolutionibus and Galileo’s Dialogue were removed from the Index. As recently as 1990, however, Cardinal Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI, defended the verdict of the 1633 trial, quoting Paul Feyerabend’s view that the Church’s “verdict against Galileo was rational and just, and the revision of this verdict can be justified only on the grounds of what is politically opportune.” Two years after Cardinal Ratzinger’s statement and 359 years after Galileo’s being found guilty of heresy, Pope John Paul II vindicated Galileo, saying:

Thanks to his intuition as a brilliant physicist and by relying on different arguments, Galileo, who practically invented the experimental method, understood why only the sun could function as the centre of the world, as it was then known, that is to say, as a planetary system. The error of the theologians of the time, when they maintained the centrality of the Earth, was to think that our understanding of the physical world’s structure was, in some way, imposed by the literal sense of Sacred Scripture….

This is now

Although it is rare in the Twenty-first Century to encounter attempts to discredit scientists who accept heliocentrism, there are a number of other areas in which the consensus of scientific experts is disputed, sometimes by religious authorities, sometimes by industrialists and sometimes by the much more amorphous corpus of what may be called, for want of a better term, popular culture. While the overwhelming majority of scientists in the world accept the Darwinian account of the origin of species—change of organisms through purely random mutation not guided by any intelligent purpose—only 32% of the American public admit to holding the conclusion of 87% of American scientists that change occurs solely through random processes without the guidance of purposeful intelligence. In contrast, a much higher percentage of the populations of Australia, Canada, Norway and the United Kingdom accept an account of biological change that explicitly excludes the involvement of a divine or intelligent factor. In industrialized countries, only Turkey has a lower general acceptance of the Darwinian account of the origins of species than the United States. The principal opposition to the Darwinian account in the United States comes from religious denominations. Such religious bodies as the Assemblies of God, two branches of the Lutheran church, the Free Methodist Church, Seventh-Day Adventists, the Southern Baptist Convention, various Pentecostal organizations and Jehovah’s Witnesses dispute the Darwinian view and propose some form of Creationism or Intelligent Design theory (which is but a variety of Creationism). Some of the opposition is based on literalistic reading of the Bible, while some is based on a concern that in the Darwinian account human beings are nothing more than another species of mammal with no special status in the universe.

Another area in which the overwhelming consensus of scientists is opposed by non-scientists is the question of global warming. According to a 2007 Harris poll report on the views of scientists,

The survey found 97% agreed that global temperatures have increased during the past 100 years; 84% say they personally believe human-induced warming is occurring, and 74% agree that “currently available scientific evidence” substantiates its occurrence. Only 5% believe that human activity does not contribute to greenhouse warming; 41% say they thought the effects of global warming would be near catastrophic over the next 50–100 years; 44% say said effects would be moderately dangerous; 13% saw relatively little danger; 56% say global climate change is a mature science; 39% say it is an emerging science.

Although recent surveys show that 68% of Americans now accept that global warming through human activity is taking place and is dangerous enough to warrant governmental regulations to reduce the production of greenhouse gases, there is a sharp political divide in the United States. 86% of the Democrats polled accepted that claim in contrast to 48% of Republicans. The principal opposition to scientific consensus on this matter comes either from religious authorities who claim that divine creation is immune to being seriously damaged by human action or from people who have vested interests in the fossil fuel industries or in some other sector of the economy that could be affected by a reduction in the availability of fossil fuels. While nothing quite like trials for heresy or prohibiting the publication of books, as took place in the 17th century, is occurring 400 years later, there are efforts in some quarters to discredit scientific findings on global warming, remove reference to the  subject in science classes in schools funded by public monies and muting mention of these findings in public media. One of the founders of The Weather Channel, John Coleman, proclaimed in an interview on CNN:

And if you get down to the hard, cold facts, there’s no question about it: Climate change is not happening, there is no significant, man-made global warming now, there hasn’t been any in the past, and there’s no reason to expect any in the future. There’s a whole lot of baloney.

A look at the official statement of The Weather Channel on global warming, however, shows that the beliefs of John Coleman have not dictated what the meteorologists think on the subject. That notwithstanding, it is safe to say that The Weather Channel is not the first place to turn for the latest developments in climatological studies on global warming. There the science is not being disputed as much as it is being marginalized, relegated to a back page buried deep in a website.

A third area in which there is a distance between the consensus of scientific researchers and the beliefs of the general public is the question of the health risks of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). According to Pew Research Center, the overwhelming consensus of scientific researchers is that genetically modified organisms pose no health risks to human beings (although some acknowledge that there could be unintended environmental consequences down the line). In the American public, however, 39% of the people polled said they believe that GMOs are worse for human health than foods that have no genetic modification. In that survey, there does not seem to be much difference between liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats, one ethnic group with another or level or education. On this particular issue the greatest differences are found in different age groups. In the youngest age group surveyed, people between 18 and 29, 48% were convinced that GMOs are unhealthy and only 35% believe GMOs make no difference to human health. In the oldest age group, people over the age of 65, only 29% believed that GMOs are unhealthy and 60% said they believe GMOs have no effect on human health one way or the other. Unlike the case with evolution and global warming, the significant discrepancy between scientific consensus and the views of the general population cannot be explained as the result of a conflict between scientists and religious authorities or people with vested economic interests. That said, the disagreement between scientists and the general public on GMOs is cited by Shawn Lawrence Otto as one of the many examples of truth being a casualty in what he has called a war on science in his book The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It, which is worth reading along with the review of it in Scientific American.

Author: Dayamati Richard Hayes

Jemez Springs, NM, USA

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