Persecuted prophets and maligned mavericks: The Galileo Gambit.
|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.
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”.
- 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).
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.
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