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.

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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.

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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).

  • You mean the same Dr Fauci who back in late January said -“this is not a major threat to the people of the United States and this is not something that the citizens of the United States right now should be worried about.”
    He is the new lackey of big pharma and the WHO.

  • Are you kidding me? Sadly you’re not alone in deifying the one individual in a position of authority who could have favorably impacted the devastating course of the epidemic In the U. S. but didn’t. Why? A lack of moral courage? Perhaps in part. Mostly it seems, to be a failure of intellect, imagination and deep interest in the plight of the victims. It’s not his fault, it’s who he is. It’s our fault in the scientific and medical community for accepting mediocrity and pretending it’s excellence. Fauci at one point stated that Trump had followed all of his guidance. The obstacle and the challenge Fauci poses remains current should we not care to forget. Just the other day a masked Fauci came out of quarantine to stand two feet behind the President as he was was telling the American public we would have a vaccine by the end of the year, no doubt after the election. Yes Fauci is my hero, a wonderful kind and brilliant physician scientist. Without Fauci we’d have many more dead and more dying in the future than we’d have without him. Fauci is unquestionably the Time Man of the Year and l hope a Nobel Prize as well. I sleep better at night knowing that Fauci is in charge.

  • Unfortunately science is now paid for by multibillionaires. When Bill Gates can fund The New England Journal of Medicine and then publish articles in it you know science is shriveling before our eyes. When you know for certain that Fauci is not profiting from vaccines in development then you can praise him for pure science. This comparison is silly. READ PRIMARY SOURCES, sir.

  • Comparing Galileo and Fauci is a huuuuge stretch. Fauci is a nice man that is more bureaucrat than scientist. Galileo was a investigative scientist of the highest order.

  • How do you reconcile this with Fauci’s hostile reception of AIDS theory from Peter Duesberg, who proposed that the early horrific symptomology of AIDS came from the VD, IV use, and recreational drug use of Gauss and drug addicts, and would fade over time as those factors were controlled? Fauci threw a fit and threatened to resign if those theories gained traction, and Duesberg was hounded from the field. The multiple strain theory of HIV became the order of the day, producing no vaccine but distracting us from the most effective public participation in controlling AIDS. We now know Duesberg was right while Fauci doubles down on his role of pope of CDC.

  • Just to let you know, there will always be another virus(flu) etc. Viruses change and morph all the time. We must go in with our lives, children must go to school, become educated,etc therefore Dr. Fauci is not a super hero by any means. He is holding the population of the USA hostage with fear. He should also know that humans or any organisms cannot live in a bubble. The longer this goes on the less strong our immune systems become as we are all isolating ourselves from other viruses that we would normally be in contact with and building up our immunity. Please, don’t compare him to a great scientist….he is not. He’s not being honest with the American population and I think he knows it!!!!

  • Except that Galileo was far from persecuted over religion. There were many at the time who knew that the world was round. This was a political imprisonment that could have been avoided had he used some tact.

  • He dr Fauci was wrong and is wrong describing coronavirus effect on human being and hope he will find for himself as the time goes by,
    You need to listen him closely what he said about virus till March 2020 and especially in January or February as he downplay it’s effect describing present Pandemic to ” different type of flue” and there is no need to wore face mask and you have audacity to compare him to Galileo!!!
    Shame on you and shame on dr Fauci as he is not humble man he portrait himself neither great scientist as you proclaim to as.
    So stop BS all of us and rather create (organize) group of independent scientists equally divided for their believes so audience will decide whom to believe base on the facts and not dr Fauci opinion solely which you want us impose on us as the only one truth beyond any question.
    P.S. You have contact with many scientist so this should not be a problem to call a few and introduce their point of view as we all know that is “human to be wrong” and as you stated in your article “we (note bene; who is we) can not afford to be wrong in fight against this pandemic.
    French historian,philosopher and writer Voltaire once said “I disagree with what you say or write but I will defend to the death your right to say it,write it”
    He teach TOLERANCE not TYRANNY to other people point of view and you as one who claim your independence should practice that and stop preaching
    and solely base your future in one man hands only even if his name is dr Fauci.
    Hope you publish this letter (respond) but if you decide otherwise my only hope is that some or maybe just few of you will read this letter and from now on you will see rather bigger picture than narrowed one you represented in your article.
    Remember “TRUTH EXIST” only lie need to be invented.

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