Not Galileo

I was reading a book by Philip Kitcher, Science, Truth, and Democracy, earlier this morning. He says some interesting things about people doing the Galileo thing. Page 101 for instance –

People who publish findings purporting to show that behavioral differences stem from matters of race or sex often portray themselves as opposing widely held views in the interest of truth.

And page 106 and 107 –

Prejudice can be buttressed as those who oppose the ban [on research into race differences in IQ] proclaim themselves to be gallant heirs of Galileo…So long as the conditions driving the argument are not appreciated, champions of the forms of inquiry that should be eschewed can always make use of the rhetoric of freedom to portray themselves as victims of an illegitimate public policy of stifling the truth.

Yes. One knows the kind of thing. One is in fact all too familiar with it. One ardently hopes one doesn’t fall into that oneself. One writes contracts and signs them in blood, vowing to give it all up and move to Topeka if one ever starts doing the Galileo act.

In that sense, Marc Mulholland had a point in that post the other day, with the bit about Valiant for Truth heroes of the Enlightenment and courageous souls who standing alone fight the modern filthy tide and people imagining themselves as some kind of underground resistance. Of course, he certainly didn’t have a point if he meant us, because we are so humble and modest and unassuming and unpretentious and self-deprecating as well as sensible and reasonable and clever and good at standing on one leg. But for just that reason he probably didn’t mean us.

No but seriously. It is a real problem, and one that occurs to me often. It is very difficult to set up as some kind of general critic of some division of Bad Thinking or Silly Mistakes or Foolish Errors or Pseudodoxia Epidemica or Dunciadia or Conventional Wisdom or Received Ideas or Fashionable Nonsense or [Insert Variant Here] without running the risk of falling into ridiculous poses and attitudes, as if posing for a tableau vivant of Horatius at the Bridge or the Boy with his just never mind we’ve all heard that joke thank you very much. Ho yus, I’m Galileo, I’m Spartacus, I’m Thersites, I’m Quixote, I’m Lenny Bruce, I’m Swift, I’m Pope, I’m Voltaire, I’m Mencken, I’m a martyr for truth, blah blah blah. (Shakespeare was sharply conscious of all this, amusingly and interestingly enough. He has a lot of speeches in a lot of plays in which one character tells another ‘Yes yes, we know, you’re a satirist, you’re honest, you’re going to tell us what’s wrong with everything. Don’t bother, okay?’ Satire was very very hot in the late 1590s, it was The Fashion [and was eventually made illegal – no messing around in those days] and the presses were full of scathing satires by disillusioned young men about town. Shakespeare wrote some and also mocked the whole idea. Typical. Flexible bastard, he was. Negative capability.)

But then again. There’s only so much one can do about it. It’s no good deciding to be acquiescent and docile and uncritical and accepting about everything simply in order to avoid pomposity and posing and affectation, is it. And really it’s hard to engage in any kind of thinking or inquiry or intellectual activity at all without noticing some error here and there. So…one just has to lump it.

We could always get some business cards made up. Butterflies and Wheels: Humble, Fallible, Bashful Critics of Fashionable Nonsense. Galilean Airs Strictly Avoided. Office Hours Daily 6 a.m. to Midnight.

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