The Galileo Gambit and Ted Cruz

This article was originally published in the Kelowna Courier, February 21, 2016

The world according to Ted Cruzimrs.php

The field of scientifically illiterate candidates running for the Republican nomination in the US is deep and rich. It would be hard to choose a winner, but the folks in Iowa recently selected one of my top picks. Ted Cruz doesn’t believe in global warming or evolution, is against universal health care and says he will “carpet bomb” Iran if elected president. Science is problematic for people like him because it requires open mindedness and the ability to change one’s views in the light of compelling evidence. However, he is certainly very skilled in the arts of debate and manipulation. Mr. Cruz can bend and twist the facts like bendy twisty things.   His argument that global warming is a hoax includes what skeptics call the Galileo gambit. He asserts that his denial of the overwhelming scientific consensus is correct because that’s what Galileo did, and he was correct, wasn’t he?

The Galileo gambit is an association fallacy, which wrongly asserts that if one thing shares a quality with another thing, then other qualities must also be shared. The example: “Adolph Hitler was a vegetarian and an insane warmonger, so all vegetarians are insane warmongers”, clearly illustrates the logical flaw but more subtle forms of this fallacy are in constant use. Also called guilt or honour by association, it is at the heart of much that is wrong with society. Back to the 1600s. Galileo was brilliant, challenged prevailing unscientific views and was later proved correct, but it does not follow that if you disagree with prevailing views you are necessarily brilliant or correct. Moreover, for every Galileo, Newton or Einstein pushing science forward, we have many thousands of crackpots claiming no end of crazy stuff that turns out to be wrong. As rational thinkers we must treat all extraordinary claims with a healthy dose of skepticism so it may take some time for a new scientific finding to prevail, but it always does. Some people who hold strong opinions simply don’t understand the arguments against their positions and others refuse to consider them, relying on unswerving faith in their beliefs. Still others simply lie.

Cruz sometimes supports his opinions by moving into conspiracy theory territory, proposing that all of the climate scientists across the world, members of the IPCC and thousands of government employees have formed a secret cabal to perpetrate an enormous climate hoax. Even more remarkable is his assertion that all of this is kept secret by the very government he labels as incompetent. Adding to the irony that anti-science Cruz is claiming brotherhood with Galileo, he betrayed a lack of historical knowledge when he stated that Galileo was trying to prove the Earth wasn’t flat, when in fact Galileo was promoting the heliocentric model of the solar system. In Galileo’s time everybody, including the Catholic Church, already knew the earth wasn’t flat. Galileo was instead challenging the consensus that the sun revolves around the Earth at a time when that consensus was already breaking down under the weight of new evidence. The new evidence-based astronomy was offering things that the old astronomy did not (calculations of the calendar and a variety of technicalities). Unfortunately Galileo ran into trouble from some powerful non-scientists who didn’t like the implications of his findings. Cruz seems to have missed this critical point: Galileo lived at a time when most prevailing ideas were unscientific and science was the new game in town. Galileo wasn’t challenging scientific consensus, he was promoting it.

In contrast to Galileo, Cruz denies scientific evidence and promotes bunk. Despite mountains and mountains of evidence he still says global warming is a hoax, perhaps generated personally by President Obama. At a recent senate hearing on the role of NASA in climate science, he claimed that satellite data show no recent climate warming (they do). But this is a red herring, another common kind of logical fallacy, because satellite data are not as reliable as the thousands of thermometer readings taken all over the globe by NASA and other agencies. Cruz avoids talking about the superior thermometer data and focuses instead on the satellite data because it better suits his purpose. Thermometer data provide very strong evidence for global warming. Cruz also used the incorrect and very tired “1998 was warmer than now” trope. That year experienced an exceptional el niño, which caused a massive spike in global temperature so he cherry-picks that one. If you look at all the other years before and after 1998, the world has been getting steadily warmer and warmer at a rate never before seen in Earth’s history. In fact there have been five years since then (2005, 2010, 2013, 2014 and 2015) for which global temperatures were warmer than 1998, and 2015 was the hottest year ever by the biggest margin ever. Cruz may have trouble reading graphs or perhaps he hasn’t seen any in the past 18 years.

When people using the Galileo gambit become the subject of criticism they often double down with another fallacy; “I am getting all the criticism because I am an underdog and I’m a threat to the establishment (Big Science, Big Government, etc.)”. However, as a millionaire Republican senator, darling of the Tea Party and contender for the US presidency, Cruz is hardly an oppressed underdog and has no trouble finding an audience. I am a tad embarrassed that he was born in Canada but I take heart in the fact that he left when he was very young so was not educated here and he very decently renounced his Canadian citizenship a couple of years ago.

The Galileo gambit is, unfortunately, not a rare phenomenon. We university professors get calls from members of the public who want to tell us about their ingenious discoveries and how they have been ignored or persecuted. I heard from one person who was certain he had found aliens in his back yard, two more who had told me they had created perpetual motion machines and yet another who believed he had perfected alchemy and, after three years of undergraduate chemistry, could transform lead into silver.

Ted Cruz and his flawed thinking may be exactly what Republicans want. For their sake, I hope they don’t get it.

Image of Galileoscope by Steve Pitkin/Adler Planetarium/Associated Press.