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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptical Inquirer > September October 2017 > THE POLITICIZATION of Scientific Issues

THE POLITICIZATION of Scientific Issues

Looking through Galileo’s Lens or through the Imaginary Looking Glass

It is paradoxical that in populations supportive of science and democracy scientific issues have become politicized to the degree that objective evidence is ignored or rejected in favor of “alternative” opinions.

“My dear Kepler, what would you say of the learned here, who, replete with the pertinacity of the asp, have steadfastly refused to cast a glance through the telescope? What shall we make of this? Shall we laugh, or shall we cry?”

These words of Galileo, written in a letter to his friend Johannes Kepler, expressed his frustration related to the fact that evidence clearly supportive of heliocentrism was not respected and was in fact rejected as being heretical, in direct opposition to biblical scripture. Galileo was hopeful that if people who believed in the ancient theory of geocentrism would, to paraphrase him, “just look through the lens” of his telescope, they would see evidence to support the theory of heliocentrism (in which the Earth and its planets revolve around the Sun), first contemplated in Hellenistic times and then later supported by Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus’s work On the Revolutions of the Celestial Orbs, published in 1543.

Aristotle’s work in physics and astronomy was largely respected among astronomers at the time Copernicus’s book was published, and they had difficulty accepting Copernicus’s work. In addition, biblical views were prevalent among the population. Galileo was well aware of this fact but stated that “the Bible is written in the language of the common person who is not an expert in astronomy.” He argued that “Scripture teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go” (Van Helden 1995). His discoveries, published in 1632 in Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, and those of Kepler further supported the scientific foundation of Copernicus’s work, ensuring that most serious astronomers subsequently were Copernicans.

Galileo’s book, however, was incendiary by espousing a worldview that contradicted one long accepted. There are striking similarities of Galileo’s world with ours today in the twenty-first century. Since his time, however, scientific research has furthered our understanding of the world and led to advances that have transformed the lives of billions of global citizens.

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