Making mistakes/owning mistakes

A few weeks ago my husband and I were out driving on a street with two lanes each way. At a major intersection we were in the left lane but planning to go straight and we were behind two other cars also going straight.  In the right lane next to us was a car with a tag in the window — Student Driver.  The light changed and she inched forward trying  to turn left. As we pulled into the intersection after the first two cars who had ignored her, she got really frustrated and swung towards us so closely that I thought we’d have an accident right then.  The car behind us finally stopped for her and then she started across the farther lane where the cars were just going straight in the opposite direction.  I heard a lot of honking but was too shaken to turn around and look. I think she finally made it across.  I didn’t hear the sounds of a crash.

What really bothered me apart from the nearness of her bumper was the determination to continue down this obviously wrong path. It made me wonder who let her out alone without teaching her what to do in case she made a mistake.  Worse yet, was someone in the car with her telling her what to do? Were they encouraging her crazy driving or was she ignoring what they had to say? There aren’t any good scenarios here except the fact that as far as I could tell she did make it through that particular moment unscathed.

I have been thinking for some time about what I call “The Galileo Mistake” and asking myself whether the Pope is making it and I think the answer is yes.

There is a story told about Galileo and the Church. It goes something like this. 

Galileo was the greatest scientist ever.* He wrote a book proving that the earth rotated on its axis and revolved around the sun. The Pope (Urban VIII) thought this was false. So the Church tried him for heresy and convicted him and sent him into house arrest and tried to get rid of his ideas.  Fortunately so the story goes, his ideas survived, and nowadays we know that he was right about the earth and sun and the Pope/Church was wrong. As a consequence of this story we know how bad it is for the Pope to interfere in science where he has no authority.

At least we used to know that.  Now we again have a Pope who is taking sides in a scientific controversy and I can’t help but be nervous even though much of the story above about Galileo is as wrong as can be in its details. Galileo himself made mistakes that led to the Church’s mistake and this fact confuses the question of whether the Church should interfere in scientific questions.

Here are two facts about Galileo that people often don’t know.  In 1616 he asked the Church to declare as dogma that the sun stood still and the earth moved.  Also Galileo thought that he could prove the double motion of the earth, its rotation on an axis and its revolution around the sun, with reference to the tides. He flatly disbelieved that the tides were caused by the moon. Just ponder for a moment how awful it would have been if the Church had made that declaration?

(… to be continued tomorrow ((not).  Yes, really.  Because I’ve already written most of it.)

*Some versions of the story say he was the only scientist in his time. Absolute nonsense! Richard Westfall has documented between 300 and 600 people who engaged in science over the 200 years between 1500 and 1700. A few said one thing.  Many were excellent in their specialities.

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