Defending science and scientific integrity can be a frustrating and lonely battle. As I watch Dr. Anthony Fauci do this on the news, I think of another “battler” who ultimately had the last word.
In 1638, Galileo Galilei, had been under arrest for several years in his home in Arcetri, near Florence. The great scientist had been sentenced to confinement by the Roman Inquisition because he was “vehemently suspected of heresy.”
That “heresy,” contained in his book “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems,” was his support of the Copernican system of planetary movement, in which the Earth and all other planets revolved around the Sun. This was contrary to the Catholic Church’s orthodoxy, which adopted the Aristotelian view, in which the Earth was at the center and the Sun and the other planets revolved around it. The church believed this “Earth first” view to be dictated by literal interpretations of Biblical texts.
Galileo’s punishment for this unorthodox view was house arrest and the placement of his book on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the list of forbidden books.
John Milton, the English poet now known for “Paradise Lost” and other works, visited Galileo in 1638. Deeply impressed by their meeting, Milton published a pamphlet entitled “Areopagitica,” which is still regarded as one of the most impassioned pleas for intellectual freedom and freedom of speech.
In it, Milton wrote: “This was it [censorship and intimidation] which had damped the glory of Italian wits; that nothing had been there written now these many years but flattery and fustian [pompous speech]. There it was that I found and visited the famous Galileo grown old, a prisoner to the Inquisition, for thinking in Astronomy otherwise than the Franciscan and Dominican licensers thought.”
To me, that sounds disturbingly similar to a later administration’s denial of the dangers of the Covid-19 pandemic from its early stages and beyond.
As late as Feb. 26, as the U.S. was beginning to hear the roar of the pandemic, President Trump made statements such as this: “When you have 15 people, and the 15 within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero, that’s a pretty good job we’ve done.” Sadly, the science denial didn’t end there.
Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the top infectious disease expert in the U.S., now finds himself fighting a “Galilean” fight in an effort to slow down an uninformed rush to open the country.
Like any good scientist, Fauci clearly acknowledged at a May 12 Senate hearing called “Safely Getting Back to Work and Back to School,” that, “I have never made myself out to be the ‘end-all’ … I give advice according to the best scientific evidence … we don’t know everything about this virus.”
This humble admission was similar to Galileo’s summary in “Discourses” of his own contributions to science: “I have discovered by experiment some properties of it which are worth knowing and which have not hitherto been observed or demonstrated … what I consider more important, there have been opened up to this vast and excellent science, of which my work is merely the beginning, ways and means by which other minds more acute than mine will explore its remote corners.”
Milton understood what the chilling effects of silencing Galileo would be. He wasn’t alone. After hearing of Galileo’s fate, the great French scientist and philosopher René Descartes wrote to a friend in 1633, “I was so astonished at [Galileo’s trial and the prohibition of his book] that I almost decided to burn all my papers, or at least to let no one see them.”
Silencing Fauci or relegating him to the hinterlands could have far more disastrous consequences than silencing Galileo, since at the time it didn’t really matter how planetary bodies revolved around each other.
From my perspectives as a scientist and a historian, it is always a bad idea not to follow science. Science isn’t always right, but the scientific method ensures that science corrects itself when new data become available. To dismiss fact-based scientific advice when human life is at stake is unconscionable.
It took the Catholic Church more than 350 years to admit that Galileo was right. We can’t afford to wait that long to find out that Fauci is right.
Mario Livio is an astrophysicist and author of “Galileo and the Science Deniers” (Simon and Schuster, May 2020).