Truth is heresy to Donald Trump, which makes Dr. Anthony Fauci our Galileo,” reads the headline of a recent op-ed in the Arizona Republic. Mario Livio, an astrophysicist, agrees. In a Stat News piece last May, he wrote that Fauci “now finds himself fighting a ‘Galilean’ fight in an effort to slow down an uninformed rush to open the country.”
Fauci is only the latest in a motley collection of figures to be compared admiringly to the seventeenth-century astronomer. The description aims to elevate its subject to a place of heroism and righteousness. But what do these comparisons achieve? What insight into current controversies does invoking Galileo lend?
In his new book Galileo and the Science Deniers, Livio presents the famed astronomer’s life as a parable for our own time. He returns throughout the book to climate change, creationism, and rejection of public experts as examples of a “striking similarity between some of the religious, social, economic, and cultural problems that a person in the seventeenth century had to struggle with, and those we encounter in the twenty-first.”
All this is a stretch to say the least, based on a simplistic view of how science works and its role in governing human affairs. Strangely, this same naïveté is shared by science’s loudest critics, who claim to debunk science by unmasking its human side. By perpetuating the myth of a science free of human judgment and flaws, Livio ironically winds up giving fodder to this cadre of contrarians, gadflies, and cranks — who also have the notable habit of comparing themselves to Galileo.
Galileo and the Science Deniers is in large part a straightforward account of the intellectual life of Galileo Galilei, his contribution to physics, and his protracted conflict with the Catholic Church over his work advancing the Copernican model of the solar system, which describes Earth revolving around the sun and not vice versa. Livio depicts Galileo as a hero fighting valiantly for truth against the corrupt powers of the Church — “a rebel with a cause.”
The book invites readers to consider debates of Galileo’s time — over astrophysical phenomena like the rings of Saturn and the laws of gravity — alongside accounts of how various popes and cardinals sought to direct the study of the heavens away from the heliocentric model. Livio’s emphasis is on the value and integrity of the knowledge Galileo produced and his unjust treatment by the Church, which put him under house arrest for the final eight years of his life.
In drawing the parallel between contemporary science controversies and Galileo’s struggle with the Church, Livio joins a broad cast of characters that have sought to bolster their arguments and their historical significance by leveraging Galileo’s story of persecution. One instance is Alice Dreger’s narrative in Galileo’s Middle Finger (2015), in which she recounts the stories of researchers who speak truth to power, persisting against politically motivated activists who seek to squelch what she casts as inconvenient facts. Or consider Judy Mikovits, the former researcher and anti-vaxxer who gained notoriety for her Plandemic video claiming that the Covid-19 pandemic is a government conspiracy — with few specifics beyond that Anthony Fauci is in on it. In her 2020 book Plague of Corruption, she depicts a corrupt public health establishment willing to do anything to silence those who challenge scientific orthodoxies on virology and vaccines. The opening lines of the book’s foreword by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. explicitly compare her to Galileo. In each of these cases, pointing to Galileo invokes a parable of truth versus power, with righteous defenders of empirical evidence fighting a corrupt establishment that seeks to hide the truth from an unwitting public.
Livio himself knows that these comparisons are fraught. He points to climate skeptics who have sought to cast themselves as the real Galileos, fighting a corrupt scientific cabal more concerned with maintaining government funding for their work than with characterizing atmospheric dynamics truthfully. Livio calls this the “Galileo gambit,” which derives from a failure to understand that “Galileo was right not because he had been mocked and criticized, but because the scientific evidence was on his side.” This is a rather tautological account of truth. And it is a strange account of justice, suggesting that the reason it was egregious for the Church to wield its life-quashing power over Galileo is that he was right (well, almost). Had the Church dispensed the same punishment to geocentrists, it seems, we should not have much cared.
Livio’s book proceeds from a fundamentally ahistorical parallel between the politics of Galileo’s day and our own. Quoting a letter from one of Galileo’s contemporaries about the dangerous climate of opinion for scientists in Rome, Livio writes that “one can hardly miss the similarity” to today, “replacing the word Pope with the appropriate current ruler who ‘abhors the liberal arts’ and who ‘cannot stand these novelties and subtleties.’ This raises the critical question of whether freedom of thought, and decision-making based on informed, evidence-based reasoning, are sufficiently strong at present, so as to prevent both catastrophic consequences and modern versions of the Galileo affair from reoccurring.” The reader can only assume that this is an invocation of then–President Trump, and perhaps some other comparable leaders around the world. But the comparison doesn’t hold up to even a cursory examination.
Galileo challenged a uniquely powerful religious authority that also served a central governing function. The Catholic Church was not only an enduring source of (at times violently upheld) stabilizing power across centuries, but also the arbiter of truth and bestower of wealth and position. This entrenched power reacted against a challenge to its authority to describe the world and humanity’s place in it. Trump’s power and manner of reasoning were a far cry from those of the seventeenth-century Catholic Church. In many ways Trump represents a public rejection of existing norms and order, not their defense. And his administration’s evasion and inaction, however reprehensible, are a small part of the story of our climate woes, only the most recent manifestation of a decades-long failure.
The other side of the equation — Livio’s account of climate science — is hardly less troubled. Livio writes as if science follows a set trajectory: it first observes, then explains, then predicts. Compared to astronomy and physics, he argues,
the research concerning climate change today is progressing along similar steps. First, there has been observed century-scale rise in the average temperature in the Earth’s climate system. This was followed by studies aimed at identifying the main causes for this change, resulting in detailed climate models that have by now made predictions regarding the anticipated effects in the twenty-first century.
The messy reality of climate change research is unrecognizable in this neat account. He depicts climate models as the final stage of research into a warming planet, when actually they have been integral elements in the very creation of climate knowledge since the middle of the twentieth century. And worries that human activity may cause global warming, in turn, are hardly the product of climate models — they actually go as far back as the late nineteenth century.
There is an irony in these mistakes. On Livio’s account, the parallel between Galileo’s day and ours is plain: In both, there is widespread rejection of “the interpretation of the results” of scientific studies “almost solely on the basis of religious or political ideology.” Once one is in the grip of a theory like this, the contextual details hardly matter, only that both cases represent inadequate appreciation for science’s authority. All this, in other words, is based on an idealized vision — an ideology, one might say — in which science describes the world independently of human values, speaks in a unified voice across disciplines, and offers up unambiguous prescriptions for action. This bears little relation to scientific practices of the real world, the collection of human activities we can actually go out and observe.
The trouble is not that Livio’s picture of an orderly scientific process is inaccurate in this one case, but that any attempt to represent science in such a neat, linear fashion is misleading. These descriptions aim to create an idealized image of capital-s Science that is universal, mechanical, and beyond the subjective foibles of actual human beings. This is the image that provides the Galileo trope with its mythical power to delineate unambiguously between truth and falsity by appealing to the oracular power of scientific truth. Livio believes that Science can adjudicate human affairs because it floats serenely above human pursuits.
For instance, on this account “science attempts to explain and predict the universe. Literature and the arts” — and, he later adds, religion — “provide our emotional response to it.” Science describes the world as it is, while values provide guidance to the moral questions posed by science.
This all sounds very simple, until one considers just about any recent controversy concerning the conduct of scientific experiments. A useful example is the ongoing debate around heritable human genetic engineering, recently brought to public attention by the revelation that Chinese scientist He Jiankui had altered the genetic makeup of twin girls in vitro to possibly make them immune to HIV. Genes are complex, and each serves multiple (as yet largely unmapped) purposes, so the target of the alteration may well influence other aspects of human health and wellbeing, perhaps even traits like intelligence. These changes are heritable, and thus would impact not only the twins but also their descendants. Such research can hardly be neutral about the meaning of human life, how it should be manipulated, and what the boundaries of experimental intervention should be, not to mention the kinds of risks to individuals and groups that are acceptable to undertake in the name of knowledge and human “enhancement.”
This is not, then, a case in which science can first describe the world and then allow for value judgments to be formed on that basis. Creating knowledge is not a matter of passively observing the world but of acting and intervening. The very performance of an experiment, even as it is an act of knowledge creation, is also an act of political and moral significance — think of the splitting of the atom or the Soviet experiment in creating a two-headed dog.
Or consider another infamous case. The Tuskegee Syphilis Study targeted a group of black men in Alabama to study the long-term effects of syphilis, withholding knowledge about the purpose of the research as well as available effective treatments. This research, conducted by the United States Public Health Service from the 1930s into the 1970s, is a clear example of the role of human values and broader social biases in the creation of knowledge itself. The choice of the population of research subjects was guided by judgments regarding the value of some human lives over others. The value of documenting the details of the disease’s progression was elevated above that of the subjects’ lives and wellbeing. While the study produced knowledge, it is now rightly felt that it should never have taken place.
In his final flourish, Livio depicts science as “a realm in which one can point to unambiguous progress.” He points to the contrast between present-day life expectancy in England and in Galileo’s time, the fact that men have now walked on the moon, and the extensive understanding we have gained of microbial life and “the basic constituents of everyday matter.” One could add to the list the extensive degradation of land and waterways with man-made chemicals, the novel risk of nuclear annihilation of life, and of course climate change itself, all also outcomes “of undertakings emerging from science.” Cases like the Tuskegee Syphilis Study make clear the contingency of what appears to be progress, and the unequal allocation of the benefits — and costs — of new knowledge. To speak of human progress is to write out the experiences of a huge number of people who have experienced scientific history from a far less triumphant position.
The Tuskegee study and the human genetic-engineering experiment, though particularly illustrative, are not anomalous cases of values somehow intruding on scientific research. Rather, they show that the political and moral stakes of research are integral to the undertaking, even if they are often less visible and don’t rise to the level of public controversy. The very questions scientists ask, and the ways they answer them, are shaped by human values, financial motivations, political aspirations, and institutional systems. This is not to say that scientific knowledge is thus contaminated, bad, or universally unreliable. But neither is it detached from the cultural contexts in which it is produced. Nor is it all of a kind, all equally valuable, or all equally sound by virtue of being “science.”
Rather than unwavering belief in the value of all scientific inquiry and the authority of its conclusions, scientific research demands active critical assessment of how questions are formulated and addressed, for what reasons, and in whose interests. That is to say, Livio’s hope that we can first accept the claims of science writ large, and then apply value-based frameworks after science has defined the world, obscures that the questions science asks are themselves as much products of human values as productive of them. The processes of asking, answering, evaluating and acting are deeply and inexorably intertwined.
The fiction that science precedes everything else in human affairs impoverishes our ability to understand and act in a complex world. It contributes to the shoddy politics of truth that Livio earnestly seeks to remedy. And it misdirects energy that might be better directed toward our most pressing challenges.
The linear myth has done particular damage to our efforts to address a warming planet. Under the myth, because knowledge can translate straightforwardly into action, science itself can dictate our behavior, and the main task is to achieve widespread public deference to scientific authority. As Livio puts it: “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.”
But the solutions don’t just follow neatly from an understanding of the problem, nor can they be simply embraced. The United States has had leaders who have readily acknowledged the threat of climate change but have failed to advance effective policies. Similarly, even most individuals who comprehend the threat to human existence posed by climate change regularly get on airplanes, use disposable plastics, drive cars, eat beef, and consume a dizzying multitude of products and foodstuffs made from petrochemicals that have been shipped across the world. Activities that contribute to climate change are so deeply embedded in contemporary life that solutions are neither obvious nor simple.
Climate research describes a world where human life will be disrupted as a result of human activities. This conclusion powerfully suggests that action of one kind or another is desirable: As Livio points out, in the case of climate change, “the stakes are simply too high.” By contrast, the heliocentrism controversy made little difference to the daily life of people in Galileo’s time. There was no urgency to intervene in the process, and while Galileo’s challenge to the Church’s authority itself had political significance, neither the opinion of the Church nor of Galileo was going to alter the orbit of the earth.
This is where the Galileo trope finally falls apart. Its believers want to invoke the oracular power of science precisely where it is most consequential for politics — but this is just where its application is most messy.
To sympathetic readers, Galileo and the Science Deniers will do little but flatter their self-image as advocates for science against the forces of darkness. The book reinforces the way many of us see the world today: There are those who know the truth and those who are blinded by religion, profit, or politics, and are endangering us all. By casting the problem as lying with those who don’t believe in science, and the solution as enlarging the circle of believers, this image actually narrows our political options, making it more likely we will continue the same strategies that have failed for decades.
And while the Galileo trope distracts us from solving urgent problems, it also creates ample opportunity for troublemaking by the very contrarians Livio seeks to vanquish. Judy Mikovits can gain remarkable traction by — not implausibly — accusing the pharmaceutical industry of being corrupted by profit-seeking. Because science is so widely represented as pure, it is easy to point to the actual practices of funding, research, and technological development and say, Look, it’s all contaminated by interests and values and people and companies who stand to gain!
All this is not to downplay the genuine problems at stake here, the questions about how science is funded, the practices by which technologies get designed, whose concerns get accommodated in these processes, and so on. Quite the contrary: Our politics will probably be dysfunctional so long as we insist on being scandalized by the discovery that science is a human practice, rather than working to govern it as such.
Livio’s book is an informative read about the life of a great astronomer, and the historical development of fundamental laws of physics and knowledge of planetary motion. But his hope of making sense of today’s politics of truth, and of inspiring collective action on climate change, is a failure. It may be reassuring to imagine ourselves as players in a Galilean drama of truth versus power, but we’ll be stuck in this mess until we find new scripts to follow.
You Are Not Galileo