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June 30, 2003
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The Heat's On, No Matter What the Censors Say
  Times Headlines
By Alex Bδcker, Alex Bδcker is a scientist at Sandia National Laboratories and the California Institute of Technology.

In the 17th century, the Inquisition censored Galileo Galilei's "Dialog" because the book contained lessons that were believed by the Inquisitors and Pope Urban VIII to go against the teachings of the Bible. By banning the book and stopping its distribution in Italy, the ecclesiastics hoped to prevent the spread of belief in Copernicus' heliocentric system.

Forced by the Inquisition to acknowledge his "sins" — most notably, that of teaching that the Earth moves — Galileo recanted his writings. Yet it is said that, after doing it, he murmured "Eppur si muove" — "But it does move."

The Inquisition's action eventually became an embarrassment for the Catholic Church, which took Galileo's book off the forbidden list in the 19th century. The case was not formally closed until Oct. 31, 1992, 350 years after Galileo's death, when Pope John Paul II admitted that errors had been made by theological advisors in the case of Galileo. More important, the censure did not achieve its purpose. Galileo's book became a classic, and the heliocentric theory supplanted the geocentric view of the world.

The truth, it seems, is more powerful than authority.

History repeats itself. White House officials this month struck scientific findings supporting global warming from an Environmental Protection Agency "comprehensive" report, replacing them with ambiguous phrases of dubious interest. In response, Christie Whitman, the EPA head, deleted the report's entire chapter on climate change.

Such maneuvers hardly seem a wise course of action for the administration of a nation whose global preeminence owes a good deal to its emphasis on science. Of more immediate concern to the current administration, it was hardly an effective way to suppress the findings. On the contrary, just as Galileo's trial made his previously published book even more prized than it was before, the White House's action catapulted the omitted findings into national headlines: The scientific consensus is that the Earth is heating up, and it's probably because of human activities.

Perhaps the administration will learn, if not from history, from its own mistakes. For, as intimidating as President Bush may seem to the EPA's Whitman, the Earth's temperature does not respect authority.

Eppur si riscalda.

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