In one of the more curious moments in the Republican debate on Wednesday night, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas invoked 17th-century science in discussing his doubts about climate change. He cited the astronomer and mathematician Galileo Galilei — often called the father of modern science — in suggesting that the current thinking that climate change is a result of human activity could be overturned. “Galileo got outvoted for a spell,” he said.
On the surface, though, his example seemed to illustrate the opposite of the point that Mr. Perry might have been trying to make. Galileo, whose astronomical observations confirmed the Copernican theory that the Earth revolved around the Sun, was basing his assertions on empirical knowledge and faced opposition from the Roman Catholic Church, which supported the Ptolemaic view of an Earth-centered universe.
Mr. Perry, by contrast, has said repeatedly that he does not believe the empirical evidence compiled by scientists in support of climate change, but that he does adhere to faith-based principles.
Was Mr. Perry trying to depict Galileo as a maverick among scientific thinkers of his time? If so, the governor was wrong, says one historian who has studied the trial of Galileo.
“If Perry means to say that at some point some body of scientists said Galileo was wrong, that didn’t happen,” said the historian, Thomas F. Mayer, who teaches at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill.
Galileo and Copernicus were long ago proved right, but even in Galileo’s day there were scientists who supported him, Dr. Mayer said. “His notions about science were not that far out there,” he said. “There were a lot of other scientists, especially in Rome, who more or less agreed with his scientific observations.”
Perhaps, then, Mr. Perry was referring to the church’s trial of Galileo on charges of heresy, in 1633, in which the astronomer was convicted and sentenced to house arrest. In that case he was “outvoted” not by other scientists but by church leaders.
Asked about Mr. Perry’s remark, Mark Miner, a spokesman for the Perry campaign, said, “The governor was referring to vetting policies before implementing ideas that will result in job losses.” Mr. Miner did not elaborate.
The 1633 trial was not really about science, many historians say. It was about Galileo’s disobeying a 1616 order to abandon Copernican views.
“It was almost like a contempt of court,” said Mario Biagioli, a professor of law and science and technology studies at the University of California at Davis. Dr. Biagioli said there was some validity to the comparison. “Theology at the time was the powerful discipline, and Galileo went up against it and was condemned,” he said. “Now the powerful discipline is science and not theology.”
But the comparison is also flawed, Dr. Biagioli said. “Galileo was not a doubter. He said, ‘Look, this is the evidence I have,’ ” he said. “It was the theologians who were saying, ‘No, no, no, this evidence is inconclusive.’ ”