“Alas, to wear the mantle of Galileo it is not enough that you be persecuted by an unkind establishment, you must also be right.”
-Robert Park. Stolen from the header of Conspiracy Factory
There’s a form of very bad thinking that I see a lot in some very smart, thoughtful people.
The thinking goes like this:
“Great thinkers throughout history have had unpopular ideas that everyone disagreed with.
“I have an unpopular idea that everyone disagrees with.
“Therefore, I must be a great thinker.”
I call it the Galileo Fallacy, in honor of something my old roommate Adele used to say: “The fact that everyone disagrees with you does not make you Galileo.”
I do understand the impulse. If you’re a non-conformist and an independent thinker, you’ve probably gotten used to pushing against the current — to the point that doing so feels more comfortable and natural than going along with it. If you’ve spent your life resisting popular but stupid ideas, resisting popular ideas can become a reflex. And it can be very easy to start thinking of yourself as a smart person simply because you resist popular ideas.
And so you get punk rock AIDS denialists. Radical lefties refusing to get their kids vaccinated. Progressives rejecting the dogmatic religions of their childhoods, only to embrace psychics, astrologers, and cult leaders. Etc., etc., etc.
All because “that’s what The Man wants you to think. I’m not gonna do what The Man wants. I think for myself.”
The problem, of course, is this: It’s certainly the case that being popular, widely accepted, believed by the scientific/ academic/ medical/ etc. establishment… none of that makes an idea true.
But none of it makes an idea false, either.
You know what makes an idea false? Being false. You know what makes an idea true? Being true.
And you know what makes someone an independent thinker? Thinking independently.
It doesn’t mean automatically rejecting an idea simply because it’s in the mainstream. And it doesn’t mean automatically embracing an idea simply because it’s outside of it. When you do that, you’re just as much controlled by the mainstream as if you were completely conforming to it. You’re not thinking independently — you’re reacting reflexively.
And it’s not like Galileo Fallacists are out there doing the research themselves. It’s not like the punk rock AIDS denialists are spending years studying epidemiology, doing research out in the field for a few more years, and independently coming to the conclusion that the medical establishment has it wrong and HIV doesn’t really cause AIDS. Galileo Fallacists are mostly just laypeople like the rest of us, and they’re relying on authority just as much as anybody else.
They’re simply relying on different authority — authority that supports their “you can’t trust the Man” view of the world. They’re rejecting The Man, only to accept the word of a different Man.
Now, of course I understand the impulse to be suspicious of mainstream authority, and not to accept its pronouncements on the face of it. Presidents from Nixon to G.W. Bush have taught us that lesson all too painfully. But there is an enormous difference between being suspicious of mainstream authority, insisting that it support its pronouncements with evidence… and rejecting anything and everything mainstream authority says, simply because of who’s saying it. (The National Science Foundation is not George W. Bush, after all.)
And there’s a still bigger difference between that and accepting the word of any alternative authority who rejects mainstream authority right along with you and who talks a good talk. The history of human knowledge is littered with would-be Galileos who were going to radically shake up our understanding of the world with their radical new theories… theories from phrenology to spirit photography, from The Rules to The Secret, from orgone boxes to the Harmonic Convergence to the transformative power of the enema on both body and soul.
To paraphrase from the movie “Bedazzled”: Yes, they said “You’re a nutcase” about Galileo and Columbus. But they also said it about a lot of nutcases.
Now, I’ve certainly felt the Galileo impulse myself. Especially since I started blogging. When some big controversy is swirling around the blogosphere and everyone is spewing about it, the desire to say something original, something nobody else is saying, something other than just “Me, too”… itâs intense. Even if I don’t have anything original to say, and do, in fact, agree with what everyone else is saying.
But being an original thinker doesn’t mean coming up with something to say that nobody else has said yet… regardless of whether it’s true. Being an original thinker means knowing that you aren’t always right and that everyone else isn’t always wrong. It means knowing when to say, “You know, I really don’t agree with that,” and when to say, “Me, too”… and perhaps most importantly of all, when to say nothing at all.
Which brings me to the Gadfly Corollary.
The Galileo Fallacy is often accompanied by the Gadfly Corollary. It goes something like this
“Great thinkers throughout history have make people upset, angry, irritated, or insulted.
“I make people upset, angry, irritated, or insulted.
“Therefore, I must be a great thinker.”
Whenever someone says, “I’m really getting under people’s skin — I must be doing something right,” or, “If people are this pissed off at what I say, then I must be doing my job” — that’s the Gadfly Corollary in action.
It’s a form of thinking that I see an unfortunate amount of among skeptics and skeptical allies, from Christopher Hitchens to Penn Jillette to the creators of South Park.
And it makes about as much sense as the Galileo Fallacy. Maybe even less.
I mean, of course people get angry at good ideas that challenge their assumptions or call into doubt their most dearly-held beliefs. But people also get angry at bad ideas that are poorly thought-out, ideas based on bigotry and ignorance, and/or ideas that have potentially harmful consequences. The fact that you’ve made people mad at you doesn’t automatically make you a misunderstood genius. Sometimes it just makes you an asshole.
What’s more, the Gadfly Corollary both reveals and encourages some tremendously lazy thinking. When people assume that “if I’m pissing people off, I must be doing something right,” it absolves them of the responsibility of finding out whether they really are right; the difficult, tedious, often humbling work of actually doing the damn research.
After all, it’s easy to get a rise out of people just by baiting them. It’s a whole lot harder to get a rise out of people because you’ve come up with some genuinely new truth that contradicts a deeply-ingrained view of the world. So why not do the former, and convince yourself that you’re doing the latter?
And perhaps that’s the most frustrating thing about the Gadfly Corollary. It’s not that it leads people to be confrontational when they might be better off being diplomatic (although that is frustrating). It’s not that it fills the world in general, and the Internet in particular, with meaningless angry noise masquerading as discourse and debate. (Although that’s frustrating, too.)
The most frustrating thing about the Gadfly Corollary is that it encourages lazy, sloppy thinking, by equating belligerence with genius. And in doing so, it trivializes both the courage and the hard work involved in actual genius. It diminishes Galileo and Darwin and other genuinely new and courageous thinkers — thinkers who were willing to brave the hostility and oppression of society in their pursuit of the truth — and brings them down to the level of Internet trolls cruising the blogs in pursuit of a fight.
Galileo wasn’t Galileo because he pissed a lot of people off. And he wasn’t Galileo because he had a new idea that nobody agreed with and that the establishment violently opposed. Galileo was Galileo because… well, among other things, because he was right. He didn’t just have a new idea that tried to upend everything we thought we knew about the world. He had a new idea that successfully upended everything we thought we knew about the world — because it was right. He had the evidence, he did the work, he crunched the numbers, and he was right. And being right is a lot harder, and means a lot more, than just disagreeing with the establishment and pissing people off.