Galileo’s telescope and the denial of empirical reality

Insofar as this John Kay piece in the FT this week is about Climate Change deniers, (David Vance’s ears must be burning). But it begins with a powerful story about Galileo’s telescope, and the wilful refusal of some to confront empirical realities, large and small, which may have a wider inference for the detached-from-reality way in which our often anachronistic political battles are pitched. HT Steve!!

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

  • Pete Baker

    Slightly off-topic [sorry Mick], but as I’ve mentioned before.. there are a few myths about Galileo’s trial

    The famous quote, and thread title [eppur, si muove], was reportedly said by Galileo, on 22 June 1633, after he was formally sentenced to life imprisonment [in reality house-arrest] by the Inquistion at the end of his trial for the heresy of holding, defending or teaching that the Earth moves around the Sun – the translation is “yet it moves” [and, incidentially, the heresy related to a book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems: Ptolemaic and Copernican, which went on sale in March 1632.. two years after its completion, during which time the official censors in Rome only requested some minor changes before they actually approved the text before it went to print]. Three of the ten cardinals present refused to sign the sentence and it was passed on a majority verdict.

  • Harry Flashman

    Mick, I’ll have to take your word that John Kay is writing about climate change deniers because I don’t see a single mention of climate change in the entire article (though he does mention Dr Kelly and the Hutton Report twice).

    However if it is about climate change then surely the role of Galileo is unquestionably that of a “denier” who is pointing out the nonsense that passes for science and climate change.

    Climate change is the new supreme secular religion, we all must obey its strictures without question, we must bow our heads at its mention and perform our weekly religious duties of “recycling” (read dumping our rubbish in China) knowing that its all really pointless but in a faith based system pointless gestures are essential.

    If you dare to question the “science” on which man made climate change is based you will be howled down by the modern day witch-finders general, you will literally be regarded as a heretic and it will be considered just and proper to shun you and censor your thoughts.

    My modern day version of Galileo would be Bjorn Lomborg, the sceptical environmentalist.

  • Crataegus


    I more than emphasise with your repulsion from the politically correct incoherent dogma of the environmental movement much of which is based on faith rather than fact and I agree that many of the measures we take to address the problems are purely tokens.

    However much of what I read seems to indicate that there are sound grounds for deep concern and I think it would be crass stupidity to bury our heads in the sand and deny that there may be a serious problem looming. Indeed because that problem is of such dire proportions and so fundamental we cannot ignore it. Unfortunately there are that many vested interests in both camps that objectivity is sacrificed and we are often left with exultations. It isn’t just the environmentalists that have strange and dogmatic high priests and at least their interests are not motivated by the same financial considerations as those who tend to put the counter argument.

    Although much of our recycling initiatives etc are in many ways incoherent there does appear to be improvement and there are examples now of what I would regard as good practice in terms of standards of construction and in the likes of Sweden some very interesting schemes motivated by such concerns.

    From a business point of view I think that some of the issues being raised should be framed in the context of addressing an inefficient use of resources and an attempt to improve efficiency rather than an imposition; however Green zealots seem to prefer the hair shirt and ritual flailing.

  • abucs

    I was listening to the Conservative MP last night – Zach Goldsmith, and i think he made the very good point that even if the ‘climate change’ lobby are completely wrong it still would make good sense to do things more cleanly and efficiently. He also said that he thought ‘the market’ was one of the most powerful tools in the world but that it had at least one blind spot – the environment, which was not factored in at all. The possibility of a carbon tax would be very interesting to see how it affects the pollution output. It seems one of the big difficulties is the multi-national aspect in that everyone agrees to play by the same rules. If everyone can feel assured that the rules are consistent then ‘the market’ can possible swing into full gear and start to invest money and brains in order to make a return. If it can sort it out, it would be good if both the right and left side of politics might look at ‘the market’ in a more similar way ?

    On the off topic Pete, and i promise not to take it any further, for all of the Churches obvious shortcomings, authoritarian control and pride included, didn’t it use a calender based on a sun centred heliocentric model many years before Galileo ? Do you know at what level of support this model had in the church at the time of Galileo ? I would have thought if they were using that model for the calendar there must have been a few of them, Galileo included, who were quite comfortable in that it represented the true picture of the heavens.

  • Mick Fealty

    Looks like I got my JK articles in a twist. Long day yesterday.

  • Rory

    I was amused by a contributor on Radio 4’s Today programme (today funnily enough) who said he would like to follow the advice of “Tony” Blair and “Dave” Cameron and Prince Charles to reduce his carbon footprint by buying a bigger car and a bigger house and making many, many more overseas air trips.

    The next tome I am asked what I am doing to “reduce my carbon footprint”, I swear I will stuff the one asking head-first in the nearest wastebasket.

  • micktvd

    Harry Flashman, your attempts to compare the validity of the overwhelming scientific consensus about climate change to the faith based consensus of the 17th century church
    (“Climate change is the new supreme secular religion”) is mind boggling. Scientists in the field are no longer asking the fundamental questions you obviously want asked, because they all agree that they have been answered. There is no attempt to suppress falsifying observations as in the Galileo case. There is no vested interest in presenting inconvenient truths- quite the opposite. Even heavyweights on the Right like Rupert Murdoch are abandoning their rejection of the obvious. Clearly, I have no real idea how the detailed science is done, just as I have no idea how my microwave works. But the scientists who do are telling me loud and clear that we have a problem. Why are they doing this, Harry? because I so hope they are wrong. It didn’t rain in Adelaide last month. Do you have a metaphorical telescope for me to look through? I want to see those craters on the moon.

    Word of advice, Harry. Get on board the nuclear power as solution to climate change bandwaggon. It’s the new platform for ex climate change deniers, and it gives environmentalists more problems than hysterical fantasies about witch hunts.

  • Harry Flashman


    “Scientists in the field are no longer asking the fundamental questions you obviously want asked, because they all agree that they have been answered.”

    No this is what the advocates of man made climate change want you to believe, they all say “we are absolutely right no one disagrees with us” when in fact many many climatologists have questioned both the methods and their results of their research, but when they have done so they are ignored or shouted down as heretics. I gave Bjorn Lomborg as the obvious example but there are many others.

    Prof Jean Veizer has stated that there has never been a link between CO2 emissions and temperature and that between 1940 and 1980 when human CO2 emissions rose the sharpest in history the planet’s temperature actually cooled. Human emissions of CO2 (3 gigatonnes per year) account for less than 0.5% of CO2 emissions whilst the seas and land produce a mammmoth 210 gigatonnes of CO2 per year.

    Dr Madhav Khandekhar has said the number of “extreme weather” events have declined in the past 25 years (remember last year how we were told Katrina was the first installment of mega hurricanes thanks to global warming? How many big hurricanes were there this year? None). Droughts have occurred throughout history indeed the 13th and 16th century saw the worst droughts in north America, remind me how many power stations there were in north America then?

    In April, 61 climate change experts wrote to the Canadian Prime Minister stating “The study of climate change is an ’emerging science’, one that is perhaps the most complex ever tackled. It may be many years yet before we properly understand the Earth’s climate system”. I could go on quoting many many more climate change sceptics or “heretics” if you want but my advice would be to follow Andre Gide when he said “Believe those who are seeking the truth, doubt those who find it”. There is absolutely nothing “proven” about man made climate change.

    You’ve quoted South Australia which last year recorded the hottest temperature in a hundred years, very conveniently ignoring the fact that 101 years prior to that, 1904, Australia recorded the hottest temperature ever. These things go in cycles.

    Let me quote my personal experience, Jakarta, Indonesia regularly hits the top three most heavily air-polluted city in the world. Indeed if you ever go to Jakarta you’re sure to see a bit of a haze alright, but travel 100 miles down the road to Mount Merapi and you will see thousands of tons of dust and ash being spewed into the air every day, there are nearly two hundred such volcanoes in Indonesia alone. Why must we be so arrogant as to believe that our puny little emissions are what alters the planet’s climate?

    Count me in as a Galileo.

  • Rory

    I can’t help but be suspicious that a compelling reason for the political parties of big business (which let’s face it are all the major and minor parties in the UK, Europe and the U.s.) is the attraction of levying a “carbon tax”, a measure increasingly being made attractive by and to greenies and lefty-liberals.

    The beauty of such a tax, especially if posited as an alternative to income tax or an additional source that would allow income tax to be reduced in its favour is that the brunt of it would be spread over the masses and be increasingly punitive on them while less so on the wealthy (because of income tax reduction from which they would greatly disproportionately benefit) and business costs bearing such tax could be written off against profits thus reducing corporation tax.

    It’s a win-win situation for the rich yet again – taxation is pushed further onto the shoulders of the masses and if new green policies show no discernible benefit, why just keep upping the ante.

    Of course any opposition when this wheeze is seen for what it is could be discounted as socially and morally irresponsible and possibly even, in the climate of this brave new world, an imprisonable offence.

    Cheers! and triple (organic) large ones all round.

  • Empirical realities?

    Would those include the fact that sea-levels have not increased in he 20th century, contrary to the claims of High Priest Gore?

  • abucs


    i think it is big business in both the US and Australia who are lobbying hard against a carbon tax being brought in. Any carbon tax would be targeted at big business not directly to the ordinary man and so i can’t see it reducing income tax.

    I don’t see how big business are going to be able to claim tax deductions, and even if they were, this simply means that they are part subsidised by government. They still have to contribute the bulk of the money towards being ‘cleaner’ from their bottom lines and they still have to pay the carbon tax if they are pumping Carbon into the atmosphere.

    The only plus for the big businesses are that if they innovate first, they may come up with the solutions that can then be exported around the globe. It is only these businesses that will benefit and go on to create jobs and wealth and pay tax for more schools and hospitals etc. Most affected big business will either take a hit to their bottom line directly, or indirectly by passing costs on and lose customer share to those businesses less effected. i.e. cleaner and ahem, greener.

    I know there is a lot of hype over this issue and i don’t pretend to know what the true state of affairs is. But looking at it purely from a business angle, there would be more reason to be against a carbon tax than for it.

  • micktvd

    Harry Flashman, you reference some interesting claims, and I seriously hope that prof. Veizer and Dr.Khandekhar have a point to make. I don’t doubt at all that there is a lot of uncertainty about the extent of human-induced climate change. I fervently hope that the worst case scenarios are way out and that the negative feedback mechanisms such as the melting of the Siberian permafrost do not eventuate. But the point still stands, that to label the relatively few scientists who take a strongly sceptical view of this issue as heretics is to imply many things that are simply preposterous.

    Your claims about the miniscule extent of human carbon contributions would seem to completely falsify the whole case for human-induced climate change, and I am not in a position to challenge them. I would simply say that as they are made in good faith and with, I presume, solid scientific evidence to support them, that they have been or will be challenged by bodies such as the IPCC. Either that, or, as you imply by your comparison, thousands of the world’s foremost climate scientists have completely abandoned the scientific method.

    The situation in Australia is of course complex. I made my point about the drought in the spirit of hyperbole that began this exchange 🙂

    Seriously, we (in Australia) are in what may be the worst drought in our history. Certainly, rainfall statistics are breaking all kinds of records (in a bad sense). Our temperature changes reflect global trends, as do our observable mean sea level rises. Rainfall patterns may, in a sense, be returning to those prevalent in the first half of last century, but we are being warned to expect worse.

    As for your reference to our puny little emmissions, compared to the volcanic emmissions in Indonesia- two things: I seem to recall that the Mt Pinatubo eruption, which was truly gigantic, actually helped keep global temperatures cooler for years, bacause of the effect of the dust on the upper atmosphere. And as we approach peak oil, we approach the combustion of half the Earth’s stored fossil fuels created over millions of years. This is no mean feat, by any comparison.