On Gov. Perry and Galileo

By James Fallows
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On reflection, and in response to a torrent of near- identically phrased outraged mail: I shouldn't have called Gov. Rick Perry's reference to Galileo during this week's Republican debate "flat-out moronic." That's mean talk that I shouldn't use about anyone, and I'm sorry.

I should just have said that his comment seemed ill-thought-out, weird, and self-defeating, for exactly the reasons I set out the first time through.

The Galileo story has its many twists, but its plainest symbolism is the tension between science and religious/bureaucratic orthodoxy. The plainest symbolism is all you can apply when you make an offhand allusion during a debate, as Gov. Perry did when saying "Galileo got outvoted for a spell" to defend his skepticism about climate science. Most members of today's world scientific community would apply the Galileo analogy in exactly the opposite way. (Ie, scientists saying something that much of established religious/bureaucratic orthodoxy would rather not hear.)

You can make a reverse-backflip argument, as many of Perry's supporters have, that today's international scientists are in fact the counterparts to the 17th century inquisitors of the Vatican, and that Gov. Perry and the dissident scientists he relies on (none of whom, on being questioned twice, could or would he name) are the real counterparts to brave Galileo. Fine. But if you want that case to be convincing to an audience beyond existing believers, you had better be prepared to make the case, rather than just throwing out an allusion. Especially when, as I pointed out the first time, there are so many less complicated historical examples with which to make the same point.

(Eg: In the late 1700s, the rural doctor Edward Jenner realized that milkmaids who got cowpox then seemed immune from smallpox. He had come up with the insight that would protect countless millions from what was then the world's most-feared disease! But for years the snooty London doctors dismissed the findings of this bumpkin. What insights from what Jenners are we overlooking now?)

My larger point was that Perry was making assertions and arguments that might serve him well with Tea Party-style primary voters but hurt him in the general election. As with his "treasonous" remarks about Ben Bernanke and monetary policy. I still believe that's true -- and that at this moment the Perry campaign is beginning to realize the different audience it needs to deal with now, compared with the past ten years in one state's elections. But I shouldn't have added an insult to that argument.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/09/on-gov-perry-and-galileo/244825/