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I suspect that one element in the anti-Establishment anarcho-libertarian impulse is the notion that great breakthroughs have often been produced by those that refused to accept Establishment rejection of their novel ideas, and struggled through to greatness.  Now there is a standard piece of philosophy of science that purports to account for this, usually attributed to Thomas Kuhn.  Kuhn's picture can roughly be summarized as the notion that human knowledge proceeds via a combination of occasional great intellectual leaps the consequences of which are then worked through in detail, and that the process of working things through naturally requires submission to an orthodoxy or tradition, because otherwise one will keep re-inventing the wheel and no progress will be made.  This means that when the next great leap comes along, it will naturally initially meet resistance from the orthodoxy – until it is proven, it's just another heterodox distraction from the mundane-but-vital task of working things through incrementally.

I don't want to dispute or nuance Kuhn's theory here.  Instead, I want to debunk, a little, three of the great heroes of the anti-Establishment: Columbus, Galileo and Darwin.  I want to set out a fairer account than is normally offered of why the Establishment was resistant to their ideas – indeed, to show that, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that each of them was badly and fundamentally wrong, their critics were fully justified, and although each of them did offer something important and reasoned, that which was intellectually defensible is much more restricted than usually claimed, and to the extent that each of them contributed significantly to human progress, their doing so was mostly a matter of brute good luck.  The moral I want you to draw is that although the Establishment is never (by definition) in perfect command of all truth – not being God – the questions and demands it posits are almost always worth reflecting upon and learning from.

Let's start with Columbus.  What people think they know goes pretty much like this.  Columbus proposed to sail west to India, instead of east.  He presented a plan along these lines to the Portuguese, who were the dominant sea-exploring nation of the day.  The Portuguese King's advisors rejected his plan, partly because many people still believed the Earth to be flat (perhaps for religious reasons).  Instead Columbus took his plan to the Spanish.  The Spaniards funded him.  His mission was a success in that he "discovered" North America (at least for Europeans).  This is then an important example of how human progress arose from rejecting the advice of traditionalist backwards-looking advisors and instead striking out on one's own.


The received notion that in Columbus' day many people (including in particular Catholic theologians) still believed the world to be flat appears to arise from what was, for more than a century, the definitive and most widely-read account of Columbus' voyages – "A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus" written in 1828 by Washington Irving, a book that ran to 175 editions in the nineteenth century alone.  It is, however, completely false.  No educated or influential European intellectual believed the Earth to be flat, and that was certainly not the case for the advisors of Portuguese King John II.  The earth's being round had been known by sailors since the time of the Phoenicians, and since the time of the Greeks it was not only known that the Earth was round but there were also highly accurate estimates of how large it was.  More specifically, the highly accurate estimates known to the Portuguese king's advisors were much better than the much smaller estimate that Columbus himself made – he thought the circumference of the earth only about three quarters of what it is.  Furthermore, King John's advisors had much better estimates of how far East (and hence, how far west) were India, China and Japan than those offered by Columbus.

The consequence of Columbus' many geographic errors were that he thought it was only about 3,000 miles from the Canaries to Japan, when the actual distance is about four times that.  Bearing in mind that, even as matters stood, Columbus nearly died even getting to the West Indies, the notion that he could have gone on to travel across the Pacific is quite simply preposterous.

Thus the reason King John II's advisors rejected Columbus' plan was not that they were ignorant folk, resistant of new knowledge and ideas.  It was that his plan was absurd and founded on ignorance, and would, barring the sort of dumb luck that he actually experienced, have wasted money and cost lives.

Let's move on to Galileo.  The received tale here is that in Galileo's day, nearly everyone believed that the sun and other planets revolved around the Earth.  Galileo became aware of the ideas of Copernicus, who had claimed that the Earth revolved around the sun.  Using the new lens technologies available in his day, Galileo built telescopes and was able to produce evidence that the Earth revolved around the sun based on observing phases of Venus and the moons of Jupiter.  But the Jesuit Establishment of his day rejected his evidence, preferring to believe that the Earth revolved around the Sun on the basis of the Bible, and eventually he was condemned and his writings forbidden by the Catholic Church.

As with Columbus above, this tale is badly wrong.  But unlike Columbus, Galileo wasn't ignorant of the evidence that showed him to be wrong (and he was wrong, as we shall see).  Galileo's problem was that he was stubborn and disagreeable and refused to address the key arguments of his opponents.  On the other hand, he was rather like Columbus in preferring his own blind intuition ("faith") to the reasoned arguments of his opponents in the Establishment.

First of all, the Jesuits did not reject Galileo's findings about the phases of Venus or the moons of Jupiter.  Far from it – they duplicated his findings and he was feted by the Establishment as a hero of science.  But they didn't agree with him that his evidence proved that the Earth's revolving around the Sun should be regarded as a fact rather than as either as a theory to be investigated further or, better in the view of the Establishment of the day, as one way of describing things – as a "method".  The illustrious astronomer Tycho Brahe constructed a model in which the Sun and all planets revolved around the Earth and all the other planets also revolved around the Sun.  This was regarded as accounting fully for Galileo's findings (indeed, was constructed and modified partly as a response to them).  Galileo, however, insisted that all the planets' revolving around the Sun was a fact (that it was true that the Earth revolved around the Sun and false that the Sun revolved around the Earth), and pressed the point, including by insulting his opponents.  (He was fond of doing this on many issues.  For example he once producing a pamphlet mocking and belittling a Jesuit astronomer's theory that comets were masses of rock and ice far out in space in most insulting terms, when he (Galileo) claimed comets were obviously atmospheric phenomena.)

After various to-ing and fro-ing that need not concern us, the Jesuit's confronted Galileo with five questions.  Two of them need not concern us.  A third was this: if the Earth revolves around the Sun, it must be moving at a great speed.  So why isn't the air dragged away, the birds dragged from the trees, and so on?  To answer this, Galileo produced one of history's first and greatest thought experiments.  Imagine, he said, a horse-rider throwing a ball up and down as he rides.  The ball and the rider are travelling together, so the ball is already moving forwards relative to the ground when it goes up.  The ball and rider are a combined system that move relative to one another.  Similarly, the birds and air are travelling together around the Sun, and move together.  They are not "dragged back" by their motion.  This thought experiment involves a fundmental and brilliant departure from Aristotle's theory of motion, and later forms the basis for Newton's First Law of Motion.  Thus far Galileo is making his contribution.

The next question of interest to us was this: if the Earth is moving around the sun, it must be moving relative to the fixed stars.  So why don't the relative positions of the fixed stars in the sky change through the year?  This, known as the "no-parallax problem", was the most famous argument against the idea that the Earth revolved around the Sun, and had been considered, since it was originally put forwards by Aristotle, to be the key reason for believing the Earth did not move.  If you had no answer to this question, you had nothing.  Galileo had nothing.

Today we would say that the reason we do not observe parallax is that the fixed stars are such an enormous distance from the Earth that the very small changes that occur as the Earth goes around the Sun through the year do not result in an shift in the relative positions of the fixed stars that can be seen with the naked eye.  Indeed, parallax was not measured successfully until the 1830s.  In Galileo's day there was simply no comprehension of the scales involved.  He had no answer.

The last of the Jesuit's questions was the one I consider most profound, and which, if it had been engaged with properly, could have resulted in materially more rapid scientific advance.  It was this.  If there is to be one truth here – one fixed point in the universe around which all else revolves (and bear in mind that we are happy to accept there may be no one truth, but instead alternative "methods" of thinking about things), then we can understand if that fixed point is the Earth.  For the Earth is where God made the Man and sent his Son to die.  But we cannot understand why the one fixed point should be the Sun.  Why would that be stationary whilst all else revolved around it?  Is there some deeper truth here that we have not been told?  Is the Sun, perhaps, a God?  Is the heliocentric theory really some form of Sun-worship in disguise?

Again, Galileo had no answer to this question.  And that is a great pity.  For – despite all the lauding of Galileo as a hero in this matter – the view of modern science is that Galileo was quite wrong.  There is absolutely no more reason to say that the Earth revolves around the Sun than that the Sun revolves around the Earth, and the Sun is no more a fixed point than is the Earth unless we choose the "method" of setting our inertial frame with the Sun at the origin.  Had Galileo and his supporters engaged properly with this one of the Jesuit's questions, we might have produced the Theory of Relativity many centuries earlier.

Lastly, Darwin.  Unlike Galileo, Darwin was a much more agreeable and intellectually generous figure, and unlike Columbus Darwin was highly educated in (and respectful of) the best science of his day.  But the common tale about him is just as wrong.  It is commonly suggested that until Darwin's day it was common to believe that the Earth was only a few thousand years old and that humans and all other species had been created whole-and-entire by God.  Establishment figures such as Darwin's mentor Charles Lyell are thought to have rejected Darwin's theory of evolution as impious, despite the empirical evidence supporting it.  But Darwin was eventually vindicated.

Again, as I have discussed before, this is just wrong.  Lyell was in fact responsible for many of the key arguments that the Earth is of great age.  His main objections to Darwin's theory was that it did not match the evidence in the fossil record, which did not show a smooth progress and expansion in complexity of species but, rather, a series of great extinctions followed very rapidly by huge flowerings of new complexity.  And Darwin's theories were not vindicated.

In Darwin's system, all of the complexity of modern life is there implicit at the start, just as in Haplochromis chichlids lies the possibility of all the complexity and variation of 90% of the fish in (pre-1950s) Lake Victoria or (to use Darwin's own example) all the complex variation of pigeon-fanciers' pigeons (colours, tail fans, crops, beaks, etc.).  There is often some confusion about just what was the new content of Darwin's theory.  There was nothing new about, for example the concept of the "survival of the fittest".  That was an established concept in economic theory (where it was applied to firms) which Darwin borrowed in his theory to explain which bits of the all-existing complexity of nature were exhibited at any one point in time.  The novelty in Darwin's system was the notion that all the complexity of life was already there at the start.  That (Darwin's central new idea) was rejected at the time as not fitting with the evidence from the fossil record, and is nowadays rejected in favour of a variant of Lyell's own view, namely that species develop from completely new complexity introduced into life at various points.  (We today term this "mutation", and usually attribute the concept to Hugo de Vries, but the modern idea is analytically very like Lyell's (indeed, more like Lyell's than de Vries').)

Like Columbus and Galileo, Darwin had the good fortune that the received history of ideas treated his theories kindly, even though he was just plain wrong.  But like them he made important contributions despite his errors.

Be clear: I have not attempted here to deny the significance of these great men's works.  What I do deny, though, is that it is correct to characterize them as having triumphed, with reason and evidence, over Establishments mired in dogma, superstition and ignorance.  In all these cases, the Establishment criticisms were correct. You might reflect on that point next time you are tempted to reject the shackles of conventional wisdom and overturn the world.

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