Denial and blindspots

Last week’s New Scientist had a “feature” on denial. It could be argued that science faces a serious public perception problem, with large numbers of people refusing, despite the evidence, to believe in evolution, climate change, the link between smoking and lung cancer, the ineffectiveness of dietary fads, the safety of immunisation, and so on.

The general tenor of the argument was that, while the anti-scientific arguments may be funded and promoted by large corporations with vested interests, the majority of ordinary people who support them do so because of insecurities or mental problems, and intellectual engagement with them is not possible.

Certainly the leaders of such campaigns are staggeringly dishonest. One right-wing commentator invented a quote and passed it off as the words of a leading climate scientist. The quote multiplied on the internet, as such things do now. When the deception was revealed, only one of the people who had copied the quote retracted his words, while the originator simply took a genuine quote from the scientist concerned and changed it to suit his purpose. It is hard not to feel impotent rage at this behaviour, or to despair of the people who believe it.

And yet …

After reading this, I happened to pick up Arthur Koestler’s book The Sleepwalkers, which was given to me fifteen years ago by Patrick McCarthy. It was a good antidote to what I had just been reading. In the Preface, he says,

I have been interested, for a long time, in the psychological process of discovery as the most concise manifestation of man’s creative faculty – and in that converse process which blinds him towards truths which, once perceived by a seer, become so heartbreakingly obvious. Now this blackout shutter operates not only in the minds of the “ignorant and superstitious masses” as Galileo called them, but is strikingly evident in Galileo’s own …

The trial of Galileo before the Inquisition has become a powerful symbol of the suppression of Truth by unenlightened authority. But, as Koestler makes clear, it was not like that. Very likely the case only came to trial because Galileo made such personal attacks on his opponents (describing them, for example, as “mental pygmies”, “dumb idiots”, and “hardly deserving to be called human beings”). Among these opponents, he cast the Pope, lightly disguised, as Simplicio in the Dialogue on the Great World Systems, who acts as a foil for the brilliance of Salviati (Galileo’s mouthpiece).

Prior to this, the Church had permitted Galileo to continue his researches, provided that he either treated the Copernican system as a hypothesis, or provided a proof of it. Galileo’s blind spot is shown by the fact that, while at first he had no proof, later he developed a theory of the tides, which he regarded as his secret weapon. Unfortunately, the theory (predicting a single high tide at midday) is completely wrong. Kepler already had an essentially correct theory, which Galileo knew, but refused to accept.

The book principally concerns the three people who stand at the transition between mediaeval and modern cosmology: Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo. All, in Koestler’s view, had astonishing blind spots. Copernicus did not set out to overthrow the Ptolemaic earth-centred model; rather, he was concerned with a “flaw” in Ptolemy’s system – it involves circular motion but not with uniform speed – which Copernicus wanted to fix. Kepler’s work is so luxuriously adorned with mysticism (the spacing of the orbits of the six planets are determined by the five regular polyhedra, or the planets must move at speeds such that they sing harmoniously together as they travel in their orbits) that his three laws are almost completely hidden, and he even forgets them himself quite often. But at least Kepler (the hero of the story) realised the worth of Tycho Brahe’s accurate observational data, and knew that a theory which does not fit the data, no matter how attractive to a mystic, must be rejected. Despite following Kepler, Galileo ignored Kepler’s elliptical orbits, and returned to Copernicus’ clumsy epicycles.

The story is enlivened by a huge amount of incidental detail, such as the dismissal of Copernicus’ wayward brother from the cathedral canonry at Frauenberg; the trial of Kepler’s mother as a witch; and the fact that Galileo was permitted to have his daughter (a nun) say his penances for him.

After such a masterly performance pointing out the blindspots of the great Renaissance scientists, what of Koestler himself? Of course, he has unacknowledged blindspots of his own. His rather dubious personal morality is well-known; his uncritical acceptance of the occult is also well-known and disfigures his book in several places, notably the conclusion. More specifically, he described Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) as “the book nobody read”. This gave Owen Gingerich the title for his own book, in which he traced the provenance of all known copies of De revolutionibus, and showed that, on the contrary, it was widely read and extremely influential among scholars of the time.

Blindspots are obvious with hindsight. What are mine? What are those of the people who now speak loudest against the rejection of global warming? We cannot see; but we must realise that the growth of knowledge is a process much more complicated than we might realise.

Most important, it is not just Galileo’s “ignorant superstitious masses” who have blindspots; we all do.


About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
This entry was posted in books, history, maybe politics. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Denial and blindspots

  1. tom says:

    Thank you for erecting this small pillar of reason and moderation in a world which too frequently seeks the extremes.

  2. hetu says:

    Really nice post. I generally don’t have much to comment on your excellent posts, however, here I have (i think) the chance of presenting two links that may interest you: Robert Trivers, Self-Deception in Service of Deceit and Elements of a Scientific Theory of Self-Deception

    Here’s the wiki summary: link

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