The BBC reports that the pope’s butler has been sentenced to 18 months house arrest for stealing confidential document. To which the obvious rejoinder,

Fortunately for him, the Vatican is softer on theft than it is on heliocentrism.

(My Facebook status. Facebook is great for one-liners.)

This was the joke that had to be made, but in fact the controversy between the Roman Catholic Church and Galileo is something of a soapbox of mine, so I feel obligated here to set the facts straight.

The fact is that the geocentric model of the universe fit the empirical data better than the heliocentric model, until Kepler discovered his laws of planetary motion. There was a gap of sixty to eighty years between the death of Copernicus and Kepler’s discoveries. The heliocentrists were taking it more or less on faith. Or, as Michael Polanyi writes in Personal Knowledge,

What is the true lesson of the Copernican revolution? Why did Copernicus exchange his actual terrestrial station for an imaginary solar standpoint? The only justification for this lay in the greater intellectual satisfaction he derived from the celestial panorama as seen from the sun instead of the earth. Copernicus gave preference to man’s delight in abstract theory, at the price of rejecting the evidence of our senses, which present us with the irresistible fact of the sun, the moon, and the stars rising daily in the east to travel across the sky towards their setting in the west. In a literal sense, therefore, the new Copernican system was as anthropocentric as the Ptolemaic view, the difference being merely that it preferred to satisfy a different human affection. (pg. 3)

Polanyi observes accurately that scientists routinely subordinate the “facts” to their intellectual passions. Copernicus and Galileo both did this; Kepler validated that subordination. This raises the question, of course, of how we should ever expect the product of scientific reasoning to correspond to reality, and of how and in what sense scientists act responsibly. That is the subject of the rest of Personal Knowledge.

So I certainly don’t advocate thumb-screws and house arrest as a way to resolve scientific disputes, but I am overly weary of the popular usage of Galileo of a hero of fact over traditionalism.