Letters: Galileo and the Catholic Church

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Galileo 'broke his promise and tried to hide behind lies'

Sir: Mark Steel should research recent thinking about Galileo and the Catholic Church ("If you think Islam is medieval look at Catholicism", Comment, 16 January), before trotting out the usual cliché-ridden account of the brave, free-thinking rationalist standing firm in the face of religious fundamentalism.

Since Philipp Frank's work in the 1950s, historians and philosophers of science, rather than theologians, have drawn attention to the deficiencies of this account.

First, given the medieval synthesis of theology with Aristotelian science, Galileo's attack was just as much on the Aristotelian scientific paradigm, as it was on the theological commitments of his opponents. Second, given the scientific emphasis on empirical evidence, it was unsurprising that Galileo's heliocentric ideas were rejected, because at the time the evidence was against them.

The tower argument, lack of stellar parallax, the constancy of the size and luminosity of the planets; all these were against the heliocentric paradigm, and some would take centuries to overcome. The one piece of evidence Galileo did offer was the movement of the tides, an interpretation in which he was mistaken.

Neither did the idea that the gravitational pull exerted by the moon causes the tides lie in the future: it was found in Kepler, but was rejected by Galileo, ironically on theological grounds. The heliocentric theory threatened to break up a coherent scientific synthesis for no good reason, and was consequently rejected.

Third, Galileo's crime was, as the philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend succinctly puts it, "He had broken his promise and had tried to hide behind lies". Galileo had broken the rules of scientific patronage, and made powerful enemies. Whether those enemies were more morally vacuous than the drug and armament companies which fulfill that role today is a debatable point.

Fourth, although the legal process and punishment Galileo endured are, by the standards of today, unjust, one must note with C H Lea that, at the time, many people preferred to submit themselves to church courts, rather than face the often barbaric treatment meted out by their secular and royal equivalents.

The Revd David Munchin

Vicar of St Mary Magdalene, Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire

The state pensionand MPs' pay

Sir: With MPs' salaries, allowances and expenses again in the news, it is revealing to compare the salary rises that our elected representatives have voted for themselves over the years with the increases that the Government has grudgingly given to pensioners.

Since 1980, an MP's basic salary has risen by 416.4 per cent, from £11,750 a year to £60,675; the full basic state pension for a single person has increased by only 221.5 per cent, from £27.15 a week, to a miserable £87.30.

If the full basic state pension for a single person had risen by the 416.4 per cent MPs awarded themselves, today it would be worth £140.20 a week. That would have taken the basic state pension above the level of the pension credit of £119.05 and saved the country millions of pounds in means-testing, administration and niggardly bureaucracy.

Colin Hadley

Chairman, Devon Pensioners' Action Forum, Exeter

Sir: Why criticise Gordon Brown for failing to take the Chinese to task over their human rights violations (Leading article,18 January), when his own government has flagrantly abused the human rights of more than 500,000 mainly British nationals for years?

I refer to retirees who have chosen to live their last years abroad, often to be with their younger families. Almost 95 per cent of these retirees live in the major Commonwealth countries such as Canada, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.

These retirees are denied a basic human right, to be treated as equals with those other British expats who have retired to Italy, Spain and other EU countries, as well as the Philippines, Turkey, Barbados, Jamaica, Israel and the US. The latter expats have their British state age pensions indexed annually, the others in the major Commonwealth countries do not. The UK Government discriminates against them because of where they live.

When Mr Brown helps remedy this British abuse of human right on his "ain folk", then perhaps he can take up the cause against the Chinese with a clear conscience. Mr Brown should practise what he preaches.

James Tilley

Woronora Heights, New South Wales, Australia

The dangers of exorcism

Sir: Thank you, Johann Hari, for raising the subject of exorcism (Comment, 17 January). I am an Anglican priest who has been involved in this kind of ministry for 30 yearso, in the UK and abroad (including Congo), so I share the concern about superficial diagnosis and abusive practice. These draw attention to the minister, and can easily become a public showpiece. I have seen both in action, and have sought to teach better practice. I would make two points.

First, many people involved in psychiatry and counselling, believers and those without faith, have made careful distinctions between mental illness, personality disorders (including "multiple personality disorder"), and oppression by some external spiritual force. I have had personal experience of each. The clients need careful and sensitive help, appropriate for the individual and their needs; but the three types of condition must not naively be confused.

Second, "exorcism" and "deliverance" are technically not the same thing. "Deliverance" describes ministry to those who are "oppressed" by some form of evil, from the outside. "Exorcism" is a much rarer phenomenon, describing specialist ministry to those who have allowed the presence of evil to enter their hearts.

Revd Don Brewin

Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire

Sir: Jeremy Legg and Rev Stephen Griffith miss the main point about exorcism (letters, 18 January). If a person is showing the sort of symptoms mentioned, they need proper psychiatric treatment based on our scientific understanding of the mind and brain, not exorcism, in any form, based on ancient texts and superstitious ignorance.

To do otherwise is worse than purporting to treat cancer with snake-oil.

Ian Quayle

FOWNHOPE, Herefordshire

Natural justice in organ donation

Sir: Much as I admire Dominic Lawson's work in general, I take exception to his article about presumed consent in organ donation (Comment, 18 January).

Of course the dead should be treated with respect; those arguing for presumed consent are not suggesting anything less. But hundreds of people are dying needlessly on transplant waiting-lists for want of an organ that would certainly be available under presumed consent. Anyone who does not care for such a system is, of course, perfectly entitled to opt out.

But in so doing, they should realise that should they ever be in the position to require a transplant, they would not be eligible. To be able to receive, one must also be willing to give, if able. Natural justice demands this.

To argue, as Mr Lawson does, that lack of adequate NHS services to meet the increased demand is any reason for not implementing the arrangement is nonsense. Services would be enhanced if the need is there.

Mr Lawson also does a disservice to the discussion by including examples of illegal activity such as the unauthorised removal of body parts for sale, the "harvesting" by the American former dentist, Michael Mastromarino, in 2004. No right-thinking person would condone such activity. But to raise the temperature of the debate by including necrophilia in the discussion is irresponsible.

C H Kendall

Broughton Astley, Leicestershire

New Zealand angerat Queen's decision

Sir: During the week after the death of Sir Edmund Hillary, New Zealand's greatest son, there has been no acknowledgement to the NZ people of his achievements by the Queen of New Zealand (II Class). HM The Queen has also declined to send a senior royal to represent her at the first New Zealand state funeral for a non-politician or governor general.

She has offered the Hillary family a private memorial service in April at the Windsor Chapel, and our Prime Minister, Helen Clark, disingenuously describes this offer as "extraordinary". Unfairly, expectations of attendance were publicly and prematurely raised and are now dashed.

HRH the Princess Royal would have been ideal, due to her espousing of a cause dear to Sir Ed's heart, that of the British non-contribution to the preservation of Scott's hut in Antarctica. She has a dinner engagement instead.

Pamela Williamson

Auckland, New Zealand

Blame Labour, not the dentists

Sir: John St Pierre (letter, 9 January) would like to attribute the shambles that is today's NHS dentistry at the door of his overprescribing ex-colleague and others of this kind, but I find his comments inaccurate and offensive to ethical, hard-working dentists who provide the best treatment possible for their patients in an increasingly difficult situation. Certainly, there are bad apples in each profession.

The problems with NHS dentistry started with the Conservative government in the early 1990s. The present Labour government talked good ideas in the early 2000s then imposed an untried, untested new contract in April 2006 that was not negotiated and the BDA representing most dentists advised that this contract was badly flawed. Twenty-one months later, it is not working, despite claims to the contrary from the Department of Health.

Ann Keen has a choice: she can ignore and further alienate the dentists or she can admit that the contract has significant problems and sit down with the BDA and redraft something that will work. Many dentists want to work within the NHS but in a system that is fair and reasonable.

General dental practitioners are not NHS employees: we are independent contractors and can choose to do a varying proportion of NHS work. Due to these ill-conceived reforms, more and more GDPs choose private work. Now certain items are specifically excluded from NHS dentistry, including cosmetic and minor orthodontic problems. The DoH made this decision, not the dentists.

There are good surgeons in Europe, but there are also poor ones. The cheapest is not always the best, and if the surgery goes wrong it can be irretrievable.

Paul Knott BDS


Did Elizabeth Ireally say that?

Sir: Robert Fisk, ("Film-makers must atone for their sins", Comment, 19 January 2008), bemoans the absence of the words "learnt by every schoolboy in Britain", given by Elizabeth I at Tilbury. He attributes the decision to omit this speech from Elizabeth: The Golden Age to feminism's inability to accept these "forbidden" and "provocative" words.

He may be right, but I wonder if it is because the speech appeared only in a letter in 1623, 35 years after the Tilbury gathering, and was used as part of a nationalist dialogue when the then Prince Charles was considering marrying into the Spanish royals.

The "myth" of this speech has also informed the nationalist dialogue since. There is no evidence that Elizabeth I gave this speech or, if she did, that the letter gives us an accurate transcript.

Tracy Martin

London E9


Scales of history

Sir: I was intrigued to see that in Gordonstoun the fishermen's sons were largely confined to one house (letter, 19 January). Perhaps it was kindly meant ("They'll be happier with their own ilk") but, in retrospect, it does seems undemocratic and patronising.

Ann Duncombe

Tullibody, Clackmannanshire

Don't target innocent

Sir: It seems that the Kenyan situation is spiralling out of control. More people every day seem to be losing their lives in the chaos after Mr Kibaki's re-election ("At least 13 die in Kenya violence", 20 January). Two days earlier, the World Bank was being pressured to follow the EU and cut aid to Kenya until the crisis is resolved. The only people who would suffer will be the innocent Kenyan people, not Mr Kibaki's corrupt party.

Rupert Bainbridge

Newcastle Upon Tyne

Wrong time

Sir: Your report on French politicians' attitudes to Tony Blair being president of the EU (18 January) states that Edouard Balladur was prime minister of France from 2003-05, implying that he served while Mr Blair was UK Prime Minister. In fact, he held the position from 1993-95, so his views might therefore be taken to be rather less relevant and interesting than your article implies.

Toby Smith


Mobile phone fear

Sir: I flew on Flight BA38 from Beijing a week before last week's crash-land. I recall my own and fellow passengers' indifference to the pre-flight briefing on what to do "if the plane lands on water". In essence, this is what happened and congratulations to the crew on evacuating the aircraft safely. The briefing also stressed the need not to use mobile phones while the plane was in flight, because of the possibility of interference with the electronics. If there is real cause for concern, the phone logs of all of the passengers should be checked.

David Wardrop

London SW6

Let it be American

Sir: Mike Wood writes that the Beatles were "true to their Liverpudlian accents" (letter, 18 January) and never once sang with American accents. The Beatles sang in a variety of accents, but most early hits and several from the later stages of the band's life were indeed sung in American accents. I was born many years after the Beatles broke up, so I can assure Mr Wood that "being of a younger generation" has nothing to do with appreciating the music the older generation gave us.

Gareth Budden

Leiden, Netherlands

Distorted vision

Sir: If the Government is about to ban refused asylum-seekers from all free health care, should we warn Médecins Sans Frontières that we may shortly be calling on them to tackle the health needs of people who, although often here legally, have been barred from the country's health services? Was this really Nye Bevan's vision?

Jo Snell

Hope Valley, Derbyshire