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Republicans don’t remember Galileo nearly as well as they should

Ted Cruz and Donald Trump have now both compared themselves to Galileo. It’s tough to decide which of the claims was worse.


A couple of years into his first term, Sen. Ted Cruz rolled out a new argument to defend his rejection of climate science. As his 2016 presidential campaign got underway, the Texas Republican went so far as to compare himself to Galileo Galilei.

“What do they do? They scream, ‘You’re a denier.’ They brand you a heretic,” Cruz whined, referring to those who criticize him for rejecting scientific evidence. “Today, the global warming alarmists are the equivalent of the flat-Earthers. It used to be [that] it is accepted scientific wisdom the Earth is flat, and this heretic named Galileo was branded a denier.”

This didn’t make sense for a great many reasons — among other things, people knew the Earth was round before Galileo’s lifetime — but it appears Cruz isn’t the only Republican confused about the Italian scientist’s legacy.

Politico reported this week on Donald Trump’s lawyers making “novel” legal arguments that, oddly enough, referenced Galileo in a very different context. In this case, the Republican is trying to convince the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that Twitter and the U.S. government were wrong to try to suppress dangerous misinformation — just as the Catholic Church was wrong to persecute Galileo.

“Most people once believed these to be crackpot ideas; many still do. But crackpot ideas sometimes turn out to be true. The earth does revolve around the sun, and it was Hunter Biden, not Russian disinformation agents, who dropped off a laptop full of incriminating evidence at a repair shop in Delaware,” Trump’s lawyers wrote. “Galileo spent his remaining days under house arrest for spreading heretical ideas, and thousands of dissidents today are arrested or killed by despotic governments eager to suppress ideas they disapprove of. But this is not the American way.”

The same legal filing from the former president’s lawyers went on to argue, “We believe the path to truth is forged by exposing all ideas to opposition, debate, and discussion. Confident in the wisdom of the American people, we believe ideas that survive the gantlet of criticism will flourish and those that don’t will fall by the wayside. E=mc2 revolutionized physics, not because it got thousands of likes on Facebook, but because it survived withering criticism by proclaimed experts.”

In other words, Team Trump isn’t just drawing Galileo parallels. The lawyers also added Albert Einstein to the mix.

We could spend some time exploring why the case against Galileo was more about transubstantiation and less about heliocentrism, but those details aren’t the most important aspect to this.

The more significant problem is the degree to which Trump’s lawyers tried to turn reality on its head. The Washington Post’s Philip Bump explained this well yesterday:

Galileo conducted careful analysis of the evidence and reached a conclusion at odds with the fables and assumptions of state leaders, a group that overlapped with leaders of the church. ... What Trump does with his election fraud claims is akin not to Galileo but to the church. He is not conducting a careful consideration of the evidence as he evaluates his theory that the election was stolen; he is operating on faith, on a logic built of allusions and signs. This is not meant to disparage religion by association, certainly. It is, instead, to note that Trump’s attorneys get the situation precisely backward.

Quite right. If Galileo and Einstein were accomplished con artists, the comparison would be more compelling. But they weren’t.

Cruz and Trump’s lawyers made similar mistakes when it comes to critical thinking. To hear them tell it, those who reject documented truths and the scientific canon should be seen as rebellious heroes worthy of celebration.

But by that reasoning, all “crackpot ideas,” to use Team Trump’s phrasing, are worthy of some modicum of respect, no matter how bonkers. Every garbage pitch, no matter the source, no matter the motivation, deserves to be scrutinized and considered in some detail, no matter the potential harm.

This simply isn’t how logic is supposed to work.