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Rick Perry and Galileo -- pardners in science

September 9, 2011 |  7:06 am

This is a corrected version of the original post; see the note below.

Rick Perry GOP Debate

Rick Perry, the Texas governor presidential wannabe 2.0, and Galileo Galilei, one of the great scientific thinkers in Western history -– BFFs?

It was a double-take moment in the Republican presidential sweepstakes debate at the Ronald Reagan presidential library in Simi Valley. Perry, a science scoffer on evolution and global climate change, invoked the ghost of the persecuted and brilliant Galileo to support his fingers-in-the-ears, don't-confuse-me-with-facts sentiments about global warming:

"The science is not settled on this. The idea that we would put Americans' economy at jeopardy based on scientific theory that's not settled yet to me is just nonsense," Perry said. "Just because you have a group of scientists who stood up and said, 'Here is the fact.' Galileo got outvoted for a spell," he said.

"Outvoted for a spell"? Like science is the New Hampshire primary?

Even in his lifetime, Galileo was not entirely an outlier on this; Copernicus had broken ground on the "heliocentric"’ solar system -– the sun at the center, and the Earth revolving around it; Johannes Kepler was pretty much on board too.

The people who "outvoted" Galileo on his theory -– and "theory" in science has a different sense from the political-fringey one -- were not the enlightened scientific community; they were not the 17th-century equivalent of the world's present-day climate-change scientists, marshaling reams of data over decades and laying it out in peer-reviewed journals.

The people who opposed Galileo were not standing against conventional wisdom. They were the conventional wisdom, without the wisdom part: biblical literalists, papal politicos, church authoritarians, and a few hack astronomers not bright enough to understand the science.

Galileo, the Inquisition concluded, was "vehemently suspect of heresy." Under duress, he abjured his work (although supposedly muttering under his breath in Italian, "Eppur si muove" -– essentially, "The Earth does SO move.") He was sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life, and his work was banned, not only what he had already written, but whatever he might write. (The Catholic Church issued a formal "oops, never mind, Galileo was right" nearly 20 years ago.)

It might all be droll -– like what happened when JPL named its Saturn probe spacecraft "Cassini," and lawyers for "Oleg Cassini," the fashion line named for ther stylist and socialite, demanded to know why JPL hadn't sought its permission. Because JPL's Cassini is an 18th-century astronomer, that's why. Oh, the Oleg Cassini people said. 

It would be droll, if Perry weren't seriously running and seriously supported for the most powerful job in the nation, arguably in the world.

Last month, in New Hampshire, a woman prompted her son to ask Perry about science and evolution. Perry answered that evolution is a "theory that is out there, and it's got some gaps in it. In Texas, we teach both creationism and evolution in our public schools. Because I figure you're smart enough to figure out which one is right."

Really? Just plop down a couple of opposing points of view in front of those kids and they'll figure it out? Well, then, why stop at evolution? String theory, the single-bullet theory -– just leave it up to those smart fifth-graders. Let them decide whether global climate change is real. Who needs teachers? (Maybe that's the grand scheme behind all of this: They don’t teach -– you decide.)

The boy also asked Perry how old he thinks the Earth is. "You know what, I don't have any idea," Perry answered. "I know it's pretty old, so it goes back a long, long ways. I'm not sure anybody actually knows completely and absolutely how old the Earth is."

Nobody actually knows? Or does Perry know he doesn't want to get pinned down on this one?

"Young Earthers" and some biblical literalists believe the Earth's age can be counted in thousands of years; a 17th-century Irish bishop named James Ussher set the start of creation as the eve of October 23, 4004 BC, a Sunday (which I find confusing given that Sunday is also the deity's day of rest. And I don't know whether that is Greenwich Mean Time or local time, sorry.) Creationism museums sometimes show dinosaurs and humans coexisting.

Scientists using real science stuff –- instruments and measurements and all that – have put the earth’s age at about 4.5 billion years, so we’re not talking about a rounding-error difference here.

Columbus Day rolls around next month, and in case Perry is considering allying himself to the bold thinking of Christopher Columbus in defying the flat-Earthers, it should be pointed out that anyone who was literate in the late 15th century didn't believe the Earth was flat. They were pretty much just arguing over the size of the sphere. It wasn't until a handful of decades ago that the flat-Earth "theory" has enjoyed a vogue unknown since maybe the 3rd century.

Isn't it curious how some people who disparage science and its "experts" are paradoxically eager to trot out anyone they can find in a lab coat -– and now even, shamelessly, the dead and defenseless Galileo –- as human shields, to prove how wrong those smarty-pants scientists really are?

[For the Record, added 3:08 p.m. September 9: The original post put the Earth’s age at about 13 billion years. Although the universe is about 13 billion years old, the age of Earth is about 4.5 billion years. The original post also described "Eppur si muove" as a Latin phrase; it's Italian.]

RELATED:

The problem with Perry

Rick Perry: He's no Galileo

Politics and religion can mix

McManus: A two-man GOP presidential race?

-- Patt Morrison

Photo: GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry during the Sept. 7 GOP debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times

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