Wednesday, July 21, 2010

"People Like Certainty Better Than The Truth"

Two Ancient Greeks, a father and his young son, looking up at the sky:

“What’s that big yellow thing, Father?”

“It’s the sun, son.”

“What does the sun do?”

“It keeps us warm.”

“Anything else?”

“It revolves around the earth.”

“It does?”

“Let’s say it does. Then we won’t have to think about it anymore.”

And nobody did for fifteen hundred years. From generation to generation the belief was passed down that the sun revolved around the earth, the belief rising to a certainty through continuous repetition. It felt good being certain about something. Reassuring. Comforting. It was something you could count on. Unlike, say, going outside.

“What happened to Harry?”

“He went outside, and something got him.”

That’s the kind of world people lived in – total uncertainty. So when an idea came around they were sure of, they just loved it to pieces. They made a phrase out of it. When something was a slam-dunk certainty, they’d say,

“It’s as sure as the sun revolves around the earth.”

The phrase was the touchstone of reliability.

“Will it rain tomorrow?”

“As sure as the sun revolves around the earth.”

And they’d take an umbrella.

People loved that certainty. They needed it. They cherished it. And they adored it to pieces.

Then one day in the 1600’s, Galileo Galilei (it sounds like yodeling, but that’s his name) opens his front door to get the paper, as his neighbor passes by, walking his dog.

“Good morning to you, Galileo Galilei.”

“Good morning, neighbor. And to you too, little puppy.”

“Isabella made a perfect ‘poopie’ in the park.”

“I’m happy to hear that. Well, sir, have a wonderful Italian day.”


“How could I not? I am rich. I’m in excellent health. I’m a lucky man. I have that reputation, you know. Everyone says, ‘That man’s success is as sure as the sun revolving around the earth.’”



“They do!”

“I have no doubt that they do.”

“Then why the unenthusiastic ‘Hmph’?”

“It’s just something I’ve been working on.”

“You mean that ‘science’ business?”

“I detect some condescension in that tone.”

“Well, you know. ‘Science.’”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Oh, no. It’s a worthy enterprise. If you like ‘theories.’”

“The ‘scientific method’ requires theories to be tested through a rigorous protocol of scrupulous experimentation. Their validity is established by their consistently generating reproducible results.”

“I have no idea what you just said.”

“They’re true!”

“They may be true ‘scientifically’…

“That’s the only truth there is.”


“Oh, and religious truth. Of course. Science and religion. Those two. The only truths.

“Good save. So tell me, what scientific discovery prompted your earlier ‘Hmph.’”“It’s actually very exciting. By conducting experiments with my newly refined telescope, I have proven without question – and therein lies my earlier hesitation – that contrary to longstanding belief, it is the earth that revolves around the sun.”

(SNORTS) “No kidding.”

“Mock me if you will, sir. But I have incontrovertible evidence.”

“That the earth revolves around the sun.”


“Oh, man.”

“What is it?”

(SIGHS) “Look, Galileo. You’re a nice fellow. And a good neighbor. You bring over our mail when you get it by mistake; it’s a thoughtful gesture. And I see how hard you work. I’m putting out the lights at night, and you’re still up in your attic, fiddling with your periscope.”


“What’s a periscope?”

“I don’t think they invented that yet.”

“Oh. Anyway…I may be ignorant about this ‘science’ stuff, but I do know this. There’s hardly anything people believe with a certainty. One thing we believe with a certainty is that the sun revolves around the earth.”

“But it doesn’t.”

“We don’t care.”

“I can show you scientifically…”

“We don’t. Care. We believe it; that’s all that matters. Be careful, Galileo Galilei. It’s a slippery slope you’re talking about here. You disprove that the sun revolves around the earth, and where does it stop? It doesn’t stop. Your discovery emboldens you. So you go on, your ‘scientific method’ disproving one longstanding belief after another, and before you know it, we don’t know anything anymore. That’s very upsetting! We don’t know what’s what, and what isn’t. Something is true, and then it’s not true. Up is down. Down is up. Look at me. I’m getting agitated just talking about it.

“So what you’re saying is…”

“Leave it alone.”

“I can’t.”

“Listen. I’m a reasonable person. I mean, not really, but compared to who else is out there. I mean, when you get down to it, who cares? – “The sun revolves around the earth”, “The earth revolves around the sun” – this doesn’t affect me on a daily basis. On the other hand, there are people out there – not mentioning any names or what their jobs are – who are not going to appreciate your new theory. And when they get wind of it, they are going to bring you in for questioning, torture you, and burn you at the stake. Trust me, you do not want that. I accidentally touched a hot coal once, and my finger got all blistered and ugly-looking and it hurt like crazy for a week. ‘Burnt at the stake’ is my finger times your entire body. Plus, you die.”

“The truth matters.”

“No really that much. Look, I gotta go. People later will be testifying that we engaged in extended conversation, and that’s not going to be good for me. Congratulations on your discovery. But if you’ll take my advice, you will keep it to yourself. Let some heretic assert your new theory. They’re burning him anyway. It won’t make any difference.”

History tells us that Galileo was prosecuted for his revolutionary, though scientifically accurate, beliefs, placed under extended house arrest, and was not formally forgiven until 1992. The delay is understandable.

You really don’t want to encourage that kind of stuff.


A. Buck Short said...

Congratulations, once again you’ve morphed into my favorites Richard Armour and Peter De Vries.

Another victory for Barry Scheck and the Innocence Project?

“15 out of 19 people revolve around the Sun.” - Mel Brooks, the 2,000 Year-Old Man. (Not sure if the numbers are right, but who’s counting?”)

This, of course, has broader implications, like for example, in volleyball, when the other side loses its serve and the ball comes back to you, they tell everybody to “rotate.” Well, wait a minute. Wouldn’t “rotate” be each of the 6 (or 9) players staying in his or her same spot and simply turning around in place 360 degrees? When all 6 (ok, or 9) players move over clockwise one space, wouldn’t that be “revolve?” Albeit around an imaginary center point. Why the orbit is even elliptical, just like the moon’s! Which of course poses several additional questions. 1) In the Southern Hemisphere, do the players rotate/revolve counterclockwise? 2) Isn’t indoor beach volleyball an oxymoron? Really. 3) In two-woman beach volleyball (I mean, who watches the men) what’s the difference between rotate, revolve and just changing places? 4) Who says everything has to revolve around Simon Cowbell? And 5) Karch Kiraly is simply unacceptable as a name.

You know the entire solar system is going to hell in a hand basket if you saw Buzz Aldrin choosing to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Moon Walk yesterday morning as a spokesmodel on The Price is Right with Drew Carey. I am not making this up. I appreciate the everyman persona compared to Armstrong’s (in Sarah Palin’s words) “reclusiativity;” but still, a new low in book tour activity.

Incidentally, you had us at “Have a wonderful Italian day.”

Anonymous said...

Great post!

Applicable even to this day, especially when it comes to religion and/or politics.