The Galileo Trap

UPDATED for clarity. The original final example was really confusing – tried to fix it, hope it’s better.

We’re all familiar, I hope, with the misuse of relativity in popular culture, how, because Einstein found certain highly defined conditions under which the observer’s frame of reference defines what the observer sees and even can see, modern deep thinkers blithely assert that everything is relative, all observation is merely a manifestation of the frame of reference of the observer. There is no truth. We’ll call this the Einstein Trap.

Similarly, and perhaps even worse in practice, it the application of the concepts of evolution and natural selection to anything other than biology. No – as individuals, we are not ‘evolving’. There is no dead hand of natural selection that ensures ideas and cultures get ‘better’. The self-appointed intelligentsia are not higher life forms that are more evolved than us peons. The rich do not get to herd us inferior peoples around to their benefit. This is the Darwin Trap.

I think there’s one more trap, perhaps not as obvious but every bit as stupid and destructive.  Let’s call it the Galileo Trap. It is the belief that whatever is obvious must be wrong. Only counterintuitive and off-putting theories can be true. The mythological Galileo is the archetype.

Using every unaided sense and all logic, we reasonably conclude that the earth seems to be sitting perfectly still, excepting the occasional earthquake or volcano. Yet – Yet! – we now KNOW that it’s spinning around its axis at ridiculous speeds, and whizzing around the Sun at even more ridiculous speeds! All those ancient thinkers were WRONG! (Wrong then morphs into ‘stupid’ with nary a twitch). We, who KNOW it moves are brave and disruptive, like our patron saint, Galileo, who would not bow to all that stupid direct evidence of the senses and logic crap!

The Trap: the true explanation will contradict what seems obvious, will be subtle and hidden, and does not rely on logic or direct observation.

This belief underlies modern Comparative Lit classes, for example. I remember once being told by an unfortunate student that the surest way to get an ‘A’ in the CompLit class she was in was to concoct a explanatory theory of the object under dissection that contradicted everything the story seemed to be trying to make clear. Fortunately, familiarity with any of the popular modern isms allows the student to put the brain in neutral and spew out an appropriate essay under the gentle tug of gravity: Is a couple portrayed as in love? Misogyny! Does the married woman seem happy? False consciousness! Does the hero save the day? Betrayal of the class struggle. And so mindlessly on.

This is merely an example among many. The Galileo Trap is so deeply ingrained that it allows the afflicted to ignore anything said by anyone that might be in any way unsettling, as being NOT what they’re REALLY saying. Arguments from reality are mistrusted – what seems to be happening cannot be what is truly happening. For example, I say that market economics is based on free, mutually beneficial exchanges of goods and services, because that’s sure what it looks like. No, I’m answered, it’s based on a capitalist power dynamic of exploitation, and what  am REALLY saying is capitalist propaganda, as I am clearly a tool laboring under false consciousness. That anyone can *see* people everywhere voluntarily exchanging good and services through the medium of money, and see that exploitation, while real, is neither necessary nor unique to market economics – this is irrelevant, just as how the earth seems to be stationary is irrelevant. The subtle, counterintuitive and irrational explanation is the true one. All that is left is to explain why anyone would fail to believe this.

The Galileo Trap is evidently really hard to escape, even though it is no more based in reality than the Einstein or Darwin Traps. They all destroy the possibility of fruitful discussion before it has even begun.


Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

11 thoughts on “The Galileo Trap”

  1. I like it.

    Of course, you find this in theological discussions as well. Gaudium et spes teaches that contraception is intrinsically evil, and Donum veritatis teaches that the obligation to obey your conscience doesn’t excuse dissent. Since this is all so obvious, it therefore must be the case that the Church approves of dissent from its teaching on contraception.

  2. I like the Einstein Trapdoor in the Galileo Trap. Galileo was not much more right than Copernicus. Can’t have a point of view more privileged than any other.

  3. I actually prefer to call this Bulverism, pace C.S. Lewis, though my definition isn’t quite his. Lewis defined Bulverism as starting from the a priori assumption that your opponent is wrong and then, rather than bothering to prove why he is wrong, simply explaining to the audience why he is wrong; i.e., asserting that he believes or holds the position he does for some reason having nothing to do with the position’s actual truth. “You only say that because you are a man” is the classic Bulverist accusation.

    My definition includes an additional element that, sadly, I feel has become necessary in today’s community because of its sheer prevalence: modern Bulverism, for me, assumes not just that your opponent holds his position for some reason other than honest belief in its objective correctness, but that that reason is self-interested and power-related and more likely to be true in direct proportion to how strongly the arguer insists it is not true, as an expression of sublimated false consciousness (to combine Freud and Marx into one delightfully all-purpose delegitimization tactic).

    Eric S. Raymond has his own term for a similar kind of argument: the “kafkatrap”, in which both the act of contesting an accusation and the act of admitting to it are treated as evidence for the accusation’s truth.

    1. I think Bulverism covers a broader class of things – by Galileo Trap I mean the summary dismissal of the obvious – just as it’s WRONG to think of the earth beneath our feet being stationary, it’s WRONG to think, say, Jane Austin was writing about love and manners, or that my buying goods from you is a free and mutually beneficial transaction, or that when I say I my wife I mean that I love my wife. Instead, each of these things is explained as naive misconceptions by a dark, hidden theory teased out by the enlightened few.

      THEN they have to explain, via Bulverism, why such a fool as you would not believe their theories. But that they personally reject the obvious is what I’m calling the Galileo Trap.

      Does that make sense?

      1. Hm. I see the distinction you’re making but in practice I don’t know if it ever occurs. The Galileo Trap may be the basic reflex assumption that what prima facie seems correct cannot in fact be correct, but in practice the reason people make this assumption always seems to be that they’ve already bought into the prior assumption I’ve called Bulverism: it’s WRONG to think Austen was writing about love and manners BECAUSE there is always a darker hidden motivation behind such writing. The specific delusion and the general paranoia, in psychological terms, are so connected that they have to be treated as a single phenomenon rather than separate issues.

        Of course, what I’ve seen and what’s out there are far from synonymous. What kind of situations are you thinking of where the Galileo Trap isn’t accompanied by a particular Bulverist conviction?

      2. The distinction, insofar as there is one, is that, at some point, one must learn to trade in common sense for uncommon nonsense, and that, logically at least, is prior to learning to ‘argue’ via Bulverisms.

        I imagine a child learning that, contrary to everything he can see and sense, he is standing on a whirling, racing ball. In practice, this belief is inflicted via groupthink – not one in a hundred people, I think, could explain how it we know this to be true, how we carefully weigh one set of observations against another, cook up theories and apply logic until our experiences in the real world are better accounted for. Rather, it’s just a shibboleth for 99% of people.

        But it plants the seed: we are now going to tell you *other* things that contradict what you see and experience, and apply groupthink, and you will comply.

  4. I remember once being told by an unfortunate student that the surest way to get an ‘A’ in the CompLit class she was in was to concoct a explanatory theory of the object under dissection that contradicted everything the story seemed to be trying to make clear.

    I was doing that as a joke in my reviews of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic… until I found people doing it for real online and then it’s like… “it’s not fun any more you guys.”

    *sigh* Sometimes I wonder if stuff like CompLit was a practical joke that got out of hand and nobody knows how to end it.

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