Is Anthony Fauci today’s Galileo?
Mario Livio makes that comparison in a recent essay for STAT, an online publication covering the areas of health, science and medicine.
“Defending science and scientific integrity can be a frustrating and lonely battle,” Livio wrote. “As I watch Dr. Anthony Fauci do this on the news, I think of another ‘battler’ who ultimately had the last word.”
Livio, an astrophysicist who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope for more than two decades, is the author of a new book, “Galileo and the Science Deniers.”
Nearly 400 years ago, Galileo Galilei found himself on trial for heresy. He had made the audacious claim that Earth was not, in fact, the center of the universe, a suggestion that ran counter to the teachings of the Catholic Church.
Galileo, now known as the father of modern science, was ultimately convicted, and he spent the last eight and a half years of his life on house arrest. His book was banned.
That fate shocked the French scientist and philosopher Rene Descartes.
“I was so astonished at this that I almost decided to burn all my papers,” Descartes wrote to a friend, “or at least to let no one see them.”
Then, the science deniers were driven by religion and an insistence on a literal interpretation of Scripture. Now they’re driven by politics and concern about the outcome of an approaching election.
During an appearance on National Public Radio, Livio bemoaned the current political environment “where we almost see the death of facts.”
In his essay, Livio mentioned comments by the president of the United States downplaying the danger of COVID-19. He also referred to Fauci’s exchange with U.S. Sen. Rand Paul during a recent appearance before a Senate committee.
Paul, himself a physician, has been critical of public health experts like Fauci for moving too slowly in pulling back restrictions.
“We ought to have a little bit of humility in our belief that we know what’s best for the economy,” Paul said.
Fauci, who has been director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, shot back.
"I have never made myself out to be the 'end-all' and only voice in this,” he said. “I’m a scientist, a physician and a public health official. I give advice according to the best scientific evidence. ... I don’t give advice about economic things. I don’t give advice about anything other than public health.”
Such modesty is a hallmark of science, Livio said. In his own book, Galileo downplayed his discoveries, suggesting his real legacy was science itself, “ways and means by which other minds more acute than mine will explore its remote corners.”
Livio suggested that the stakes today might be even higher than they were in Galileo’s time.
“Silencing Fauci or relegating him to the hinterlands could have far more disastrous consequences than silencing Galileo since at the time it didn’t really matter how planetary bodies revolved around each other,” Livio wrote. “From my perspectives as a scientist and a historian, it is always a bad idea not to follow science.”
Scientists aren’t perfect, he said. They make mistakes, and predictions might turn out to be inaccurate. But the scientific method ensures that researchers will make corrections as new data becomes available.
“To dismiss fact-based scientific advice when human life is at stake is unconscionable,” Livio wrote.
He noted that it took the Catholic Church more than 350 years to admit its mistake in the trial of Galileo.
“We can’t afford to wait that long to find out that Fauci is right,” he wrote.
Indeed we can’t.