From the Slaveholders to Rick Perry: Galileo is the Key

In honor of Rick Perry’s decision to quit the race, I’m reprinting one part of this blog post from September, which discusses what I still think is the most memorable moment of the entire campaign: when, in one of the early debates, Perry invoked Galileo in defense of his position on climate change.



The most arresting moment of the debate was when Rick Perry invoked Galileo in defense of his skepticism about climate change.  Here’s what he said:

The science is not settled on this.  The idea that we would put Americans’ economy at jeopardy based on scientific theory that’s not settled yet to me is just nonsense.  Just because you have a group of scientists who stood up and said here is the fact. Galileo got outvoted for a spell.

That line has got everyone spinning; google Rick Perry and Galileo, and you get 471,000 results. But while everyone churns out their pet theories, let’s  remember that Galileo has long held a special place in the mind of the Old South. Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, famously invoked Galileo in defense of the slaveholders’ conviction that “the negro is not equal to the white man” and “subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”

The comparison between Galileo and the slaveholder was as far-fetched as Perry’s, but like Perry, Stephens defended it on the ground that his position was a fugitive knowledge, a heresy that would one day become orthodoxy.  “This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science.”

Other slaveholders (Josiah Nott, John C. Calhoun) made the same comparison; Calhoun also invoked Francis Bacon, Stephens also invoked William Harvey. Their point was that like those great heresies of early modern science, the southern science of race would one day triumph and be recognized the world over. It’s the way the white southerner has always negotiated his contradictory self-understanding of being both victim and victimizer. Again, Stephens:

As I have stated, the truth of this principle may be slow in development, as all truths are and ever have been, in the various branches of science. It was so with the principles announced by Galileo it was so with Adam Smith and his principles of political economy. It was so with Harvey, and his theory of the circulation of the blood. It is stated that not a single one of the medical profession, living at the time of the announcement of the truths made by him, admitted them. Now, they are universally acknowledged. May we not, therefore, look with confidence to the ultimate universal acknowledgment of the truths upon which our system rests?”

And so, I assume, says Rick Perry to himself and his followers about their equally dubious science of climate non-change.


  1. Stephen Zielinski January 19, 2012 at 2:34 pm | #

    It’s odd to read that a good Christian like Perry would appeal in any way to the authority of science to settle a moral-practical question. This is especially odd in this instance since Perry will have furthered the ends of his God if he were wrong about the science. After all, the Apocalypse will be a unique, cosmically significant event that any right-thinking Christian must welcome with the whole of his being!

    After all, an environmental cataclysm will be a more effective and certain end to life on the planet than could be had by a conventional war that destroyed Israel.

    • Zagrobelny (@Zagrobelny) January 19, 2012 at 3:30 pm | #

      Galileo defied the Catholic Church, just like Martin Luther.

      They aren’t against science, they just want *their* science. The right has a funhouse mirror version of the academic and scientific establishment where creationism is “creation science”, Newt Gingrich is an “intellectual”, and Amity Shlaes is a “historian”.

    • samsonsjawbone January 22, 2012 at 9:26 am | #

      After all, the Apocalypse will be a unique, cosmically significant event that any right-thinking Christian must welcome with the whole of his being!

      I can’t tell if you are serious or not. If you are, you ought to know that not all Christians look forward to an “apocalypse”, or believe there will be one.

  2. Zagrobelny (@Zagrobelny) January 19, 2012 at 3:36 pm | #

    Galileo is just being used as a cheap and easy rhetorical trick: Galileo defied the establishment and was proven right, so (insert random “oppressed” figure here) who is defying the establishment will be proven right too. It all falls apart when you point out that any one can “defy the establishment”, it is after all the favorite hobby of disaffected teenagers, including Truthers and the Time Cube guy. But logical fallacies and being proven wrong have never stopped the right from being wrong, or even repeating the same discredited argument over and over again.

  3. Jimmy Reefercake (@JimmyReefercake) January 19, 2012 at 3:39 pm | #

    Science also shows that marijuana is afer than alcohol….and safer that whatever goofball pills Perry is on.

  4. ed January 19, 2012 at 5:07 pm | #

    I didn’t realize the bad faith appropriation of the scientist cum prophet/martyr had such deep historical roots on the Right. I had thought this was a strategy of more recent vintage, like when Intelligent Design advocates began appealing to Kuhn’s “Structure of Scientific Revolutions” to hold out the possibility of a paradigm shift revealing evolutionary science as our modern version of phlogiston thoery. Thanks for pointing this out.

  5. Robert Harper January 22, 2012 at 5:31 pm | #

    Needless to say, it was Galileo who was adhering to the data, not to political or religious dogma. Perry’s remark, like much of Republican rhetoric, turns reality on its head.

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