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.