Too many inquisitors and not enough Galileos

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The phenomenon of Galileo’s telescope – the intention to see only what one expects to see – is pervasive in modern politics, business and finance. And the capacity to observe things as they are, even if the implications are unwelcome, is often a recipe for personal unhappiness and professional isolation.

This week provides the last chance to see Simon Russell Beale as Galileo at London’s National Theatre. The theme of Brecht’s play is the relationship between hierarchy and scientific inquiry, politics and the quest for truth. In David Hare’s version, the dramatic highlight is when, under threat of torture, Galileo recants. But the most telling incident is when the cardinal inquisitor declines to look through Galileo’s telescope. The church has decreed that what he claims to observe cannot be there.

The phenomenon of Galileo’s telescope – the intention to see only what one expects to see – is pervasive in politics, business and finance. The capacity to observe things as they are, even if the implications are unwelcome, is often a recipe for unhappiness and professional isolation. As it was for Galileo. Or David Kelly, the British weapons scientist who killed himself over Iraq.

The prosperous figures in Galileo’s Italy are the courtiers, who benefit from the princely and papal largesse. Their analogues today are professional advisers. I will never forget presenting a view of future electricity prices to a roomful of lawyers, bankers and consultants, all hoping to act in a deal to buy power stations. They were willing the number to be high. No one wanted to look through Galileo’s telescope at what was really there: they sought only the reassurance of what they wanted to hear.

The inquisitor did not care what Galileo’s observations showed about the motion of earth, sun and stars. He cared only that the authority of the church should not be diminished by any contradiction of its view of the world. The facts must not be allowed to get in the way of the story. All of us have a tendency to see the world in terms of simple, all-embracing narratives – axes of good and evil, the inevitable triumph of lightly regulated capitalism and liberal democracy, the transforming impact of the internet, the inexorable progress of global consolidation in industrial structure.

Organisations and individuals attach their prestige and authority to such accounts of the world. Just as Galileo’s scholarly observations were disparaged, contrary information is discounted. Honest comment and criticism challenge the prestige and authority of those who have embraced a particular narrative.

In the National Theatre production, Galileo emerges as a weak man because he prefers public recantation to torture. But this is to impose a very high standard. The church was content to let Galileo live in peace in return for his silence and the result was not just that Galileo survived but that his ideas triumphed. In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, it is not enough that everyone talks Newspeak – there is no real option: Winston is finally crushed when he does, truly, love Big Brother. In its most repressive phases, the Inquisition similarly demanded more of its victims than silence. It was not enough that heretics profess their error, it was necessary that they had really changed their minds.

In capitalism, carrots are as important as sticks and the prospect of bonuses or preferment has taken the place of the terror of the rack. But behaviour induced by financial incentives or the prospect of power may be as craven as the results of torture. It is today regarded as worse to peddle falsehood knowing it to be false than to do so believing it to be true. For Eliot Spitzer, New York attorney-general, the issue was not that analysts puffed worthless stocks: the smoking gun was the discovery of e-mails suggesting the analysts knew they were worthless. For Lord Hutton, who inquired into Dr Kelly’s death, the issue was not whether statements were true but the propriety of beliefs on which they were based.

From this perspective, Galileo – who remains silent even though he knows the truth – is a more culpable figure than the cardinal inquisitor – who does not wish to discover what it would be inconvenient for him to know. But scientific inquiry and the advance of knowledge do not require heroes and martyrs, only people who value truth over expediency. There are many cardinal inquisitors around today – auditors who sign off flawed accounts, investment bankers who sponsor doubtful initial public offerings, advisers who confirm George W.Bush’s view of the world. We would benefit from more Galileos.

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