The Dangers of Oversimplified Narratives: The Story of Galileo

Though it might seem like it would be from the title, this is not a post about writing. It’s a post about history and science and religion and some of the dangers of the way news is reported nowadays.

The story of Galileo Galilei and his famous beef with the church is one that most people think they know. However, as with any story that has been told and retold numerous times, what we’ve heard is only a fraction of the truth.

The Story:

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Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)

Galileo was, among other things, a scientist and astronomer. He improved upon the design of the telescope, allowing him to make extremely accurate observations of the night sky.

He was also a strong believer in the Copernican Model of the universe. He supported the idea of heliocentrism, where the Earth moves around the sun rather than the other way around.

This put him at odds with the ruling power of the time: the Catholic church. Because it says several times in the bible (e.g. Psalms 93:1, 96:10, 104:5) that the Earth is immovable, Galileo was branded as a heretic for suggesting that it was the sun, not the Earth, that was immobile.

Galileo stood in gallant defiance to the tyranny of the church and declared the truth as he saw it.

Galileo was tried for heresy, convicted, forced to recant his view of heliocentrism, and placed under house arrest for the rest of his life, during which time he went blind.

The Narrative:

This story is technically true (the worst kind of truth), and it’s easy to see why it has been told this way for so long. The story, as presented above, has a clear and simplistic narrative that is easy to follow and makes the story compelling.

Galileo is clearly the protagonist of the story, a straight-forward intellectual interested only in advancing the scientific truth of the universe.

The villain of the story is, of course, the Catholic church; the evil empire which seeks to suppress any deviation or originality in favor of mindless dogmatic adherence.

The story of Galileo as it is usually told is the classic tale of an underdog beaten down for being a thorn in the side of an oppressive establishment, only to be vindicated after his death.

This is a good story. It’s concise, uncomplicated, and satisfying. We know who to root for and who to boo.

Unfortunately, the truth is rarely uncomplicated, like a coast line which looks straight from far away but twists and turns as you get closer.

The Whole Story:

Like I said before, the classic story is technically true, but it’s a drastic oversimplification of a complex and interesting story.

Galileo was a proponent of Copernican heliocentrism and did go to the Vatican in 1616 to defend Copernicus and his ideas from an injunction passed by the Catholic church.

For this, he was admonished. There was no punishment, just a kindly “please stop,” to which Galileo said, “OK.” He continued his work on heliocentrism, but labeled it as a purely mathematical concept so as not to defy the church.

Then, in 1623, Cardinal Maffeo Barberini was appointed Pope Urban VIII. Barberini was an admirer of Galileo’s work, and Galileo hoped that under his leadership the church might just lessen its opposition to Copernican heliocentrism.

Despite the 1616 admonishment, Pope Urban VIII received Galileo personally six times in 1623, during which time the two discussed arguments for and against heliocentrism, and allowed him to publish a book on the topic provided it discussed both sides of the issue and did not paint either in a favorable light.

Galileo then wrote his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (as it is now known. The title at the time of publishing was simply Dialogue with a long subtitle from which the rest of the current title was extracted) in 1632.

Dialogue was written, unsurprisingly, in the form of a dialogue between three men. Two of them, Salviadi and Sagredo (both named after friends of Galileo), were intelligent philosophers. The third, Simplicio (supposedly named after Simplicius of Cicilia but also meaning something along the lines of simpleton), was a layman who was less eloquently spoken than the other two.

In this dialogue, Salviadi represented the view of heliocentrism, Sagredo was initially neutral, but ultimately sided with Salviadi, and Simplicio represented the view of geocentrism (or the church’s view). Over the course of the debate, Simplicio is often caught up and generally portrayed as a fool.

As if this were not insulting enough, Galileo had Simplicio recite many of the arguments the pope had made in their 1623 meetings.

Naturally, Pope Urban felt betrayed by Galileo’s portrayal of him in Dialogue. And the man already had more than enough problems on his plate. He was racking up a large debt using military might to expand the papal dominions, and at times he actually feared for his life. His betrayal by Galileo was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Interestingly enough, most historians think Galileo was unaware of how Dialogue both insulted Pope Urban and advocated heliocentrism, meaning he thought he was staying within the church’s mandate.

Galileo was called to defend his writings and stand trial. Technically this was for disobeying his 1616 admonishment, but in truth it was both a vindictive and calculated move by Pope Urban to appear strong and save face.

Had Galileo written his Dialogue with just a little more tact, it is entirely possible that he never would have been persecuted by the church.

Why any of This Matters:

Just as it’s clear why the common version of the story is the one that gets passed on, it’s equally clear why the full version usually gets overlooked. First of all, it’s TL;DR, but most importantly it’s no longer an easy-to-digest narrative.

Galileo is no longer the flawless protagonist who shoulders no blame for his persecution. The church is no longer a monolithic oppressor. It’s much harder to find someone to root for in this version. Everyone involved is only human, for better or worse.

Does this mean the church was correct to act as it did? Absolutely not, but the story lacks the potency it had when the church was merely trying to suppress a dissident.

That’s why stories don’t usually get told this way. We as readers/listeners/viewers actually  prefer the simple narratives. We like having our heroes and villains clearly marked and knowing who to root for. We like conflicts that are purely good vs. evil, right vs. wrong.

But again, that’s almost never how it happens. The real world is messy and conflicted. No one is the villain of their own story. Everyone has their own justifications. There’s always more than one side to any story.

In order to fit a story into a simple narrative, you need to trim the edges so that the square peg can fit in the round hole. When you do that, important details are inevitably lost and even the whole meaning of the story can change. In the case of the Galileo story, it goes from being mostly about politics and ego to a conflict between enlightenment and dogmatic oppression. That’s a pretty big jump.

And the most frightening part is that we don’t just do this to the past. I generally try to avoid watching the news as much as possible (here is a good explanation of why), but if you watch for just ten minutes, you’ll see that every story is spun and contorted until it fits a simple narrative, no matter how complex the issue really is. At best it’s misleading. At worst, it’s manipulative.

Just keep that in mind the next time you see something on the news…there’s usually more there than what they’re showing you.