The Wisdom of Galileo

Portrait of Galileo Galilei by Justus Sustermans
Image in the Public Domain

I am reading a fascinating book entitled Galileo’s Daughter (Penguin Books, 2000). The author discusses Galileo’s life in the light of letters from one of his daughters, who lived most of her life as a nun. Her convent name was Suor Maria Celeste. While I have read a lot about the life of Galileo, this book has given me some new insights. It does a great job of blending the science that he worked on with the personal joys, sorrows, and difficulties that he experienced.

Currently, my favorite book on Galielo is Galileo, Bellarmine, and the Bible by Dr. Richard Blackwell. Published by The University of Notre Dame Press, it gives an unvarnished account of how poorly Galileo was treated by the Roman Catholic Church. In the end, however, this new book might end up becoming my favorite resource regarding this great man of science and faith. Of course, once I am completely finished, I will give it a thorough review.

The purpose of this post is to discuss an amazingly insightful thing written by Galileo way back in 1623. In a work that was meant to refute an interpretation of comets by Orazio Grassi, Galileo wanted to make it clear how little he cared about the opinion of the majority of scientists. He said:

The testimony of many has little more value than that of few, since the number of people who reason well in complicated matters is much smaller than that of those who reason badly. If reasoning were like hauling I should agree that several reasoners would be worth more than one, just as several horses can haul more sacks of grain than one can. But reasoning is like racing and not like hauling, and a single Arabian steed can outrun a hundred plowhorses. (p. 93)

Interestingly enough, Galileo was wrong about comets. He thought they were an atmospheric phenomenon, but we now know they are “dirty snowballs” that orbit the sun.

Even though Galileo was wrong about the matter he was addressing in that particular piece, his comment about the “testimony of many” rings quite true. Reasoning is, indeed, like racing. Simply put, the opinion of the majority should mean nothing when it comes to reasoning. Only the weight of the data and the solidity of the argument should be taken into account when determining what to believe.

Of course, there are many who think otherwise. The folks at Biologos, for example, don’t want you to think for yourself. Instead, they want to be your high priests, telling you what to believe when it comes to science, because they have the “testimony of many.” They think most people are just too ignorant to understand the data for themselves, so they want to tell people what the data mean. I tend to think a bit more of people than that, but I guess that’s one of the many differences between me and the folks at Biologos.

I am just glad that Galileo (and many like him) didn’t take the advice of the folks at Biologos. Rather than simply taking on faith the “scientific consensus” of his day, Galileo decided to look at the data himself. As a result, he was able to add great weight to the proper view of the solar system, as well as many other aspects of physics.

Science needs a lot more Galileos. Unfortunately, I don’t see a lot of them out there. Instead, I see a lot of scientists who are just willing to follow the “scientific consensus” without seriously questioning it or looking at the data in a new way. There is no question in my mind that this is inhibiting the progress of science.

I do have a hope, however. I think that the next generation of scientists will consist of a lot more Galileos, because there will be many homeschooled students among their ranks. Homeschoolers have been taught by example to question the “consensus” opinion on a lot of issues, and the homeschool-oriented curriculum with which I am familiar stresses critical thinking significantly more than the public school curriculum with which I am familiar. As a result, I think the next generation of scientists will have a lot more racehorses. That can only be good when it comes to the progress of science.


  1. The book by Blackwell is excellent. it has translations of Galileo’s private notes. It has a translation of Foscarini’s short book which is one of the most important in the history of the relation bewtween the Churh, science, and religion.

    Most important is Blackwell’s keen insight regarding the Edict of 1616. The Edict of 1616 blatanty violated the findings of the Council of Trent. The Council of Trent determined that the Chuch Fathers were only supreme in matters of faith and morals, not in matters of astronomy. This fact alone vindicates Galilio legally, and is almost never mentioned in treatments of Galileo’s trial.

    A modern analogy in the United States would be a law that violated the Constitution and all existing case law. Such a law is null and void, it is not a law. The same goes for the Edict of 1616.

    Even more remarkable, Galileo knew about this and made these arguments at the time. It is high time that we listen to, and learn, from Galileo. He was the most brilliant man who ever lived and his genius is not just confined to science.

    I welcome any correspondence on this matter, or on Galileo in general.

    1. jlwile says:

      Hello James. Thanks for the comment! You are right that Blackwell’s discussion of the Edict of 1616 is excellent. Actually, however, I thought the most interesting part of the book was his discussion of how the trial was summarized for the benefit of the Pope and the cardinals by an author whose name has been lost in history. I had never heard that the summary was the main resource they used to judge Galileo and that it was clearly made by someone who was against him.

      I am not sure I would go so far as to say Galileo was the most brilliant man who ever lived. I think Newton probably deserves that title a bit more. However, you are right that he was incredibly brilliant. The fact that he could use sunspots to demonstrate that the earth rotated is an indication of just how incredibly his brain worked!

      Have you read Galileo’s Daughter yet? If you are interested in the man, it is really an excellent resource.

  2. Josiah says:

    While I agree with what I understand is the primary meaning of Galileo’s position, is something in it that alarms me somewhat. Essentially it seems very prone to spark a sort of indepencence that might not be very healthy. In some ways might one not argue that the process of science is more of a relay, theorems and facts being passed on from generations in Newton’s classic “standing on the shoulders of Giants”. Or might it not be considered to have a drag element to it; a chariot race as it were? The concensus, with the study and debate that precedes it, has to be better than the raw investigation and conclusion. Is not an institution such as CERN would be more reliable than a lone man working on subatomics and dimensions. The lone man COULD be an Einstein and burst out with all manner of wild (but accurate) ideas, but that’s on the opposite pole from certain.

    Essentially it boils down to the truth, and one side is closer to it than the other. Nevertheless one must be very confident before claiming to be the strongest racehorse, to have the truth at the exclusion of the majority.

    “The truth is like a lion. Who ever heard of defending a lion. Just let it out and let it fight for itself.” — Spurgeon.

    1. jlwile says:

      Josiah, based on the conversation we had on the other blog, I am not surprised you see “a sort of independence that might not be very healthy.” Of course, I see just the opposite – an independence that is VERY healthy. Also, I see no contradiction with Galileo’s statement and Newton’s sentiment. Indeed, Galileo stood on the shoulders of Copernicus. The key is that Galileo was convinced by Copernicus’s arguments and the weight of the data.

      Galileo’s point (and mine) is that a belief is not more likely to be right just because a lot of scientists believe it. The consensus is not necessarily more reliable than a lone man’s view. Indeed, the “study and debate that precedes it” is quite likely to lead to the wrong conclusion, as it has many times in the past.

      If the consensus is on the side of truth, it can be supported by evidence and valid argumentation. If not, I don’t care how many scientists believe it.

  3. Josiah says:

    Doctor Wile, you have completely misunderstood me. As to that discussion, my mind has been firmly convinced that I was in the wrong, mostly through my own experiences later on. I agree wholeheartedly with what Galileo means in that truth and evidence, as opposed to concensus, is the defining factor for science. Probably the most significant thing that I’ve learned from you here is that one’s hypothesis in a matter must always bow before the evidence, and it is irrelevent demonstrating that something SHOULD (or shouldn’t) happen if the evidence says it doesn’t (or does).

    Since even good logic and sound premises must bow before the evidence, it is clear that this instance of the bandwagon falacy cannot be trusted when it encounters a contrary position. So I would never say that the view of the majority is supreme even while incorrect. Nevertheless given that both my premises and logic are prone to error, I would be wary if they went against the majority view. This would not prompt me to stop thinking and fall into line with the high priests of science. But it would prompt me (while still thinking for myself) to reconsider my own position and to assimulate such of their arguments as are justified.

    The only point on which I disagree with you is in “a belief is not more likely to be right just because a lot of scientists believe it” You stated it backward, but a given view is more likely to convince a lot of scientists if it is correct. If a number of individuals have reached a conclusion following their own investigation and thought process, that view will be more likely to be correct. I would agree with you if either condition is not met. If members of the group are not in fact convinced (but are instead silenced), it is invalid. Likewise if members reach a conclusion solely through the input of others and without their own research and contemplation (as would be expected of a more plebian group, and forms the core of the bandwagon falacy) the point is invalid.

    Would you say that for the majority of the modern scientific community in matters on which you differ from the majority, that either or both condition is not met?

    1. jlwile says:

      Josiah, I guess I did misunderstand you. I am not sure I completely agree with what you are saying, but I am close. I guess the main thing to consider is preconceptions and how large a role they play. When we are dealing with an aspect of science that is testable through repeated experiments, you are correct when you say, “a given view is more likely to convince a lot of scientists if it is correct.” For example, the vast majority of scientists think that vaccinations are safe and effective specifically because there is so much evidence for that position.

      The problem is that when an aspect of science is not testable through repeated experiments, preconceptions play a very large role. In Galileo’s day, for example, many aspects of astronomy could not be tested by experiment. As a result, scientists’ preconceptions played a large role in determining the “scientific consensus.” Today, questions about the age of the earth, evolution, global warming, etc., cannot be tested by repeated experiments. As a result, preconceptions play a major role in determining the “scientific consensus” on these issues. While preconceptions might play a role in the question of something like vaccination, that role is MUCH smaller, because repeated experiments can convince someone who is even predisposed to believe another way.

      So I guess I would add one other condition to your statement, “If members of the group are not in fact convinced (but are instead silenced), it is invalid. Likewise if members reach a conclusion solely through the input of others and without their own research and contemplation (as would be expected of a more plebian group, and forms the core of the bandwagon falacy) the point is invalid.” I would add, “If the members of the group are convinced more by preconceptions than by the data, the point is invalid.”

      With that addition, I would agree that for the majority of matters on which I differ from the majority of scientists, one of those three conditions is met.