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Critical Inquiry, and Thinking About Galileo

From the Editor

Kendrick Frazier

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 29.1, January / February 2005

In an editorial in our January/February 2004 issue, I spoke of our intention in the Skeptical Inquirer “to examine more issues of broad social import that involve science and technology, not duplicating the efforts of other publications but wherever we see an opportunity for science, reason, and critical inquiry to play a useful role.”

The first two articles in this issue are in that vein. The first, on the merits of decentralized vs. centralized generation of electrical energy, is indeed a totally new topic for us. The second, a balanced and informed look at polygraph testing, is one we have dealt with regularly, with at least five earlier articles and news pieces from 1990—2003.

And that fact makes another point: We have never limited ourselves to investigations of paranormal or pseudoscientific claims. In the early 1990s I made a list of past SI articles that fell into neither of these categories. It covered an entire page. A similar list today would be much longer. But what all have in common is applying critical inquiry to science-related claims and issues of popular appeal or public importance.

Tom Casten, lead author of our cover article, is an energy entrepreneur who brings a background in economics and deep interests in science, technology, and critical thinking (he has long been associated with CSICOP) to his examination of the relative efficiencies of centralized vs. decentralized generation of power. I think you will find the revelations by him and colleague Brennan Downes surprising.

Many first-rate scientists are often by necessity so narrowly focused on their work that they have little time or inclination to get involved in wider issues. Others somehow manage to commit themselves to science education, writing for the public, bringing scientific insights to public policy debates, and defending science against promulgators of pseudoscience. Physicist and 2003 Nobel Prize recipient Vitaly L. Ginzburg is clearly one of the latter. We present two articles by him in this issue, both confronting specifics of pseudoscience and showing how it differs from real science.

The evening-long tribute to Galileo at the Fifth World Skeptics Congress near Padua, Italy (see the ensuing pages), was a moving experience. Knowledgeably hosted by television journalist and science author Piero Angelo, part of it featured actors playing Galileo and the three figures in his two key “Dialogues.” Padua and Florence were the cradle of the Italian renaissance, with creative new thinking and discoveries in art, architecture, medicine, and science. It was equally moving later (in Venice), to see wooden models of Leonardo’s inventions, climb up to Brunelleschi’s dome in Florence, and visit the science history museum in Florence where many of Galileo’s scientific instruments are displayed. Returning home, I reread J. Bronowski’s memorable chapter in The Ascent of Man on Galileo’s trial. A concluding passage notes one effect of this terrible wielding of ideology and power against science and open inquiry: “The effect of the trial and of the imprisonment was to put a total stop to the scientific tradition in the Mediterranean. From now on the Scientific Revolution moved to Northern Europe.” Can such a shift still happen today, when many powerful ideological interests are so distrustful of at least certain aspects of science? It’s a sobering thought.

Kendrick Frazier

Kendrick Frazier's photo

Kendrick Frazier is editor of the Skeptical Inquirer and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is editor of several anthologies, including Science Under Siege: Defending Science, Exposing Pseudoscience.