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Persecuted prophets and maligned mavericks: The Galileo Gambit.

February 21, 2012
Look out for those who portray themselves as the victims of the ‘Big Science’ establishment. This is a red flag.

How to recognise this tactic

Users of this tactic will try to persuade you that they belong to a tradition of maverick scientists who have been responsible for great advances despite being persecuted by mainstream science. They will compare themselves with scientists they imagine are part of it   The most popular draftee is Galileo, and for that reason this tactic is usually known as the Galileo Gambit.


But the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.

Carl Sagan, American cosmologist and science communicator, 1979

Why do people use this tactic?

People use this tactic to gain sympathy and to tap into the myth of the lone sage who knows better than the establishment. They need to rationalize the lack of acceptance of their ideas by mainstream science.

Instances of this tactic do not always explicitly refer to Galileo. Other ‘mavericks’ used as examples are Wegener (continental drift), Pasteur (microbes and disease), and Semmelweis (antiseptics). More often, it’s simply an appeal to the general idea that many great ideas have initially been ridiculed before being accepted as mainstream.

What’s wrong with this tactic

Basically, the idea that mainstream science persecutes dissenters is a myth. It’s common for scientists to come up with models which confront the established ideas of science. They generally meet with stiff opposition. The scientific community does not easily give up models which have served it well, and some scientists may defend them fiercely. But if new models are supported by evidence, and they bring better explanations, they eventually prevail. Albert Einstein, Georg Ohm, Charles Darwin, Barbara McClintock, among many others, encountered initial opposition to their ideas, but it would be far-fetched to call this persecution. Because they had evidence to back them up, the ideas were eventually accepted.

Barbara McClintock

Barbara McClintock in her lab, Cold Spring Harbor, 1947

Galileo was persecuted by religious authorities, not the scientific community. His ideas were based on those of fellow scientists Nicolas Copernicus and Tycho Brahe, ideas which were accepted by many scientists at the time. Galileo was right because he had evidence to support his claims, not because he was persecuted.

Most people with unorthodox models have no supporting evidence and are wrong. Occasional rebels are correct, they present supporting evidence, and their models are then taken seriously.

What to do when confronted by this tactic

  • Consider the reliability of those making the claim. Could they be biased or have an agenda?
  • If possible, ask to see the supporting evidence for their conclusions. Is the claim based on only one or two studies? Or none at all?
  • Do an online check of any studies that are cited. Have they been through a peer-review process? Were they published in legitimate scientific journals?
  • Check online to find out whether there are systematic reviews of their claims or similar claims. For claims about health, try the Cochrane Library.

Variations and related tactics

The Galileo Gambit is form of association fallacy –  honor by association: “I am being treated just like Galileo was. He was honorable, therefore I am too”.

Examples

  • The Galileo Gambit is frequently found in the global warming debate. The Galileo Movement, a climate-change denier organisation, has employed the ultimate Galileo Gambit by taking his name. Presumably, its promoters were unaware the tactic is a well-known  indicator of dodgy science. From their ‘Who we are’ page:

Galileo had the courage to stand apart from the mob of philosophers and scientific explorers who bowed to bullying from religious and Government authority. He was enslaved that we could be free. His greatest gift is beyond his science, it is our freedom. Although he suffered, ironically the world has come around to him.

That is now threatened as ideology seeks to replace science and control seeks to replace freedom.

As this excerpt shows, the organisation also tends to mix its political ideology with its concept of science.

  • Anti-vaccination campaigners consistently apply the Galileo Gambit to defend Andrew Wakefield, the researcher who started a global scare about MMR vaccine. The website Age of Autism presented him with its first ‘Galileo Award‘. Presumably, those in charge were also unaware of the Galileo Gambit’s reputation. Serious defects have been found in Wakefield’s research. The British General Medical Council investigated Wakefield, and in 2010, he was struck off the Medical Register for serious professional misconduct. Soon after, The Lancet retracted the paper by Wakefield and others that initiated the controversy.
  • Biologist Rupert Sheldrake has developed a model known as  morphic resonance which attempts to explain various phenomena, such as telepathy. He has subjected this model to experimental testing. Most of the scientific community is skeptical about his model and the validity of his experiments. Some are very scathing in their criticisms, accusing his work of being unscientific. Sheldrake is very critical of what he calls ‘dogmatic skeptics‘, however, he does not (as far as I have been able to detect) resort to the Galileo Gambit, and insists that he works within scientific tradition.
  • Update 2014/07/10: Here’s a fascinating illustration of the way the Galileo delusion will extend to incorporate any situation that contains the persecuted maverick meme. Case Smit, one of the founders of the Galileo Movement (see the first example above), has written a letter to his local newspaper, Noosa Today. In his mind, climate change deniers are just like Lance Armstrong doubters, unacknowledged but persecuted maverick sages who will eventually be vindicated. (And I’ll not mention Godwin’s Law rearing its head at the end).
    The big lie

Add to the list of examples by leaving a comment.


The term “Galileo Gambit” was coined by Orac at Respectful Insolence in 2005. He has recently republished the post here.
Carl Sagan’s quote is from Broca’s Brain, p64.
The Barbara McClintock photo is from Wikimedia Commons.

This is one of ScienceOrNot’s Science red flags. See them all here.
24 Comments
  1. Hi there.

    Very nicely put – I especially like the Red Flag box / feature.

    Have you seen Barry Bickmore’s presentation on How to avoid the truth about climate change? It is all very good but in the middle he addresses the point – Climate change sceptics are not like Galileo – very well.

    • Thanks for the feedback Martin.

      And thanks for the link to Barry Bickmore. I’m checking it out now.

      • Bickmore is a powerful advocate – because of who he is and his renunciation of former prejudice – more so maybe than even Muller (incomplete renunciation) and Nordhaus (better late than never).

        Please delete the rest of this comment if you wish to protect your own privacy but, judging by the date stamps on your comments here and on my blog you are GMT+10? That limits the field quite severely to NT or SA doesn’t it?

  2. Given your location, you will probably appreciate this:
    All things are connected… (12 January 2012).

  3. Hameiri permalink

    I have used this “gambit” and I am not looking for sympathy. I am showing that consensus does not equal science. You are right that just because Galileo was persecuted was not the reason he was right. The same can be said for consensus. It does not prove you are right either.

  4. This website is a splendid resource for explaining to laypeople such as myself why certain arguments masquerading as scientific are nothing of the kind.

    I particularly like the “red flags” feature. I think anyone who has ever tried to “debate” AIDS denialists, climate change “skeptics”, anti-vaccinationists, etc will recognise many if not most of these gambits.

    Here’s one you might like to add to the list that I come across all the time:

    “Arguing based on a premise that is false but which is unstated.”

    Leaving a premise unstated is often a successful tactic for getting under the radar in “debate”, especially if the false premise is something which might seem reasonable at first glance to the uninitiated, or which requires some effort to even identify, let alone to debunk.

    An example: a prominent AIDS denialist claims that HIV cannot be the cause of AIDS because the sex ratios of HIV prevalence and AIDS prevalence are completely different, citing US AIDS notifications among teenagers in the mid to late 1980s, compared to HIV prevalence among the largest contemporary US teenage data set he could find – applicants to the military. AIDS was more prevalent among male teenagers than female teenagers by about 9 to 1, while HIV prevalence among teenage male military applicants was about equal to that among female applicants. The HIV data set was huge (over a million tests), so the unspoken premise was that this set could be taken as a representative sample of American teenagers with regard to HIV/AIDS risk.

    Of course it can’t. The male predominance of AIDS at the time was because most cases amongst teenagers were among haemophiliacs (virtually all male), gay males, and injecting drug users (who were predominantly male). For obvious reasons haemophiliac teenagers don’t usually apply to join the military, and recruiting policies at the time excluded gay men and IDUs – at least in theory if not entirely in practice.

    Not sure how you succinctly describe the tactic, but I think it deserves a red flag. There’s a discussion of it (or something like it) here:

    http://www.dailykos.com/story/2009/06/05/739123/-Denial-Movements-101-introduction-to-argumentoids

    Anyway, thanks for setting up an excellent website, and one that deserves to be more widely known.

    • Thanks, Snout. It’s great to hear you appreciate my work.

      Your suggested red flag seems to be a bit like cross between a straw man and simply wrong logic. There must be a label for it somewhere. Thanks for the suggestion – I’ll add it to my list.

  5. Wayne permalink

    Hey, im having this exact debate today. Im not a qualified scientist and for the first time ever used Galileo example today to tell my scientist friend that if he was Galileos friend he would have told him to stay with what the church says haha, but as a joke clearly… I am curious but, and it really does concern me, that people have such a problem with an idea that varies from mainstream. I agree with climate change, yet I have a scientist on my back saying only read university published, and sanctioned publications. this to me, who i consider myself an open minded person quite capable of discering fact from fiction. The thing that concerns me, and as your article has done, is that there is a definete tendancy in mainstream science, well media in general, to shun anything thats different. If an idea is weak or completely wrong, then science will proove it soon enough. To lecture someone to stay with mainstream ideas is nothing but telling people not to think for themselves is it not? In regards to climate change or vaccines, sure its a touchy subject, but imagine there really was something wrong with the science behind either one, and it took one critical person to bring it up, yet they are blocked out within the media and therefore never get to effect change.. Opposing scientists or lay persons are essentially a balancing figure. Clearly if the opposing information is bogus, as mentioned, science will figure it out. But for shutting people up from having a view, which is what some people seem to want to do, is just plain risky. We as a species have come this far through allowing individuals to speak their minds. Whether Galileo-esque is not the point. Suppressing information is whole different story, which is what such criticism of alternative ideas, could lead to under a government that is convinced by ego driven individuals who want to keep all the pie… My debate with my friend is not even about climate change is essence, its more about an untrained individual having a voice to express when the logic of something doesnt quite work out. With my friend politely pointing out that he is the trained scientist. This is just pure arogance is it not? Or blindness, I mean its not like we have compared IQ’s, or had a fair assessment of the critical thinking atributes of each individual. I think its arrogant for a scientist to also think that theyre the ones that have the secret key to thinking about how nature or the cosmos works. Mainstream science today, definetely operates on a non-divergent path of knowledge. Its like we have finally set in place the specific constructs within society, on how we do things, and how it should be done, that people with a piece of paper from a university think they sit higher in intelligence circles. i mean, its honestly not about the use of facts. It could be an array of reasons why the untrained has different views. Perhaps he reads more of sanctioned and non-sanctioned information, and makes connections between the two. My friend and I’s issue is that I have differing views on the cosmos, basically from exploring differnt theories of what could be going on. But because the mainstream accepted explanation is the big bang, then that is not to be considered otherwise. Yet if any domain is open to thinking outside the box, its the nature of the cosmos and quantum physics. In this area, it might only take an anology of some sort for a philosophical being to hit the nail on the head with a more plausible idea. I personally think that scientists and those within and focussed on only their own areas, can be at huge risk of missing alternative informations that could affect their own fields. take biology and physics and the cross overs. There are a myriad of examples. I think the open mind is quickly being squashed in favour of herd mentality in western society and education. In all honest I dont think it will be long at all the idea of the big bang will be out the window, but im not allowed to say that because im not a cosmologist apparently. or I atleast need facts to back it up… As for climate change, I had to scan the internet to prove that something other than humans, could be playing a part in the debate. Before anyone shoots me down, I do believe that humans are playing their part also. The only legitemate thing I could find was a link from Harvard regarding interstellar clouds. yet my scientist frind couldnt even acknowledge that maybe something beyond humanities influence could be effecting our climate. His argument was that the sun has weakened. My point is that there is 400 billion suns in our galaxy, we arent isolated, we are a part of a much much greater system. I wasnt even disproving climate change, yet i wasnt allowed an opinion on it. And when i stated that i believe in climate change, i was told it has facts so its not to be believed in. Well, yes, a human is not a computer, the information that enters our processing unit is subjectively analysed, therefore it is belief isn’t it? Back on vaccines, its important to raise the concerns of scientists and parents in regards to injecting ‘stuff’ into your children. Instead of shooting and persecuting the messengers, governement should be acting on behalf of these people and approaching pharmacutical companies ‘why are people concerned? should they be concerned? how can we aleviate these concerns?” Anyway, I would love your feedback. I get genuinly concerned with people having different views, being shot to the ground. No one will speak up one day and it will be to the detriment of humanity as a whole. Regards ;-)

    PS apologies for any spelling mistakes, its home time haha

    • Wayne, in my view, you have the wrong idea of the way science operates. No matter what your friend says, it basically comes down to the issue of evidence. Anyone who can present supporting evidence for a claim deserves to be listened to, and that’s what happens in science. There is no conspiracy to suppress ideas, just a requirement that you can’t just come up with ideas and expect them to be listened to if you haven’t tested them and collected the evidence. I urge you to read the Hallmarks of Science pages on this site. I genuinely think it will change your outlook.

  6. Wayne permalink

    Thanks Graham, I will have a look later today. I dont think there is any conspiracy, I think there is more a risk of pigeon holing within fields. Scientists only seeing whats in the headlights. As herd mentality in humans does have a tendancy to prejudice against the mainstream. I completely agree with producing the data. What about a different interpretation of data? Such a person to do so could be sneered at given current trends in media etc. And the media do factor into this a massive amount. In my view. I dont think I have the wrong idea of how science operates at all. On the contrary, there is observing data, and there is interpreting data. there is observing the workings of nature and there is interpretting it. Darwin observed and interpretted brilliantly for example. According to yours and many others argument, he requires almost mathematical equations today to proove his theories. I fear that Darwin today would have a harder time prooving his ideas than in his time of existence. You may find this article interesting http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/17674/title/Exclusion-Of-Diversity-And-Creativity-Impedes-Scientific-Innovation/ and it may express my concern clearer than I am able to. Or you may just be swayed easier because its on a shiny, formatted webpage, with the words The Scientist across the top, and comes as a magazine… Tsk Tsk, just joking, but it expresses what im trying to convey.

    As an example: “Exclusion of ideas created at the margins of mainstream science ensures that not only the bad, but also the brilliant hypotheses of persons on a path less traveled are ignored. Scientific ideas that lack the data that will ultimately prove or disprove their validity are too often destroyed before the worth of the hypothesis is determined. Many a novel concept has been exiled to oblivion with the epitaph “you have no data; you can’t say that.”

    You have to admit that the loss of ideas within society, historically, and currently, is a big risk isnt it? Especially within the current constructs of society. Cheers for the response ;-)

    PS- I just had a look at your recommendation prior to posting this, and I would like to think I have a good grasp of all those concepts already. But thanks for hilighting as a precaution. Im just assessing the idea that there is something wrong with the sceintific model itself I guess.. Or the education maybe.. Potentially. Dont get me wrong, I in no way think Im right, just looking at things a little differently and considering the possibilities.

    • Wayne permalink

      Sorry *I meant prejudice with mainstream, and against the fringes.

    • Wayne permalink

      Graham, just to clarify, im in no way debating the requirement of evidence to proove something as fact, theory or anything… More the possibility that science dismisses prior to this evidence being available in the first place. Perhaps its not science dismissing it itself, but maybe the pre-constructed ideas of the people (scientists) involved in the first place. I hope that clears it up, because I confused a friend with my first response, so possibly you also.

      • I hope my previous reply (below) covers this, Wayne. In short, I don’t agree that science dismisses or suppresses ideas. In science, as in all fields, there are always lots of people who resist accepting new ideas, but the notion that the scientific community systematically does this is, in my view, completely wrong.

    • Wayne,

      A few observations:

      • In my book, data isn’t evidence. It’s more a case of evidence = data + interpretation
      • I don’t think there’s anything new in the realization that fringe ideas have a struggle for existence. It happens in all fields. There is always a tendency to go with the mainstream, but in science, there is great prestige attached to overturning an existing paradigm (it’s the sort of thing people get Nobel Prizes for). So the idea that novel ideas are suppressed in science just doesn’t have any legs.
      • It’s terribly simplistic and inaccurate to characterize science as saying “you have no data; you can’t say that”. A more accurate catch-cry would be “you have no evidence; you can say what you like, but no-one will accept your ideas until you provide evidence; in the meantime you should not promote them as scientifically valid”.

      Finally, I’m at a bit of a loss to understand how I’ve ever implied that Darwin “requires almost mathematical equations today to prove his theories.”

      Did you read the Hallmarks of Science pages, or just the list of headings? Judging by some of the ideas you’ve expressed, I suspect you might be surprised at what’s in each one.

  7. Wayne permalink

    I agree with your observations. As for Darwin, I was eluding to the premise of the actual article you originally posted, as well as much media within the scientific community. Im not trying to offend or prove you wrong, just discussing. I havent read into the Hallmarks as yet, but I have it open for lunch time;-)

    I think, as you pointed out, “In science, as in all fields, there are always lots of people who resist accepting new ideas, but the notion that the scientific community systematically does this is, in my view, completely wrong.” Im concerned that this is becoming more common than people would like to admit. And I guess the more people in the field of science the higher the risk of having these people within it. As you understand already, and I concur that this is not an issue in regards to many scientist that have been around for years, or are purely just brilliant scientists. But the influx of new scientists tends to not be the same free thinker/open minded/problem solver, that many established scientists are. Or perhaps its just my mate that gives me that impression… haha..

    Did you read the article I posted? I promise to get through the Hallmarks over the next few days, there is alot of reading in there… I dont think my understanding is quite as naive as you think it may be, but I have rambled a bit and so understand your assumption. Im just expressing stuff thats floating around in my head over the past few days, in the context of the bigger picture, not specifically the methods that equate to being science etc.. And so wanted some reading/discussion/opposing ideas & views to keep my own in check ;-) Cheers for the feedback, much appreciated mate… Wayne

    • I did read the article, Wayne, but as you can appreciate, I don’t agree with the author’s stance. I can understand his concern with “big science”, but his continual referral to ‘dogma’ just doesn’t fit with what I can see happening in science. This has probably got a lot to do with the fact that it was written 17 years ago. I think the sudden propulsion into the limelight of the workings of the scientific process, catalyzed by the climate debate, has made a difference.

      I wouldn’t label you as naive at all, but I do think you might have been persuaded to see some motives that aren’t really there (not in significant amounts, anyway). It’s been an illuminating discussion.

      • Steve Firestone permalink

        I certainly can understand the insistence of evidence to backup any claims. I totally disagree that just because there is some pull to prove a breakthrough, there isn’t any mainstream bias to stay there. Also, if you happen to know that the cycles and models that are being used now are insufficient, any evidence derived from them only occasionally prove things in the micro sense, not the macro. You need both to predict.

        Lastly, when you take raw data, and then massage it with any “scientifically proven” assumptions, you are kind of like anthropologists deriving cultures from digs. Interesting, but probably not sustainable in the long run.

  8. I suppose, Galileo isn’t the issue here per se, but I would prefer the article didn’t have the implied “cuckoo religious fanatics” angle throughout, to the extent that it is unnecessary to make the point, and to the extent that actually Galileo’s story as presented here (quite reasonably, as it is the most popular version these days) is in fact wrong, or at least controversial.
    See this discussion on slashdot for interesting background, lots of useful clarifications and references there: http://science.slashdot.org/story/13/08/26/1915234/galileo-right-on-the-solar-system-wrong-on-ice.
    The short version: Galileo was right but for the wrong reasons (and heliocentrism was not unpopular at the time as the story might want you to think, so he was not exactly alone in this). Instead of discussing merits and limitations of his theory, he tried to push it as accepted fact (remember, based on observations now proven to be wrong, i.e. bad science). When he was challenged by the scientific community of his time (what was then called ‘natural philosophy’) to provide evidence for these assertions, he declined, and instead went on a very vocal campaign (i.e. activism) which was highly unprofessional and specifically insulting to the Pope, i.e. the ‘authorities’ of the time. In other words, his story was more about politics than science. This is what got him into trouble, and not some sort of noble upholding of science against religious quackery; in fact, if anything, ironically in this particular instance, it was the Church which properly and rigorously upheld the scientific standards of the time.

    • I’ve looked again and again at the article, but I can’t find any ‘“cuckoo religious fanatics” angle throughout’, implied or otherwise. And I’m afraid I can’t agree that “it was the Church which properly and rigorously upheld the scientific standards of the time.” In what possible way would Galileo’s vocal campaign violate scientific standards?

      • Ronk permalink

        Tasos is correct. The article states
        “Galileo was persecuted by religious authorities, not the scientific community. His ideas were based on those of fellow scientists Nicolas Copernicus and Tycho Brahe, ideas which were accepted by many scientists at the time. Galileo was right because he had evidence to support his claims, not because he was persecuted.”

        All three of these statements are historically false.
        It was the majority of his fellow scientists who objected to Galileo’s now-thoroughly-discredited theory of the motions of the heavenly bodies and the earth, because he had no proof of them and in fact the evidence supported other theories, notably Johannnes Kepler’s. Galileo rejected Kepler’s now-universally-acknowledged theory that the planets ohave elliptical orbits, on the grounds that the orbits must be perfect circles, not to satuisfy any evidence but just because Galieleo “felt” that it must be so. When challenged to provide evidence for his theory, Galileo claimed that the tides, whcih he ignorantly thought occurred only once per day, proved it, Everyone knew he was wriong even his own supporters.

        Also Galileo’s means of arguing for his cause was simply to loudly proclaim that anyone who disagreed with him was an idiot, even those who had shown friendship to him or were powerful politicians (and the pope was both).

        Galileo was not “persecuted” by anyone. The theory that the earth moves around the sun had been propounded by numerous people in Catholic countries like the Catholic priest Copernicus 50 years earlier, and TWO HUNDRED years earlier the Catholic bishop Nicholas of Cusa had taught that the earth moves through space, after which the pope made him a Cardinal.

        Galileo not only wrongly insisted to his fellow scientists that the evidence supported his theory, he even crossed the line into theology (at which he had no qualifications whatsoever) and insisted that Bible phrases such as the incident where God made “the sun stand still” for Joshua , must be interpreted by the Pope and all Christians according to Galileo-s theory.

        Galileo’s theoriries in mechanics were sound science, but his astronomical theories were not. Galileo is the woo-woo pseudoscientist here. The author should have also in his otherwise excellent article, debunked the myth that Galileo was the victim of some sort of anti-science agenda.

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