On June 22, 1633, the astronomer Galileo Galilei, considered by many to be the creator of the scientific method, received his sentence before a court of the Inquisition. For the accusation of defending the Copernican model, in which the Earth revolved around the Sun, Galileo was considered a heretic, forced to reject heliocentric ideas and sentenced to house arrest, in addition to having his work Dialogue included in the Index of Forbidden Books of the Vatican.
Just under 400 years after these events, a survey by the Datafolha Institute conducted in July 2019 pointed out that 7% of Brazilians believe that the Earth is flat. The number represents a movement that has gained momentum in recent years, the so-called terraplanists, who question the spherical shape of the planet, a notion that was already a consensus even in Galileo's time.
It was in order to analyze the resurgence of movements of denial to scientific results such as this that the Romanian astrophysicist Mario Livio launched in early May the book Galileo and the Science Deniers (Galileo and science denialists, publisher Simon & Schuster, to be released in Portuguese by Record publishing house), in which he makes a new reading of Galileo's life and discoveries and compares the resistance he faced at the time to the existing negationism.
One of the main differences, according to him, is that the opposition to science is no longer primarily religious.
"When we talk about denying climate change today or looking at some of the initial responses to Covid-19 pandemic, it is clear that these actions are largely motivated by political conservatism ", says the author to BBC News Brasil.
Livio is an astrophysicist, writer and speaker, a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and lives in the city of Baltimore (USA). He served for 24 years as an astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, a center established by NASA to operate the Hubble telescope. He is also the author of books like Why? What makes us curious (Editora Record, 2018) and The equation that nobody could solve (Editora Record, 2008).
Check out the main parts of the interview.
BBC News Brasil – Why is it important at this moment to take a fresh look at Galileo's life?
Mario Livio – First of all, it is always good to analyze Galileo's life because he was a fascinating person. He was one of the greatest defenders of intellectual freedom, a struggle that is always relevant. But in fact, of course, the most important thing to look at in this particular period is that today we still see a lot of denial about science in the world.
I believe that this is also true for Brazil, for the little I know about the political situation that you are going through.
Galileo's struggle was against the denial of science. Therefore, it is important to understand, first of all, that this is not a recent phenomenon and to analyze the similarities and differences between the denial of science that existed in Galileo's time and that which exists in our present time.
What can we learn about Galileo's struggle that can be applied to our reality?
The motivations for rejecting the discoveries of science in Galileo's time and today are different. In Galileo's time, the main problem is often described as a confrontation between science and religion. This is not true, and he himself never saw the conflict that way.
Galileo was a religious person. The conflict that actually occurred was between science and literal interpretations of the Bible made by the Catholic Church. That was what he was fighting against. Galileo's argument was that the Bible was not written as a scientific book, but was seeking our salvation. Consequently, it was written in a language that can be understood by ordinary people.
He pointed out that even the planets were not named in the Bible and that most of the book's content was said in metaphors, it should not be taken literally. He insisted that the Bible was free from errors. It was our mistake to take it literally.
When we look at science deniers today, we see that the motivations are different. I mean, there are cases that are similar. For example, there are people in the United States who insist on teaching creationism at school along with Darwin's theory of evolution. These people are also motivated by religion.
However, when we talk about denying climate change today or looking at some of the initial responses to the covid-19 pandemic, it is clear that these actions are largely motivated by political conservatism. We are in a US presidential election year and there is a desire to satisfy supporters.
So the motivations are different, but the effect is the same, because it means that science is being set aside and the scientifically generated advice is not being taken seriously.
In 1992, Pope John Paul II finally acknowledged that the Catholic Church was wrong to condemn Galileo. Even with a certain delay, and considering these differences that you have just pointed out, does this indicate that religion is ceasing to be the main antagonistic force of science and that role is now passing definitively to the field of politics?
Yes, you are absolutely right. Pope Francis recently declared that neither the Big Bang nor Darwin's theory of evolution is in conflict with faith. So I think the Catholic Church is much less denialist today than it was in the past.
Even those people who, because of religion, want to teach creationism in science classes go against the pope's own statements. The religious motivation on the Church side is much less pronounced today, and it is much more because of political conservatism that we see this denialism.
Why is it important for populist leaders like Trump and Bolsonaro to confront science and spread disinformation in this way?
Look, I would love to know the answer to that question. Trump wants to be re-elected and clearly tries to please his constituency. I imagine he strongly believes that his followers share views similar to these. He has also taken into account financial and business issues above any kind of moral dilemma or even, to some extent, the preservation of human lives.
I am not fully familiar with the evolution of covid-19 in Brazil, but I know that you are facing serious problems. In the US, the government's initial response was to say, 'Ah, we only have 15 cases now and soon it will drop to zero. We don't need to change much, we are doing a good job '.
Of course, that thought was completely false. We now know, according to serious mathematical models, that if the initial response had been faster and clearer, many lives would have been saved.
At the moment, we have already had a more robust response to the pandemic in the country, but now we run the risk of a speedy reopening of the economy. I do not believe that this is only motivated by the need to help American workers. As long as people are not safe enough to resume their activities, it doesn't matter much whether business is open or not. The population needs to feel safe for this to work.
The American government has issued rules that businesses should reopen, but it has not followed its own guidelines. Almost 20 states began to reopen at a time when the number of cases was steadily increasing over the course of two full weeks.
So the re-election and the interests of the big corporations seem to be more important for this administration than to follow the advice dictated by science, and I believe that something similar is happening in Brazil right now.
Is denialism greater today than it was a few decades ago?
I don't believe that number has increased. A recent Gallup Institute survey showed that just over 30% of Americans believe that humans were created less than 10,000 years ago. This figure is still incredibly alarming, but on the other hand, that percentage is at its lowest level in history. So, we don't have more people believing this than before and I don't believe that there are more denialists today than in previous generations.
What happens, however, is that deniers now have much more visibility. They are, for example, within the American government in far greater numbers than in previous administrations. I hope this is just a fad. I mean, that this is less of an ideology in fact than a position taken purely for political convenience.
Because these are health issues, does this denialism end up having a much stronger impact today than it did in Galileo's time?
In Galileo's time, one of the main conflicts between science and religion involved the Copernican system, which said that all planets, including the Earth, revolved around the Sun, as opposed to Aristotle's, a system in which everything revolved around from the earth. The Earth as a center seemed better for Catholic orthodoxy because human beings would be at the center of divine creation, in an anthropocentric view of the universe.
I am neither an epidemiologist nor a doctor. I'm an astrophysicist, so I don't pretend to understand the science of a pandemic well. But as a scientist, I know how to analyze numbers. I really believe in numbers.
Compare the case of the USA with that of South Korea, for example. I looked at the numbers for the two countries until May 14. South Korea has a population of 52 million people. There, they had an average of …