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Accommodating Science: the backfire effect, and conclusion

Last updated on 11 Mar 2014

[This is the final section of the book. I will return to the section on neurobiology and religion later.]

The backfire effect

If science is to be communicated to the wider community in a way that will change how people think, then it would seem an obvious idea to look at the actual science of communication itself. A type of psychological research is into motivated reasoning, which seeks to understand how it is that people respond to challenges to their beliefs, and it has some surprising and counterintuitive results for us here.

When people are reasoning about things they are motivated strongly to defend, it turns out that evidence to the contrary will typically not reduce their confidence in these beliefs, but in fact cause them to strengthen their beliefs against the evidence. This is known as the “backfire effect”. This is why when conspiracy theorists are presented with strong evidence that, yes, the 9/11 terrorists did cause the collapse of the World Trade Centre, they double down and respond that the counter evidence is itself part of the conspiracy to hide the government’s involvement. It is why when study after study shows that vaccines do not cause autism, or that humans are causing global warming, those who are motivated to defend these ideas increase, rather than decrease, their certitude in those claims. It is why, when no weapons of mass destruction are found in Iraq or connections between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda shown to exist, supporters of the Bush administration still think that Bush was right to invade and there was a connection between 9/11 and Iraq. As philosopher Jonathon Haidt noted (2001),

Research in social cognition also indicates that people often behave like “intuitive lawyers” rather than “intuitive scientists”

who argue in favour of their previously-chosen position rather than investigating it to find out what is right.

It cannot be that people will never change their minds, so what is going on? The theory of motivated reasoning suggests that the function of reasoning is not to find the truth, but to give reasons for what it is that we otherwise want to believe (Mooney 2011). It implies that what really matters is how people feel about beliefs, not what they critically think. In short, the rationalist is wrong. That is, they are wrong about why people use reason, not about the importance of good reasoning.

A recent paper by Mercier and Sperber (2010) argues that the “function” (I always air quote the word function, because there are a multitude of functions for anything, and which one you are most interested in tells the hearer more about you than about the thing you are talking about) of reason is to convince people, not to find the right things to believe. In short, the rhetorical aspect of reasoning is what we first evolved to employ, not the rational and logical aspect.

This must affect how we communicate science to the wider community, and how the community receives that message. Let me use an analogy: suppose you have a criminal element in your neighbourhood. You seek to remove or otherwise deal with that criminal element, so you enact through your local legislative body some harsh anticrime laws. You might expect that crime would drop, but instead it rises, and the criminal acts become more violent and extreme. It turns out that “law and order” campaigns are counterproductive, because all they do it strengthen the motivations of both law and crime doers. It effectively ramps up the tension and hence the violence (Beckett 1999). This is sometimes called the Untouchables Effect:

Malone: You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way! [The Untouchables, 1987]

Now the reasonable response would be to remove the tension and deflate the intensity of the game, for example by disarming the police so that the criminals no longer need to carry weapons. Instead, our tendency is to up the ante each time, ramping up the cost of the game until it becomes very serious indeed, and a kind of war breaks out between gangs and the police. It would also be reasonable to address the underlying social reasons for crime, such as a lack of access to basic resources and fair treatment, but again, in law and order arms races, the exact opposite happens.

This is exactly analogous to the ways in which those who are proscience and those who are anti-science, whether for religious or other reasons, behave. Instead of taking a slow, measured and agreeable approach, our initial tendency is to confront aggressively, and the outcome is not that one side or the other gives way in the face of force majeure but that they both entrench themselves in increasingly malign positions. That is the Chicago way.

This leads to a tragedy of the commons. Each individual actor in this struggle seeks to maximise their own return on cognitive investment (and the reasons have to do with social status), but when all act this way, we end up with a highly polarised negative-sum outcome. Everybody loses when science and political and religious motives are at odds. We end up with anti-science becoming a test of moral purity in some quarters, and thus we stop vaccinating, dealing with the environment, and going into space. A reasonable mind would see this as a problem to be solved, not a mere fact of life.

When communicating to somebody, it is obvious that we must take the audience with us, rather than force feed them at a speed they cannot absorb, and when the audience has prior expectations that run counter to the message, you must gently deconstruct those expectations. Otherwise, you end up reinforcing the motivated reasoning that got you into this mess.

Science communication is not, I believe, the solution to our anti-science social problem. This has to do with the nature of mass media, rather than any failings of science communicators, so let me discuss this a little.

Marshall McLuhan said that the medium is the message, and then failed to give that any real definition or sense. Here is my take on it. Broadcast media, meaning any kind of “publishing abroad”, as they used to call it, where something is written, said or done once, and then sent to many readers or viewers simultaneously, as a medium has some limitations. Since the audience is targeted at the lowest common denominator for the size of audience that is sought, it follows that broadcast media are generally quite information poor. This is equally if not more true of the internet media. A common tag is “tl;dr” – “too long; didn’t read”. Quite apart from the (questionable) claim that reading on a screen is less effective than reading on a physical copy, there is simply so much on the internet that if you want a large audience, you have to make the material bite-size and straightforward.

Yet, there is a lot of content even if there is not much information in broadcast media, so what is it all doing? I believe it is doing one thing only: manipulating attitudes. Broadcast media makes you feel good or bad about things. So the best outcome of good science communication in broadcast media has to do with manipulating the attitudes of the readers and viewers to feel positively disposed towards science. And if you can make people feel good about it, you can make people feel bad about it, as the anti-vaccination and global warming “skeptics” demonstrate. The techniques of manipulation are the message, even when the topic is science.

So when we engage in public debate about science, we are either trying to manipulate attitudes, or we are shouting into the wind. And I think that it is not a virtue to manipulate anyone. Instead, you should express yourself so that a reasonable and honest hearer can follow where your argument leads, even if they end up not agreeing with you. Motivated reasoning is deflated when you treat people with respect and civility, or at least, more so than with any other technique of public debate. It is not infallible.

When motivated reasoning backfires, though, and civility fails, then the strategic issue moves from “convincing others about science” to “preventing others from blocking science and science education”. And this means that one need not be so civil (although I would suggest civility is always the right starting point). However, when we are considering advocacy roles, I do not see why those who are pro-science, even when they are religious believers, must be excluded from active engagement in science. Those who are anti-science may very well be treated in a hostile manner if civility fails, but why treat the pro-science religious believers that way?

So I think that the prohibitive advocacy form of non-accommodationism is a bad strategy, and that we should encourage rather than discourage the involvement of religious believers in science advocacy. And this is purely a political decision. There are few if any philosophical aspects to this: we know that religions that are not empirically testable are compatible with science, and we know that one can believe in scientific ideas and religious ideas when there is no conflict. Our decision to encourage the religious to advocate for science is about raising the knowledge temperature of a society so that decisions are made upon good rather than bad ideas.

Consequently, adopting the exclusionary view that some of the more extreme new atheists have advocated indirectly is counterproductive. If you exclude religious belief from inside the scientific arena, you will find this backfires, and makes science less, not more, influential in society, while at the same time setting up conditions in which anti-science becomes identified with religious belief. And given that religious belief in never going to disappear, this is just stupid behaviour.


Throughout this book I have argued for a kind of accommodationist perspective. Let me summarise it now.

It is my view that science and religion can be mutually consistent so long as it is religion that accommodates science, and not science that accommodates religion. It is also my view that religions have always done this to some extent. It is not my concern to suggest how this may be done, since that is for believers to decide. It will not be all that easy, but it can be done, so long as the religion manages to make their beliefs independent of empirical data.

I do not think that science and religion are at war, and in my historical survey, I find that what happens is that science battles science, with some sides being represented by religious figures and institutions. I note some exceptions to this, particularly with respect to the brain and the mind. Here, more than anywhere else, I think religion has trouble with science.

I argue that if we exclude religious believers from science advocacy, we run the risk of increasing the motivated reasoning that will exclude science from general social policy and the community, to our combined detriment.

Arguments against religion in science do not depend upon scientific arguments or evidence, as no such arguments of evidence against religion exist. Only by adopting a philosophical stance, such as the belief that religion must function like a scientific theory of explanation, or that the probabilities of science favour philosophical positions like atheism, can this be made out. When atheists argue against religion on scientific grounds, either they are arguing against empirically sensitive beliefs, which ought to be science in any case, or they are arguing in a philosophical, and thus unscientific, manner. I don’t mean by this that their conclusions are unscientific, but that the arguments are. They aren’t scientific arguments, but rather they are philosophical arguments that use science as the context in which they are delivered.

Science is neither atheistic nor religious. It is neither an apology for a socioeconomic status quo, nor an argument for a revolution. Consider the scientific claim that global warming is human-caused. This, if established (and I think that it has been established), doesn’t give us a course of action. For that to be derived, we also need the ethical value that we should avoid global warming because of its consequences for us and the environment. This ethical value is not itself scientific. It is a philosophical value.

While some like Dawkins may argue that science makes religion ridiculous, or like Stenger that it shows that it is false, this is neither the implication of science alone, nor is it historically sustainable. What is being argued for in such cases is not science as such, but atheism or positivism. This is of course fine, and within the rights of those who argue, but it is misleading to call this arguing for science. These are philosophical arguments for a philosophical position regarding science. And to say they are implied by science is disingenuous and at best bad philosophy.

On the other hand, the attempts by religious writers to claim science for themselves is equally disingenuous. Ranging from the complete disavowal of any and all science that does not match the prior conclusions drawn (often with great straining) from scripture, to the surreptitious view that a certain philosophical reading of science will support some religious metaphysics, this is the abuse of reason and science. Science doesn’t support Buddhism, nor does it support Christianity, nor the Kabbalah, nor any other fashionable religious view.

A more sophisticated attack upon the philosophical autonomy of science is that of Alvin Plantinga and others, who argue that there is a special kind of science where human reason is subjugated to religion, and so only that sort of science (Plantinga calls it “Augustinian” science) is acceptable to Christians. In this approach, one can use miraculous explanations in science when theology dictates it. I hope I don’t have to argue here against this. The onus is on the theist to justify in a secular context whatever they wish to do under the rubric of “science”; and in ways non- believers can accept, or else it isn’t science; it is theology and only theology. They can think whatever they wish to think as Christians; if it isn’t secular, it isn’t science. If they believe faith supervises reason, that is fine. Nobody else has to. And yet science works very well – just as well as for believers – in the absence of that belief, so perhaps that belief is of no consequence when doing science.

To return to the atheist critics of religion in science, the same argument applies to them. They may believe that faith is excluded by reason and science, and yet science works very well – just as well as for nonbelievers – in the absence of that belief too. In short, science is philosophically neutral.

And this is the take-home message of this book. Science isn’t religion or anti- religion. Religion isn’t science, nor is atheism. All these conceptual entities and social groups are what they are, and they aren’t science. Nothing useful is served by mixing them.

In the end, science matters because the more we know about the world we all inhabit, religious or not, the better we can make our way through it. If our society needs to include the religious in the scientific enterprise, then we should do that, so long, and only so long, as that does not cause science to become corrupted or the servant of social masters.

I have not been a friend to religion in this book; but neither have I been a friend to exclusivism. I haven’t tried to reconcile religion with science for the simple reason that I am not religious, and it is their duty, not mine, to do so. Nor have I tried to show that religion must be excluded from science, because it is my view that this is just wrong. Instead, I have argued for a principled accommodation of religion to science: believe whatever you like, but don’t believe that science is anything else but the best way to know the world around us.


Beckett, K. (1999). Making Crime Pay: Law and Order in Contemporary American Politics. New York, Oxford University Press.

Haidt, J. (2001). “The emotional dog and its rational tail: A social intuitionist approach to moral judgment.” Psychological Review 108: 814-834.

Mercier, H. and D. Sperber (2010). “Why Do Humans Reason? Arguments for an Argumentative Theory.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Vol. 34, No. 2, pp. 57-74, 2011.

Mooney, C. (2011). The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science. Mother Jones.


  1. “If our society needs to include the religious in the scientific enterprise, then we should do that, so long, and only so long, as that does not cause science to become corrupted or the servant of social masters.”

    Sounds like accommodation to me.

  2. Richard Carter, FCD (@friendsofdarwin) Richard Carter, FCD (@friendsofdarwin)

    Makes perfect sense to me. Agreed. Next question, please!

    (I’ve enjoyed these pieces, by the way, even though I’ve missed a few. I’ll make a point of going back and reading them all in the right order.)

  3. I put up a short item earlier today which tangentially (and humorously) speaks to the science / religion tension. (I spent many decades in Christian Science, which words hint at that tension.) Here’s a link to that humorous blogpost: Enjoyed the series!

  4. I do not know whether you have included it earlier in this series already, but it seems to fit to the backfire effect:

    The idea, once aired by you as well, that believing false things may serve as an honest (costly) signal to other believers, that cannot easily be feigned, may be part of the motivation to defend that belief.

    • I haven’t explicitly discussed it, but it is implied by what I have discussed.

  5. Richard Peachey Richard Peachey

    “I haven’t tried to reconcile religion with science for the simple reason that I am not religious, and it is their duty, not mine, to do so.”

    There is no such “duty” as far as I can tell. First of all, there is the major issue that evolutionist philosophy (or science) provides no firm basis for pronouncements on ethics. But even apart from that serious problem, why should it be a “duty” of adherents of one perspective to reconcile their thinking with claims made by another, hostile, perspective?

    As a creationist, I instead consider it my duty to make the distinctions between views, and their irreconcilability, crystal clear.

    “It is my view that science and religion can be mutually consistent so long as it is religion that accommodates science, and not science that accommodates religion.”

    But what is “science”? The current majority view of self-designated “scientists” on a given topic — which is subject to change and often has changed? Why should anyone have to accommodate that sort of thing holus-bolus?

    I’m glad that in a free society we are free to think critically and decide, as individuals, for or against competing claims, including those thrust upon us in the name of “science.”

    Having said those things, I am of course not at all opposed to practical, repeatable, tested data and results arising from empirical, observational science.

    • TomS TomS

      Please explain your opinion on heliocentrism.

      If you accept heliocentrism, why?

      • Richard Peachey Richard Peachey

        Yes, I accept heliocentrism, i.e., that the Earth revolves around the Sun (roughly speaking).

        For quite a while the church was caught up in the established secular science of day — Ptolemy’s model. But eventually most were won over by, among other things, the empirical evidence for heliocentrism when it became available (after Galileo’s time).

        This turns out to be a good lesson for Christians not to buy too strongly into what seems to be established “science” — even when it has been generally accepted for a long time. 🙂

        • TomS TomS

          Why do you accept heliocentrism.

          In particular, how do your strictures on science relate to the evidence for heliocentrism. Its practicality … repeating it … etc.

        • Richard Peachey Richard Peachey

          So, Tom, your question is not really about heliocentricity, but about the definition of “science”?

          Perhaps you could clarify what it is you’re looking for, or the point you’re wanting to make . . . rather than have me continue to guess.

        • TomS TomS

          If you prefer to give the impression that you have no coherent position to explain, that’s your choice.

        • Richard Peachey Richard Peachey

          Well, Tom, you’ve successfully mystified me.

          Have a nice day.

        • Richard, I am guessing here, but I think this is the point:

          1. You say that religion can trump science because what counts as science is just something like established ideas.

          2. Tom asks you if you accept heliocentrism (one of the oldest of modern scientific ideas) because it is not what the Bible teaches on any open and honest reading.

          If you say you do, then you must explain why you accept science when it contradicts that part of religion, and not in other cases; in other words, what your criteria are for disputing science.

          If you say you do not, then you are consistent but incoherent.

          If you say you have no criteria as such, but “know anti-religious science when you see it” or something like that, then you are in a position of having no argument to make.

          This is a trilemma I would love to see you answer to. Start a new thread below, as this is already too deep for the brain dead WordPress comment system.

  6. Don Don

    Thank you for the laugh because….

    It really makes me laugh how someone can kill the whole logic behind their babble and contradict themselves with one sentence…

    “”This is why when conspiracy theorists are presented with strong evidence that, yes, the 9/11 terrorists did cause the collapse of the World Trade Centre, they double down and respond that the counter evidence is itself part of the conspiracy to hide the government’s involvement.””

    Using backfire to explain people refusing to succumb to ignorance is just silly. The back fire applies when people who “believe” the official garbage are confronted by the facts.

    The science does NOT support the official story. Grade school science at that. And it is only your BELIEF in the government story, that has you promulgating ignorance as knowledge. Stick to your speciality, likely writing about cooking.and please leave the science for those who understand it.

    “The many visual images (massive structural members being hurled horizontally, huge pyroclastic clouds, etc.) leave no doubt in my mind explosives were involved [in the destruction of the World Trade Center].”

    Dwain Deets, MS Physics, MS Eng – Former Director, Aerospace Projects, NASA Dryden Flight Research Center. Before this appointment, he served as Director, Research Engineering Division at Dryden. Recipient of the NASA Exceptional Service Award and the Presidential Meritorious Rank Award.


    “Serious technical investigations by experts seem to be lacking from the official explanations.”

    Larry L. Erickson, BS Aeronautical Eng, MS Aeronautical Eng, PhD Eng Mechanics – Retired NASA Aerospace Engineer and Research Scientist. Conducted research in the fields of structural dynamics, aerodynamics, aeroelasticity and flutter. Recipient of NASA’s Aerodynamics Division Researcher-of-the-Year Award. 33-year NASA career. Member, American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics.


    “”The only peer-reviewed papers that provide a physically plausible mechanism for collapse of WTC 1, 2, or 7 are papers that conclude with controlled demolition – a result consistent with the fact that in over 100 years, no high-rise steel frame building has ever collapsed from fire alone. “”

    Timothy E. Eastman, Ph.D., Physics
    Group Manager for Space Science Support
    Heliospheric Physics Laboratory
    NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

    end of story…

    • Don Don

      Science says…

      “If you have a flame of 750 degrees, you can hold that flame under steel forever and you will NEVER reach a high enough temperature to bend steel, let alone melt it.”

      Robert Podolsky – Masters in theoretical physics, Physicist /engineer. Systems analyst, Air Force Avionics Lab, Coast Guard electronics

      Law of thermo-dynamics
      “”I flew the two actual aircraft which were involved in 9/11; the Fight number 175 and Flight 93. I don’t believe it’s possible for, like I said, for a terrorist to train on a [Cessna] 172, then jump in a cockpit of a 757-767 class cockpit, and vertical navigate the aircraft, lateral navigate the aircraft, and fly the airplane at speeds exceeding it’s design limit speed by well over 100 knots, make high-speed high-banked turns, exceeding — pulling probably 5, 6, 7 G’s. The aircraft would literally fall out of the sky. I couldn’t do it and I’m absolutely positive they couldn’t do it.”

      Capt. Russ Wittenberg, U.S. Air Force – Former U.S. Air Force fighter pilot with over 100 combat missions. Retired commercial pilot. Flew for Pan Am and United Airlines for 35 years. Aircraft flown: Boeing 707, 720, 727, 737, 747, 757, 767, and 777. 30,000+ total hours flown.

      Law of aerodynamics
      Commander James Clow, MS, U.S. Coast Guard (ret) – Retired U.S. Coast Guard officer

      “No matter how one views the videos of the Towers and Building 7 collapsing, the laws of physics MUST hold true. If F=ma appears to have been violated (e.g., free-fall collapse of the buildings at nearly 9.8 m/sec/sec), then something is seriously amiss and one must start looking for the “other hand” hidden beneath the table to discover what is really happening”

      Law of motion/momentum
      And the dearth of available evidence and fact…

      -Several tons of molten iron – Rapid oxidation and intergranular melting—
      -Microspheres of molten iron – 1400 victims blown into tiny fragments—
      -Total building destruction – Complete dismemberment of steel frame—
      -Temperatures well above what is possible under alleged conditions—
      -Expanding pyroclastic dust clouds – Positive ID of Nano Thermite—
      -Mid-air pulverization of 90,000 tons of electronics, concrete & metal decking–
      -Destruction through path of greatest resistance at near free-fall
      -3 layers reinforced concrete punctured, + 3 unreinforced layers of concreted punctured at the pentagon, 6 layers in total punctured by a flying pop can..
      -No debris or evidence of aircraft at all
      -Flight paths mis-reported and fighter craft response deliberately delayed by the Pentagon
      -Evidence destroyed before investigations , and this is a blatant crime done by the government, to hide evidence…

      Just like this is…

      “A FOIA request to NIST, by a registered structural engineer, for calculations and analysis substantiating the lock off failures of the horizontal girders from their seats, at column 79 and 81, was denied by NIST. With the claim that releasing this data, might jeopardize public safety”

      How could it possibly jeopardize public safety, to tell people in the industry, the architects and engineers who are responsible for designing these buildings, how this failure could occur?”

      cover up. End of story.

      Feel that discomfort? ? It is cognitive dissonance. Feel the instant need to yell out how that is all so wrong? How these experts must have it all wrong, ad how you can explain how? That is back fire.

      School is out.

      • Any further truther comments will be immediately deleted. Wrong forum.

  7. TomS TomS

    @Richard Peachey
    I have the right to say that I’m mystified by someone who repeatedly tells us (1)that Galileo didn’t have the science to back up heliocentrism, but (2) that we now have the science, and this someone will not tell us what that new science is. Indeed, no answer to either part.

    And John Wilkins is correct in why I think that answer is interesting: in leading to that trilemma.

    • Michael Fugate Michael Fugate

      Here is the response – somewhat tongue in cheek.

      If I am religious, when it comes to science there are only two things to worry about either my holy book agrees with current science or it doesn’t.
      If it does there is nothing to worry about.
      If it doesn’t there are only two things to worry about either I can interpret the conflicting passages in my holy book as poetry or metaphor or in some other non-literal manner or I can’t.
      If I can there is nothing to worry about.
      If I can’t there are only two things to worry about either I can change the minds of scientists by doing the needed science to support my hypothesis or I can’t.
      If I can there is nothing to worry about.
      If I can’t, I can still convince myself that science is wrong, God loves me, I am going to heaven, etc. so I don’t need to worry.

      That said – I imagine Richard will try to either claim the Bible says nothing about heliocentrism v. geocentrism or claim that any literal references to geocentrism should be interpreted non-literally (they were meant as poetry).

      • TomS TomS

        I have often seen the claim that a text is “clearly” meant figuratively. In the case of the geocentric texts, no one before modern science noted that they were meant figuratively. One can say that I have the truth, and all others were wrong, but to say that they all missed what is “clear”? No, no one has ever accepted that the Earth is not fixed and that the Sun does not circle it except on the authority of modern science, not because it suddenly be “clear”.

        I like to point out that the case for heliocentrism differs in two critical aspects than for evolution: (1) the scientific evidence for evolution is more accessible to the layman than of heliocentrism; (2) the Biblical endorsement of the “fixity of the Earth” is “clearer” (in the sense above) than is the “fixity of species”.

        • TomS TomS

          Excuse me, but I mistyped the end of the first paragraph. It should be:

          not because the Biblical texts had suddenly became “clear”.

        • Michael Fugate Michael Fugate

          There were Greeks in the 3rd c. BCE proposing heliocentrism – hardly modern science.

        • TomS TomS

          I do know about that. I don’t think that I have to change what I said.

        • jimhexis jimhexis

          Whatever it is, some Greek proposed it, including, famously, the idea that the Earth is shaped like a cylindrical drum. The point is that heliocentrism didn’t have very good arguments going for it in the 3rd Century. As Thony Charles over at Renaissance Mathematicus has demonstrated at length, heliocentrism wasn’t obviously right in Galileo’s time either. Simply by being born late, we possess the teacher’s edition of history, the one with the answers on the back. The people who actually figured things out didn’t have that advantage!

        • Michael Fugate Michael Fugate

          Sigh, Thony C is no less biased than the moderns he disses. He is convinced that Ptolemy accurately portrayed the arguments for and against ancient heliocentrism, yet we don’t have the primary sources.

          In the 16th and 17th c. geocentrism was the standard and the evidence available for heliocentrism was not adequate to displace it. For instance, parallax using the crude telescopes, circular orbits and so on. The new understanding of inertia could be seen as freeing up the possibility of a moving earth – we know Aristotle was wrong, but was his the only view in Greek physics?

          The problem is there weren’t necessarily good reasons for geocentrism to be the standard in the first place except for the weight of Ptolemy’s authority. For instance, if one assumed the stars were far away – which I might add Aristarchus apparently proposed – parallax is not an issue. There is much we don’t know about the diversity of Greek physics – so to say that heliocentrism was unsupported is itself unsupported.

          P.S. pointing out an absurdity in Greek physics to undermine heliocentrism undermines geocentrism too.

        • jimhexis jimhexis

          The absurdity in Greek physics belongs to Anaxamander, one of the greatest of the Ionian physicists. The idea wasn’t an absurdity at the time, which makes it another illustration of my point about hindsight.

        • TomS TomS

          If one mentions “Ptolemy’s authority” as the “good reasons” in 16-17th century, shouldn’t one also mention the Bible’s authority?

          Am correct in saying that there were convincingly good reasons for heliocentrism in the 18th century?

        • Michael Fugate Michael Fugate

          An interesting commentary in last week’s Nature on studying Grosseteste’s work on physics, mathematics and cosmology:

          As usual, there is the interpretation in light of current thinking, but also an appreciation for the skill and imagination using the premises and tools available. The idea that a literal reading of the Bible constrained thinking is probably unfounded or at least varied greatly among educated individuals.

          That heliocentrism popped up as a possibility indicates that it had support – either observational or theoretical – that it was based on ideas deemed absurd today is a given. That said, geocentrism had to also be based on equally absurd ideas and to claim that it was the only possibility or even the only logical possibility has to be incorrect. We just don’t have all of the debate available for us to make a conclusion about support for these different ideas.

          We of course know that at the time of Copernicus, it would take much more evidence than was available to overthrow the dominant geocentric model. How much the Bible was involved is unknown and I am coming more to the idea that Biblical interpretation had to be much more fluid than most imagine. Any conflicts could be worked around; these were smart people interested in finding things out not just in confirming what was already dogma. Current literalism is a product of the evolution age and heliocentrism was less of an issue by the time of its ascension – so it is not surprising that it is less of an issue today.

  8. TomS TomS

    These are interesting questions. But I will have to leave them to people more qualified than I. And because they will distract me from my original purpose in seeking what a creation-heliocentric does to reconcile his accepting modern science as informing his modern interpretation of the Bible – with the contrary stance with evolution.

    What does he count as so compelling about the natural world as to force a non-“clear” interpretation of the Bible?

    • Michael Fugate Michael Fugate

      I agree, the big issue I see is that in the 17th c. one could be a geocentrist because the data were not sufficient to replace geocentrism, but by 18th that was not the case. In the 18th c., one could be a creationist, but the 19th no and definitely not in the 20th. Why the almost universal acceptance of heliocentrism, but not evolution? It is not the quality or quantity of the science. Reading Darwin should have been enough and yet the evidence today is orders of magnitude greater and seemingly all of the objections have been refuted a million times over. It beggars belief.

  9. Richard Peachey Richard Peachey

    Thanks to everyone who jumped in and commented after John’s “trilemma” challenge (Mar. 17, 12:03 pm). I enjoyed tremendously the discussion and the various historical insights contributed.

    I’m not even close to being an expert in historical astronomy (or any kind of astronomy), so I won’t comment on when or why heliocentrism became scientifically credible. Nor will I take up John’s challenge in detail. I’ll simply offer the following points and leave it at that.

    (1) I agree that the Bible does not directly teach heliocentrism. How the solar system works is not a “salvation issue,” so there was no particular requirement for the Bible to clarify this (as Galileo rightly said). Indeed, it was something we could work out for ourselves (like the roundness of the Earth).

    (2) I suggest that as long as the Bible does not explicitly, didactically promote anything clearly contrary to heliocentrism, it should not be faulted for disagreeing with current science.

    (3) Clear didactic cosmogonical prose passages like Genesis 1 do not promote either geocentrism or heliocentrism.

    (4) One passage that speaks as if the Sun moves around a fixed Earth is Psalm 19:4b-6. “In the heavens he [God] has pitched a tent for the sun, which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion, like a champion rejoicing to run his course. It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is hidden from its heat.” This is Hebrew poetry. (Michael, you can take credit for predicting I would talk about poetry!) As Hebrew poetry, it contains parallelism, personification, and other figures of speech. However, even if it were not poetry, there is still nothing wrong with using phenomenological (observational) language. From our viewpoint (fixed Earth as a reference frame), the Sun does appear to rise, move through the sky, and set. Modern newspapers still speak of “sunrise” and “sunset,” using the language of appearance, even though they’re mostly not operated by geocentrists.

    (5) Another such passage is Joshua 10:12-14. “On the day the Lord gave the Amorites over to Israel, Joshua said to the Lord in the presence of Israel: ‘O sun, stand still over Gibeon, O moon, over the Valley of Aijalon.’ So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the nation avenged itself on its enemies, as it is written in the Book of Jashar. The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day. There has never been a day like it before or since, a day when the Lord listened to a man. Surely the Lord was fighting for Israel.” This is partly Hebrew poetry (Joshua’s words) and partly prose; both parts speak of the Sun moving around a fixed Earth. Skeptical questions can be raised regarding the possibility of such a miracle happening — but aside from those, just to focus on the issue under discussion, I would suggest that, again, phenomenological language is being used. Physicists consider it legitimate to use whatever reference frame one wishes to select, for the sake of simplicity in performing calculations. All space objects are rotating, and moving in other ways too, but for most purposes it suits us quite well to work with, and to speak in terms of, the reference frame of a fixed Earth around which everything else revolves.

  10. TomS TomS

    You made the claim that Galileo did not have scientific evidence for heliocentrism.

    I assume that you will drop that claim.

    You told us that you heliocentrism. Are we correct in believing that because of the findings of modern science?

    Now the claim that you have an interpretation of the Bible which is consistent with heliocentrism.

    Now, no one before the rise of modern science presented such an interpretation of the Bible, This suggests that such an interpretation is informed by modern science. What is your take on this suggestion?

    • Richard Peachey Richard Peachey

      “You made the claim that Galileo did not have scientific evidence for heliocentrism. I assume that you will drop that claim.”

      I don’t see that your assumption is justified. I think the claim is historically correct. Some of the comments above appear to reinforce that claim.

      Michael Fugate wrote: “In the 16th and 17th c. geocentrism was the standard and the evidence available for heliocentrism was not adequate to displace it.” (Note that Galileo died in 1642, in the 17th century.)

      Michael also wrote: “I agree, the big issue I see is that in the 17th c. one could be a geocentrist because the data were not sufficient to replace geocentrism, but by 18th that was not the case.”

      It would be good if Michael or someone else knowledgeable in the history of astronomy would explain for Tom’s (and my) benefit exactly when heliocentrism became scientifically (empirically) supported, rather than just aesthetically and philosophically pleasing (not to be dismissive of the value of those criteria).

      “Now, no one before the rise of modern science presented such an interpretation of the Bible, This suggests that such an interpretation is informed by modern science. What is your take on this suggestion?”

      Don’t know, you may well be right.

  11. Michael Fugate Michael Fugate

    I would say it was in the 19th, when stellar parallax was first demonstrated. It had been long looked for, but telescopes were not powerful enough to detect it; stars are very far away.

    • Richard Peachey Richard Peachey

      Thanks kindly, Michael.

      So, Tom, in light of that, are you still thinking I should drop the claim that Galileo did not have scientific evidence for heliocentrism?

    • TomS TomS

      In the 18th century:
      The RCC dropped its problems with reading Copernicus’ major book on heliocentrism.
      The identity of Halley’s comet was discovered
      Stellar aberration was measured.
      In the 17th century:
      Newton’s Principia was published

      I think that Principia meant that no reasonable, informed person could be a geocentrist.

      Of course one could make arguments like a creationist, even today, that non of this proves heliocentrism. For example, one could say, “How do you know? Were you there (to see the stars not orbiting the the Earth)”?

      But I think that Galileo showed that there was no essential difference between the heavens and the Earth, and at that point the preponderance of the defense shifted to heliocentrism – it now became a question of why should believe in geocentrism. Yes, a reasonable, informed person could still be a geocentrist.

      • Richard Peachey Richard Peachey

        But, Tom, the question under consideration here is not “When did astronomers begin generally to gravitate toward heliocentrism?”

        The question is “When did valid scientific evidence become available?”

        My understanding is that Galileo thought he had good scientific evidence — something to do with tides — but according to modern judgment he was mistaken on that.

        • TomS TomS

          The question is “When did valid scientific evidence become available”, not “When did conclusive valid scientific evidence become available.” The existence of Tycho’s model shows that there was valid scientific evidence, which forced geocentrics to respond to it. I suggest looking at this book which is online, which tells about the influence of Hobbes, Hooke, and Fontenelle, as well as how Newton provided the end to geocentrism.

          I still await for your conclusive valid scientific evidence for heliocentrism. That evidence which is so convincing that informs your interpretation of the Bible. That evidence which is so more than the evidence for evolution (which is seemingly not strong enough to inform the interpretation of the Bible). In brief, why do you accept heliocentrism?

        • Richard Peachey Richard Peachey

          “In brief, why do you accept heliocentrism?”

          OK, to be very brief, I’ll put it like this — sort of a “Wilkinsian”-type explanation. 🙂

          Among the people I have had any contact with, no one disputes heliocentrism. The concept of heliocentrism appears to pose no challenges to my worldview. I am not experiencing any cognitive dissonance in regard to this topic. Therefore, by psychological inertia, I continue to accept heliocentrism. (This is obviously a sociological explanation of my belief, rather than a scientific justification. I have no special academic background in either astronomy or the history of astronomy.)

          With evolution the situation is much different. I formerly accepted evolution, but not long after I converted from atheism to Christianity it became clear to me that the Bible posed challenges to evolutionary thinking. Also, I met intelligent people who suggested that evolution was not unquestionable (to say the least). I have acquired an academic background in biology and chemistry, as well as in theology. My psychological inertia on the topic of evolution was overcome, and I have come to be convinced that there are strong arguments against it — biblical, scientific, and philosophical arguments.

        • This is going to depend on how you cut up the notion of “scientific evidence”. Evidence comes in two broad flavours throughout science: observational and theoretical. The former is an observation that cannot be explained (easily) in the context of an older theory, sometimes called the experimentum crucis. The latter is a useful theoretical model that cannot be consistent with the older model.

          When Reinhold, for example, used Copernicus’ mathematical models to produce a new set of astronomical tables in 1551, which could not have been easily done using Ptolemaic methods, that is a kind of “valid scientific evidence” that tells in favour of Copernicus view. On the other hand, the inability of physicists to explain why the earth’s atmosphere moved with a moving earth is “valid scientific evidence” against Copernicus.

          The observational evidence that tells in favour of Galilean heliocentrism is the phases of Venus, which shows definitely that Venus orbits the sun, not the earth. As Galileo himself observed this, we can say he observed it.

          However, this does not rule out the Tychonian scheme in which all orbit the sun, except that the sun orbits the earth. However,Tychos’ system was seen as a kludge even then, and the fact that this meant that the Martian sphere had to intersect with the lunar sphere disconfirmed the very physics and cosmology Tycho was trying to preserve.

          Stellar parallax is irrelevant to heliocentrism, since that confirms only the distance of the stars. In any case a sufficiently stubborn geocentrist can simply say that the entire universe, including all the galaxies and stars, move as if they were moving and the earth fixed. By that stage, though, any sensible scientist is going to say this is not acceptable.

          Stellar parallax was demonstrated in 1838 by Bessell. But the parallax of comets being superlunary, thus demolishing the foundation for Ptolemaic/Aristotelian astronomical models, occurred in 1571.

          So I would say all the important pieces were in place in the 16th century.

      • Michael Fugate Michael Fugate

        Tycho Brahe produced a hybrid system that worked just fine – if a bit jerry-built. What Newton did was formalize inertia which allowed the atmosphere around the earth to move with the earth. This removed another obstacle. Measuring stellar parallax was the final nail in the coffin of Brahe’s hybrid system.

        • TomS TomS

          Why did the Vatican throw in the towel well before the observation of stellar parallax?
          Anyone who would accept Tycho’s model would have little problem with accounting for stellar parallax (as today’s heliocentrics do).
          I suggest that the search for one crucial experiment is not the science (as properly so) works.
          And, I still am interested in John’s trilemma: where is the evidence for heliocentrism which is so much better than the evidence for evolution? (By the way, there is a alternative theory for heliocentrism, where there is no alternative for evolution.)

        • Michael Fugate Michael Fugate

          I am not saying that it wasn’t a reasonable conclusion before then, only that at that point there was nothing left. The concepts of inertia and gravity – make the sun so much heavier than the earth – nullifying the reasons for putting the earth in the center. So maybe by the late 17th would have made it clear to all but the most stubborn. Still doesn’t explain the stubbornness against evolution.

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