How Galileo Saw What He Saw

Galileo was incarcerated in 1633 until his death for looking through a curved piece of glass and writing down what he saw. There were a lot of reasons, but chief among them was that the people who incarcerated him never bothered to look at what he saw.

It’s easy to imagine ourselves in Galileo’s position – You can build a telescope, but you can’t make anyone look through it. It’s the dilemma of a teacher, which is something we all are at some point in our lives. You can put the telescope you built in some public place for all to use. You can build a fancy beaux-arts building around it. You can offer to explain how it works to anyone who will listen. But you can’t make anyone look.

You could, perhaps, strap people to a table, restrain their heads, clip their eyes open, and wheel the telescope in front of them, so they would have no choice but to look, but you cannot force them to think critically about what they see. You can’t force them to make the effort to understand it.

But, that’s normal. There is more information out there in the world than any one person could possibly learn in a lifetime, so we all have to decide, constantly, what to make time for and what to disregard.

I could tell you, for example, that the number 8 has three cube roots. One cube root of 8 is 2, because 2x2x2=8. There are, in fact, two other numbers that work this way.

Hearing that for the first time, you might respond one of two ways: The first is to try to work it out for yourself. The second, far more likely, is to not give a shit. Which is fine, because unless you have a job or hobbies that involve electricity or acoustics, you will probably never need to know the answer to that question, or how to find it.

When we choose to learn something, it takes some time and effort to process it, to store it in our brains, and to connect properly to all the other things we know. But before we can even do that, we have to make some judgment about whether it is even worth our time.

The people who incarcerated Galileo decided it wasn’t. And why not? Because they already knew what they would see. The Earth is stationary. The Sun moves around it. They knew this as certainly as you know the opposite is true. When someone tells you they found proof the Moon landing never happened, you ignore them, because you already know they’re wrong without checking.

It’s humbling to realize we might have more in common with the people who incarcerated Galileo than we have with Galileo himself, but it’s also worth exploring, because it bears directly on how we learn, and the pitfalls we might fall into.

Let’s think about something more contentious.

Guns. Why guns? Because being a modern human being – especially if you live in America – it is unlikely that you don’t already have an opinion about them. Consider these two statements:

1 – As gun ownership rates increase, homicide rates increase.

2 – As gun ownership rates increase, homicide rates decrease.

Do you have some notion in your mind about which of these statements is true? Stop and really think about it, and while you’re thinking about it, let me complicate things further. Let’s say you knew that I was a strong believer in the first statement. More guns, more homicides.

At this point, you might disagree with me – in which case your mind is likely already pulling out the facts and figures, the anecdotes, the arguments you might make to contradict whatever argument I will make, even though I haven’t made one yet.

Or, you might agree with me – in which case you might be eager at the prospect of learning some new fact or figure you might add to your toolbox for the next time you have a discussion with a proponent of the second statement.

Or, for that matter, you might sense from the way this argument is structured that I’m trying to fool you, and you are instead reserving judgment. That is pragmatic, but for the purposes of this argument, pause here for a moment to consider what you would have honestly done, what would have honestly gone through your mind. Would you have prepared to support my argument? Would you have prepared to refute it? Even if you had no intention of arguing with me directly, what would you have done to settle the matter in your own mind?

If you leaned toward believing the first statement was true, or if you leaned toward the second – either way, you are working toward justifying not looking through the telescope. Which is a shame, because in either case, you might be surprised by what you would find.

The truth is, neither statement is correct, as far as we can tell. The statistics we have show no significant correlation between gun ownership rates and homicide rates. I lied, by the way, when I said I believed the first statement. I hope you can see why it was necessary for the point I was trying to make.

It shouldn’t have mattered what my opinion was. I’m not saying my opinion affected the way you thought about the question, but IF it did, that’s a sign that you weren’t interested in discovering the truth. You were interested in winning an argument.

Which wouldn’t make you different from most of the people discussing the gun issue. People on both sides of the argument argue in the same way: as though the statistics support their position. Why? Most likely because they – like the people who incarcerated Galileo – were so sure of their position that they naturally assumed the data would support them, and so it was not worth their time to verify.

Galileo didn’t know what he was looking for when he built the telescope. He just went looking for the truth, whatever it may be. No one else in this story made that leap, which is why, today, you know who Galileo was, but you don’t know who any of those other people were.

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