The Galileo Fallacy, and the Gadfly Corollary

“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”… it’s 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.

The Galileo Fallacy, and the Gadfly Corollary
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24 thoughts on “The Galileo Fallacy, and the Gadfly Corollary

  1. 1

    That was an awesome post. You are completely right on. The funny thing is, I was just telling my boyfriend about a feminist blog I was having trouble with. I was upset because the blogger, whom I usually love, was being needlessly confrontational on a subject which I feared could turn off would-be feminists. And then I read your blog and it put in writing everything I was feeling perfectly. So thank you.

  2. 2

    Lovely post, Greta, as always. I think there’s an element of selection bias which fuels people’s desire to think this way: looking back on history, they see many stories of stubborn contrarians who resisted the scientific establishment and won out in the end. They don’t see the far greater number of stubborn cranks who resisted the scientific community but were completely wrong, and were of course forgotten because they failed to convince anyone. As a result, they mistakenly think that being a contrarian is a sure sign that you’re on to something.

  3. 3

    Yes to Ebonmuse’s comments. I also think there is a very American tendency to romanticize the role of rogue, outsider or underdog. We all grew up on those movies where the scrappy sports team wins against all odds, and we all secretly picture ourselves on that team. It’s the same type of thinking that leads white male Christian Republicans to claim that they are actually an oppressed minority in this country. Deep down, they all want to think they’re the Bad News Bears or something.

  4. CL

    Greta this post was great. Truly. I am pysched. I never got a chance to respond to your equally awesome “Shameless Self Promotion” day, so I decided to take you up on that this morning by posting a little diddy that’s indirectly relevant to yours. Thanks for the read..
    The word heretical can be defined as contrary to the chartered traditions of the Church, and heliocentrism is the notion that the sun is the center of our solar system. Is this idea at arms with anything the Bible actually says, or was it at arms with the power structure’s interpretation of scripture at that particular time?
    Earlier notions of heliocentrism are found nearly two thousand years before Galileo. The Greek astronomer Eratosthenes used geometry to calculate the distance of the sun and moon from Earth as well as their approximate size, leading to the conclusion that because the sun was so massive it must be the center of the solar system.
    Possibly due to rigid interpretation of Psalm 19:6, which states poetically from the vantage point of an observer on earth that the sun “…rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other,” the Church had declared Earth the center of the solar system. Whereas Eratosthenes and Galileo backed their hypotheses with demonstrable reasoning, the Church had nothing to back its position except self-exalted authority. The two rogue thinkers built their case on sound observation and it is now commonly known that major objects like our sun keep minor objects like planets in orbit. In fact, human knowledge has so progressed that even the average seventh grade student knows Earth revolves around the sun.
    As with many other positions, the Church’s stance was not justified by scripture or science. It was based on religious tradition and unfortunately for Galileo, although factually correct his observations were in opposition to their tradition. As opposed to discussing ideas and inviting synthesis, the Church added Galileo’s “Dialogue on Two World Systems” to their Index of Prohibited Books and it remained there until the mid-nineteenth century. Albeit too late for Galileo to enjoy, in 1981 the Vatican formally admitted the Italian scientist was right with the resulting lesson being that religious tradition and truth are not inherently synonymous…
    * continued @

  5. 6

    This was brilliant. Ever since I posted about neurplogical disorder denialism, I have gotten inundated with emails from all sorts of denialists. One of the most common threads seems to be, “just because everyone seems to believe it (including most scientists in whatever field is being discussed) doesn’t mean they’re right.” Indeed, but it also doesn’t mean they’re wrong either. I will be pointing some quacks this way, unless you object. . .

  6. 8

    I mass mailed the nuts that email me, a link. Is it wrong to create a mailing list of denialists and conspiracy nuts? I mean they all mailed me first. In any case I have. I am pointing them towards all sorts of good sites, to edumucate themselves. Thanks.

  7. 9

    This is really a great piece but I have one caveat.
    When someone says “if people are this pissed off at what I say, then I must be doing my job”, they don’t always mean that pissing people off proves they’re right. Sometimes they mean that evoking a passionate response can lead to thinking (or rethinking). This idea is predicated on the assumption that people don’t challenge their own ideas but that if you “get under their skin” they might have to think about their ideas in order to defend them.
    Of course, some people do think that an angry response indicates that the responder is unable to respond rationally which means they have no rational basis for their ideas so they are wrong and I’m right. This is of course the problem you refer to….

  8. 12

    Fantastic post. I now have a sign on my door in Halls that says “Galileo wants his cloak back” as a rebuttal to the girl who keeps giving me HIV denialist leaflets. Does this make me a gadfly, or just condescending?

  9. 13

    Another thing that’s worth considering about the whole Galileo business — the church had a point too (and, as I recall, this came up with Copernicus as well). One question which was asked of Galileo was “If it’s the Earth that’s moving, why don’t we see the stars appearing to change position due to parallax?” And, well, Galileo didn’t have an answer to that. Neither did Copernicus. It was only later that the real solution was found — we don’t see parallax in the stars because they’re *so* far away that they *don’t* appear to move with the Earth’s motion (unless you look at them with a very good telescope, of course, as was discovered in the late 1800s).
    The basic point here is that, during Galileo’s era, *no one* understood the real scale of even the solar system, much less the Galaxy/Universe. And, as a result, there were important details that the heliocentric theory *couldn’t* explain. It’s important to remember that the debate wasn’t just a matter of the obviously right side and the obviously wrong side. There were good points on both sides, although the heliocentric theories were better overall (in hindsight, anyway).

  10. 14

    A couple of points here. 1) Galileo himself apparently fell prey to the Gadfly Corollary. Naming the defender of geocentrism “Simplicio” in a dialog between him and a heliocentrist is not a way to win friends and influence people. IOW, even if you’re right, it doesn’t do to alienate your supporters, in this case Pope Urban VIII.
    2)Galileo was going up against the religious establishment. Granted, the religious establishment and the scientific establishment were pretty much the same at the time, but it makes a difference in how things played out.

  11. 15

    Copernicus had the good sense to die on the day his heliocentric theory was first printed. As I.R. points out, Galileo was his own worst enemy. He profoundly embarrassed his friends and patrons in the Church and they only narrowly saved Galileo from the fate of Giordano Bruno, being burnt alive at the stake.

  12. 16

    Copernicus had the good sense to die on the day his heliocentric theory was first printed. As I.R. points out, Galileo was his own worst enemy. He profoundly embarrassed his friends and patrons in the Church and they only narrowly saved Galileo from the fate of Giordano Bruno, being burnt alive at the stake.

  13. 17

    Excellent post! The opening reminds me of one of my favorite quotations from my favorite Pope–Alexander Pope:
    “The Vulgar thus through Imitation err;
    As oft the Learn’d by being Singular;
    So much they scorn the Crowd, that if the Throng
    By Chance go right, they purposely go wrong.”

  14. 18

    This Galileo fallacy/gadfly corollary is merely an extrapolation of argumentam sub canem – or the martyr/underdog fallacy – a sub-category of the appeal to emotion. Its antithesis being the ‘last man standing’ fallacy. {Chesterton and Priest]

  15. 21

    @Rowan: The term “underdog” is an Americanism from the late 1880s and is not translated back into Latin as “sub canem”, which would be literally “[moving] underneath a dog”. “Sub” takes the accusative case (“canem”) when motion is implied, and the ablative case (“cane”) when rest is implied.
    In neither case however does the idiom make sense in Latin, and nor is the fallacy one of the traditional logical fallacies. If anything, these are flip sides of the argumentum ad populum, playing off of trust or distrust of what’s popularly held to be true.

  16. 22

    It is a fine line to walk. There are even tricky tactics where mainstream humps start a false resistance movement so that it will be discredited, and resistors will just give up resisting – the Bill C 51 protest movement in Canada was just that [it wasn’t such a bad bill afterall].
    There are a lot of good and true evils of the mainstream to resist though. You mentioned the evil of American health care, for one. The economics of concentrating wealth into so few hands, as in the farce of trickle down economics, is another.
    The big evil that I am resisting now is “fossil fuels as the only energy” – renewable energy is a perfectly good idea, as are electric cars [the batteries are NOT a big problem by the way]; the power of oil money is getting in the way of the “electrification” movement.
    So, we do have work to do, but you make a very very good point that we cannot allow ourselves to lose sight of reason and just go “anti-mainstream” on everything.

  17. 23

    I have been guilty of this. I read some opinion I agree and repeat it as, excuse this example, as gospel.I have since learned to think before I speak on matters I have not researched.

  18. 24

    hi I am looking at similar issue as expressed by you here. But I want somewhat deeper in depth perspective.
    What you said may appear profound, but it is not providing any ready-made answers. How would we know that AIDS denialist are not right? and are just hoaxes?
    Another important thing is I am looking for the fictions, plays which try to deal with this issue…
    some examples are “An enemy of the People”, “Semmelweis” or Arrowsmith…can anybody here suggest few more…pls email me about them @ npk_107_at_gmail_dot_com
    there is no “_” in the email address…I just added it to prevent spamming.

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