Wednesday, 8 September 2010

The "I am Galileo"-argument

One of the endearing traits of the anti-science movement is the cornu copia of logical fallacies they feel proves their point. It does not matter whether they refute global warming, promote the spread of infectious diseases, think giving water (shaken, not stirred) is practising medicine, insist evolution is a plot by evil fascists, or dismiss any other part of science that conflicts with their ideology. Part of their modus operandi is the use of arguments that to any rational observer make no sense at all. Confronted with this array of illogical arguments I have tried to find an explanation for why these people hold on to views that are demonstrably false.

While reading about yet another incarnation of the science-is-nothing-more-than-religion-cult I remembered my internship at the department of Psychiatry. There I was told that the main characteristic of a delusion is holding on to evidently incorrect ideas while no evidence presented will ever be sufficient to abandon that view. As such I imagined that part of the denialist-syndrome is some form of delusional disorder. And indeed we can recognise several subtypes.

Not infrequently the reasoning incorporates the belief they are Galileo. The argument in general goes like this:
  1. There is a global conspiracy by scientists to keep "The Truth" hidden and simultaneously spread misinformation,
  2. The anti-science movement only wants to expose those policies,
  3. Because of that scientists are persecuting these "sceptics,"
  4. For having a dissenting view to that of The Church Galileo was persecuted,
  5. The science behind Galileo's observations turned out to be right,
  6. The fact Gallileo was persecuted proves the anti-science movement is right.
This is referred to as the Galileo fallacy, or gambit. Any rational bystander would be impressed by the sheer number of statements incompatable with common sense and logic.
  1. What evidence do they offer for this conspiracy?
  2. What evidence supports their opposing view?
  3. Since when is requiring to adhere to the scientific method persecution?
  4. Claiming to be comparable to one of the greatest minds in history is at best a tad arrogant.
What these "sceptics" fail to notice is that Galileo made observations based in science, something they invariably refuse to do. Since his conclusions contradicted religious dogma, i.e. ideology, the Church attacked him. His findings were opposed not on their merits but by appeal to authority: the bible. Enter the anti-science brigade. The mere fact their stance is rejected too proves they, like Galileo, are persecuted. Wrong. They clearly misunderstand the meaning of the word.

The truth, as opposed to "The Truth," of the matter is that they fail to produce any scientific evidence, which Galileo did. Pointing this out is not equal to persecution. This alone makes the comparison risible. Second, even if they were being persecuted it does not prove they are right. Many have been persecuted in the past but I doubt the Shoah had anything to do with Jews offering dissenting scientific theories. Or, as Robert Park observed:
To wear the mantle of Galileo, it is not enough to be persecuted: you must also be right.
Third, they ignore any evidence contradicting their view, which the Church did also. This suggest they should invoke the Church and not Galileo. Last, by equating yourself to one of the greatest minds in history to justify ignoring the vast majority of scientists is more than slightly delusional. Of course, we do have examples (how many can you cite?) of Galileo-type situations. But most of the "alternative views" turn out to be simply wrong. Every time such a "dissenting voice" is adopted by the mainstream it adheres to the rules of the game. Something the anti-science crowd vehemently opposes. Their position is akin to playing tennis with your feet. Just like the pro-science movement those you oppose will object to you using your feet because in tennis that is not supposed to be done. How many people would accept the defense: "well I am special therefore I should be allowed to ignore the rules?"

Nevertheless the anti-science movement refuses to subject themselves to our current rules of the game of science. Strangely enough when they are then told this means their claims are unscientific (i.e. not tennis) they scream persecution. For some reason they feel the stringent rules science has adopted should not apply to them because they are inherently special. Umm. No. The entire crux of science is there are no special cases or individuals. Everybody has to abide by what is called the scientific method. Being Galileo does not suddenly remove that burden from you.

Thinking of Godwin's law I would suggest there should be a Galileo's law: invoking Galileo in any (scientific) debate instantly proves your position is inherently unscientific.

Update: Just discovered Galileo was wrong.

Update II: Responding to the suggestion Galileo was wrong here is a review of what he was saying by Ethan Siegel while Orac adds his two cents.