On Galileo Galilei and “denialism” from elections to climate to COVID

Galileo Galileo has many self-appointed intellectual heirs these days. Whether it’s a claim that the election has been stolen, that COVID-19 is less fatal than the flu, that climate change or evolution are hoaxes, or that P=NP, we keep hearing from people considering themselves as bold truth-tellers railing against conventional wisdom. We are encouraged to “teach the debate” and that if only paid attention, we will see that their Tweet, declaration, or arxiv paper contains an irrefutable proof of their assertions.

In the words of Ted Cruz, “They brand you a heretic. Today, the global warming alarmists are the equivalent of the flat-Earthers. It used to be [that] it is accepted scientific wisdom the Earth is flat, and this heretic named Galileo was branded a denier”.

Of course by Galileo’s time it was well known that the earth was spherical, and Magellan circumnavigated the earth more than 40 years before Galileo was born. But putting aside Cruz’s confusion of flat earth and geocentrism, the story of heliocentric theory is not one of an outsider railing against the scientific mainstream. Galileo himself was a chaired professor of mathematics at the University of Padua, and later philosopher and mathematician to the grand duke of Tuscany. He was very much part of the scientific establishment of his time. Moreover, though Galileo did provide important evidence for heliocentrism, he was not the only one doing so. Kepler found a heliocentric model with elliptical orbits that actually made correct predictions, and, though it took a decade or so, Kepler’s book eventually became the standard textbook for astronomy.

My point in this post is not to rehash the history of heliocentrism or Galileo but rather to call out a misconception which, to use Sean Carrol’s phrasing, amounts to valorization of puzzle-solving over wisdom.

It is tempting to think that an argument, regardless whether it comes from an expert or a random person on Twitter, can be presented in a self-contained way and judged on its merits. However, this is not how things work in any interesting setting. Even in the case of a purported P vs NP proof, there is background knowledge on computational complexity without which it would be hard to spot holes in the argument. This is doubly so for any claim involving empirical facts, whether it’s about elections, infections, climate etc. It is not possible to evaluate such claims without context, and to get this context you need to turn to the experts that have studied the topic.

I have written before in defense of expertise (see also here) but Carroll puts it very well. Another way to say it is that the operational interpretation of the common refrain

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence

is

Treat claims conforming to conventional wisdom with charity, and claims disputing it with skepticism.

(There is a question of how to define “conventional wisdom” but interestingly there is usually agreement in practice by both sides. Most “deniers” of various sorts are proud of going against conventional wisdom, but don’t acknowledge that this means they are more likely to be wrong.)

As an example, even if someone has expertise in analytic number theory, and so presumably has plenty of so-called “puzzle-solving intelligence”, that doesn’t mean that they can evaluate a statistical claim on election fraud and their analysis should be considered evidence (apparently at this point the number theorist himself agrees). We can try to read and debunk what they wrote, or we can assume that if there was evidence for large-scale fraud, then the president of the United States and his well-funded campaign would have managed to find actual statisticians and experts on election to make the case.

There can be debate if Trump’s attempt to overthrow the election should be considered as dangerous or merely absurd, but the constant attacks on the very notions of truth, science, and expertise are causing far-reaching harm.

(H/T: Scott Aaronson, who makes a similar point around the election conspiracies.)

9 thoughts on “On Galileo Galilei and “denialism” from elections to climate to COVID

  1. Excellent points Boas! I’m sure you made the same strong comments when the preposterous conspiracy theory promoted by the Democrats that Trump is a Russian stooge was circulated and pushed through.

    1. I believe that vast majority of reporting on the Russia investigation in mainstream publications such as the New York Times and the Washington Post were accurate. (There were some notable exceptions, for example I remember a story about Michael Cohen traveling to Prague, though most of these stories were retracted fairly quickly.)

      There is no question that Russia interfered in the 2016 US elections with the goal of helping Trump. (There is a question whether that interference made a decisive difference.) There is no evidence of any explicit collusion between Trump and Russia, but as reported in Woodward’s book, even Trump’s own director of national intelligence wasn’t sure that the Russians don’t “have something on him” so it’s hard to blame some democrats that had the same suspicion.

      In any case, while some democrats have claimed that Trump is a Russian stooge, this was not a main talking point of the leadership of the Democratic Party (eg Pelosi & Schumer). In contrast ever since the election, the claimed conspiracy is all that the leader of the Republican Party talks about.

      On Tue, Nov 24, 2020 at 7:33 PM Windows On Theory wrote:

      >

  2. I agree with you that too often believers of conspiracy theories do not put a high bar. Once someone was trying to convince me of a 9/11 conspiracy theory. After listening to the whole story (controlled demolition, military-industrial complex blah blah), I asked how did they manage to find people to steer the planes to the building? Turned out he had no clue about such an important detail! And this guy was left liberal. So it is not entirely right wing or Trump phenomena. There are many instances of left-wing people, so called believers in science fooling themselves on many issues (They think that going to protests wearing masks makes them believer in science, LOL). And these days experts are so much politicized, hard to believe them.
    Regarding mainstream media, they are horribly biased and inept (about foreign affairs especially, remember their takes on Iraq, China!) I find it amusing that many people in academia like you, Scott seem to derive their world views from NYT, Washington Post columns.

    1. Adam wrote:
      > I asked how did they manage to find people to steer the planes to the building?

      That’s an easy one. The planes were piloted by the purported terrorists like in the official story, but for the final stretch they were remote-controlled (by the military-industrial complex or whoever) to make sure that they would not miss their targets. After all, according to their instructors, these guys could barely fly a small airplane let alone a big commercial jet…
      Depending on your prior, please feel free to take this comment as truth-revealing, trolling or lockdown-induced psychosis.

  3. Good to know that! The point I wanted to make is as follows. Among the readers of this blog, Trump supporters, Q-anon supporters or Covid contrarians or Election fraud believers would be near zero in percentage. So I see no point of posting why Trump needs to be ousted, why Covid/Mask denialism is stupid, why Election results are reliable etc etc. On the other hand, I believe that intellectual elite echo chambers or academic bubbles have many misconceptions about the realities of the world affairs, the challenges the humanity are facing. And rarely we find good discussions on these nuanced issues.

  4. Adam wrote:
    “Regarding mainstream media, they are horribly biased and inept (about foreign affairs especially, remember their takes on Iraq, China!)”

    The opinion page of the New York Times was right on Iraq thanks to Paul Krugman.

  5. @Pascal: Regarding that 9/11 conspiracy theory: Yes, it is not hard to come up with many justifications. The point is the guy who believed in that theory did not consider that question before. Some parts of the theory looked so appealing to him, the rest did not matter. And he could not come up with a good idea on the spot.

    About Krugman and NYT: Again they publish (or used to, until recently) all sides (leading to accusations on bothsidism from left). So obviously someone would be right on every issue. Though Krugman is a good example of an expert who had many predictions wrong (regarding economy, Trump doom etc).

    My point is not that NYT is fake news, but the editorial board is often quite confused or wrong though they pretend they know it all. They were too soft on China until recently, see their recent take on Macron etc. Anyways, I don’t want to convert Boaz’s nice blog to Scott’s cesspool. No further comments from my side. But feel free to respond so that I learn something new.

    1. Something new: Krugman was right on the economy too! I mean, right about the 2008 financial crisis (that is the time when I was reading his column most often). Both sides were indeed represented in the opinion pages of the NYT, with David Brooks in the pro-austerity camp. He probably regrets now writing so confidently on a subject that he did not understand.

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