|Cogito ergo sum
Logic and rhetoric
“”Doctor: Now, many of the medical profession are sceptical about my work. They point to my record of treatment of athlete's foot sufferers — eighty-four dead, sixty-five severely wounded and twelve missing believed cured. But then, people laughed at Bob Hope, people laughed at my wife when she wrapped herself up in greaseproof paper and hopped into the Social Security office, but that doesn't mean that Pasteur was wrong!
“”It is not enough to wear the mantle of Galileo: that you be persecuted by an unkind establishment. You must also be right.
|—Robert L. Park
The Galileo gambit (also Galileo syndrome:165-166 and Galileo fallacy) is a logical fallacy that asserts that if your ideas provoke the establishment to supposedly vilify or threaten you, then you must be right — "everyone says I am wrong, therefore I am right."
Users of the fallacy are to be understood as being essentially "Galileo wannabes".
The fallacy refers to Galileo Galilei's famous persecution at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church for his defence of heliocentrism in the face of the orthodox Biblical literalism of the day (though some alternative medicine proponents use Ignaz Semmelweis instead of Galileo). People use this argument repeatedly in response to serious criticisms that more often than not they just don't understand. What proponents of this fallacy fail to consider is that not all people who challenge the mainstream scientific consensus are martyrs or revolutionaries; in most cases, they are just simply morons.
It essentially conflates the way one is treated with the reason one is treated that way. An extreme example of this might be the treatment of criminals under totalitarianism; while many genuine political dissidents were imprisoned in Siberia under Soviet rule, so were many thieves, murderers and rapists. It does not follow that because the first group were persecuted for political reasons that the criminals were in the right. Likewise, a major manufacturer may take steps against someone who is about to expose their appalling pollution or human rights records, but they will also pursue someone who is making libellous and false statements about them.
The structure of the argument is:
- P1: A is X and Y
- P2: B is X.
- C: B is Y.
or more specifically:
- P1: Galileo was persecuted and was correct.
- P2: I am persecuted.
- C: I am correct.
- They made fun of Galileo, and he was right.
- They make fun of me, therefore I am right.
“”First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then in a surprisingly high number of cases it turns out you're still wrong.
- Chris Woollams of CANCERactive blogging as "Galileo Galilei"
- A global warming denial site calling itself The Galileo Movement
It is also common for proponents of scientific racism to play the victim card and claim they are being censored by a massive "politically correct" conspiracy when, in reality, their ideas are just simply pseudoscientific bullshit.
The Galileo gambit isn't just for crank scientists. Business executives can get in on it too. For example, during Enron's final months, as the lawsuits piled up and the SEC closed in, a small (and gradually dwindling) faction of employees were firmly convinced that the company had done no wrong, claiming that they were being persecuted for trying to shake up the industry rather than for committing fraud. They went by the motto, "You can always tell who the pioneers are, because they're the ones with arrows in their backs.":413
The Galileo gambit in politics
“”[I]t's important to point out here that people with out-of-the-mainstream ideas who compare themselves to Edison and Galileo are never actually right… I can guarantee you Einstein did not go around telling people, "Look, I know this theory of general relativity sounds wacky, but that's what they said about Galileo!"
In the West, this dodge was first employed on a large scale by early Christians, many of whom deliberately entered into confrontations with the Roman state and then obtained martyr status when they were executed, all according to plan. This allowed the Church to ask such questions as, "Would the Disciples die for a lie?"
Potentially legitimate examples
Examples of actual Galileo-like figures are exceedingly rare, and it's even rarer when those figures actually proclaim themselves as Galileo-like figures. (After all, if you have actual evidence to back yourself up, why would you need to rely on such a gambit?) Still, it might occur from time to time. Some examples may include (though the stories behind all of these examples turn out to be far more complicated when you look into details):
- Other proponents of the heliocentric model like Copernicus or Kepler
- Gregor Mendel, whose work on genetics was largely ignored during his lifetime
- Ignaz Semmelweis, whose advocacy for antiseptic practices was dismissed by medical practitioners
- Alfred Wegener, whose theory of continental drift was rejected by his contemporaries
- Critics of Lysenkoism, who were ostracized by the Soviet Union
- Some whistleblowers, like Karen Silkwood or Jeffrey Wigand, recognized health concerns that were suppressed or ignored by corporations or governments
Reminder: the existence of counterexamples does not nullify the fact that the Galileo gambit is, by all means, a fallacy.
In reality, taking up the mantle of Galileo requires not just that you are scorned by the establishment but also that you are correct[note 1] — that is, that the evidence supports your position. There is no link between being "persecuted" and actually being correct. However, the selective reporting of cases where people who were persecuted or ostracized for beliefs and ideas that later turned out to be valid has instilled a confidence in woo promoters and pseudoscientists that is difficult to shake. They forget the part where they have to prove themselves right in order to be like Galileo.
The gambit takes many forms, but in most cases someone using it to promote their ideas will highlight their perceived persecution. This supposed persecution is blown out of all proportion until an observer almost has no choice but to accept their ideas practically as a sympathy vote. Such tactics are used in the "documentary" Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, which focused on several academics who supposedly lost jobs because they promoted intelligent design as a valid hypothesis. The film portrayed this as a violation of academic freedom and played the persecution card extensively. Among those capable of indulging this gambit, mere opposition to their crankery alone may be sufficient to induce the belief that they are being persecuted and, hence, were right all along.
An additional irony arises when we consider that if the maverick idea does manage to amass enough evidence to win over the majority, it will become the new consensus — at which point, by the fallacy's own reasoning, the idea must become wrong! After all, a new "Galileo" might assert that the Earth is indeed the Universe's stationary center (some people actually do assert this). The astronomers who would disagree and point and laugh, by the fallacy's line of reasoning, are just the Catholic Church all over again, and they won't have the last laugh (though taking this a step further, neither will the new "Galileo"; an alternating series of laughs will terminate only when the human race disappears). This kind of madness may be consistent with certain flavors of postmodernism, but then again, so is everything else.
"You get the most flak when you're over the target"
“”First They Ignore You, Then They Ridicule You, Then They Fight You, Then You Win.
|—A quote constantly misattributed to Gandhi and proudly repeated like a mantra by any Galileo gambiteer worth his weight in salt
"You get the most flak when you're over the target" is a pseudo-logical gambit, a favorite of Internet argument used as a substitute for rational rebuttal. Its intention, of course, is to prove that a hopelessly-irrational woo proposition must be right because opponents are taking the trouble to criticize it. The popularity of this fallacious way of thinking is one major reason why real scientists are often reluctant to debate creationists.
- Apparently, the contrapositive does not apply. Woo-proponents have never been known to write, "I must be wrong because I'm not being criticized", and will also use a lack of criticism as evidence for their position.
- You get flak when you're bombing something that doesn't want to be bombed, whether or not it's a legitimate target.
- Flak-based anti-aircraft positions are typically set up in a defensive pattern, either away from or around a target — the point being to take down potential bombers before they are ever in a position to actually deploy their bombs. So, when you're directly over the target (read: when the anti-aircraft defenses have failed to stop you) you would actually be getting less flak.
- Bombers dodging flak (and war-fighting in general) is an arena where might makes right, so any analogy based on it is highly suspect in an arena where being correct is supposed to make right.
- The Galileo Fallacy, and the Gadfly Corollary, Greta Christina
- The Galileo Gambit, Respectful Insolence
- Bad Science Journalism and the Myth of the Oppressed Underdog, Science 2.0
- Steven Novella (March 19 2012) "Galileo Syndrome and the Principle of Exclusion"
- One might argue that, since Nicolaus Copernicus was not persecuted for his theory (he died in 1543), it's just Galileo. (The difference here is Copernicus did not actively spread the idea, while Galileo did. Also, Galileo tended to provoke those holding the opposing viewpoint, and this often leads to one's ideas not getting the reception they deserve.)
- Vicar [Salesman], Monty Python's Flying Circus MontyPython.net.
- The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe: How to Know What's Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake by Steven Novella et al. (2018) Grand Central Publishing. ISBN 9781538760536.
- http://archive.is/lzd7v by Quietuus (December 5, 2016) '"Reddit (archived from 6 Dec 2016 12:03:07 UTC).
- The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind (2004) Penguin Books ISBN 1591840538
- How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking, Jordan Ellenberg
- Donatists, New Advent
- Gandhi Wikiquote.
- ‘First They Ignore You, Then They Laugh at You’ Quote Isn't Gandhi's by Dan Evon (1 March 2016) Snopes.