05 December 2005

Monday Quote Frenzy – Galileo and Lec

By now, the term “Galileo Gambit” seems to be entrenched as a description of the ploy by which an adherent of some very non-mainstream idea argues that, just as people scoffed at Galileo, so they now scoff at him, ergo he will eventually be proven right. This has had a lot of play in the recent press about Intelligent Design. Thus, in the September 12 Guardian interview with Michael Behe, John Sutherland asks:
JS: Has the National Academy of Science taken an interest?
MB: It takes a position strongly condemning it. The recently retired president, Bruce Albert, sent a letter to all 2,000 members of the NAS essentially naming me.
JS: Did Galileo come to mind?
MB: Yeah. In a way it's flattery.

This prompted a slapdown from Jerry Coyne in the September 19 letters:
Behe … appears proud of his ostracism from the scientific community, drawing analogies with Galileo. It seems that everyone with a crackpot theory compares themselves to Galileo once their theory is criticised. But the fact that a theory receives a drubbing from the scientific community does not mean that it is correct.

I have two favorite versions of the Galileo Counter-Gambit. One is from Peter Cook’s screenplay for the original (1967) Bedazzled, as Cook (as Mr. Spiggott, aka Lucifer) is attempting to convince Dudley Moore (as Stanley Moon) that he is, in fact, The Hornèd One:
Stanley Moon: You're a nutcase! You're a bleedin' nutcase!
George Spiggott: They said the same of Jesus Christ, Freud, and Galileo.
Stanley Moon: They said it of a lot of nutcases too.
George Spiggott: You're not as stupid as you look are you, Mr. Moon?

The other is from the great Polish aphorist, Stanisław Jerzy Lec (pronounced ‘Letz’):
Every stink that fights the ventilator thinks it is Don Quixote.

Lec, by the way, was a remarkable fellow. Born in Lwów in 1909, he was a leftist poet and was interned by the Nazis in 1941. He escaped the camp (and extermination) in 1943 in a stolen German uniform. He spent the rest of the war fighting as part of the Communist resistance movement in Warsaw. After the war, he was a member of the Polish mission in Vienna. Life under Stalinist influence eventually drove him to emigrate to Israel in 1950, but he returned to Warsaw two years later.

His prose aphorisms were provocative and poetical. He called them fraszki (“trifles”), highlighting their linkage to the short, satirical poetical form called fraszki by Jan Kochanowski. They were first collected in 1957 in Myśli nieuczesane (Unkempt Thoughts); other collections followed. The English translations are not currently in print, but there is a good online collection, translated by Jacek Galazka.


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