The stubborn pull of dogma

DAVID P. BARASH is professor of psychology at the University of Washington.

ATTEND THE TALE OF Tycho Brahe. An influential Danish star-charter of the late 16th century, Brahe served as mentor to the great German astronomer and mathematician, Johannes Kepler. In his own right, Brahe achieved remarkable accuracy in measuring the positions of planets as well as stars. But his greatest contribution (at least for my purpose) was something that he would doubtless prefer to leave forgotten, because Brahe’s Blunder is one of those errors whose very wrongness (and ubiquity) can teach us a lot about ourselves.

Deep in his heart, Brahe rejected the newly proclaimed Copernican model of the universe, the heretical system that threatened to wrench the Earth from its privileged position at the center of all creation and relegate it to just one of many planets that circle the sun. But Brahe was also a careful scientist whose observations were undeniable, even as they made him uncomfortable: The five known planets of Brahe’s day (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) circled the sun. That much was settled; Copernicus, alas, was right, and nothing could be done about it.

But Brahe, troubled of spirit yet inventive of mind, came up with a solution, a kind of strategic intellectual retreat and regrouping. It was ingenious, allowing him to accept what was irrefutably true while still clinging stubbornly to what he cherished even more: what he wanted to be true.

And so Brahe proposed that the five planets indeed circled the sun, but that this same sun and its planetary retinue obediently revolved around an immobile Earth!

Beware Brahean Blunders. They are not limited to astronomy. Rather, they’re a reflection of a basic, widespread human tendency: to accept what you absolutely must, but whenever possible, continue to retain your core beliefs, whether true or not and regardless of how much mental gymnastics such retention demands.

I suspect that a Brahean Blunder lies at the core of the widespread refusal (at least in the United States) to accept an evolutionary origin for the human species, even among people who acknowledge the reality of natural selection.


Thus, current promoters of “intelligent design” generally accept the power and primacy of natural selection to generate small-scale evolutionary change. (The evolution of antibiotic resistance among bacteria, for example, is beyond dispute.) Ditto for the biochemical and genetic similarity of closely related species. But when it comes to their fundamental belief system, advocates of intelligent design aren’t really very intelligent at all. Or rather, like Brahe, they have checked their intellects at the door, clinging desperately to the illusion that human beings are so special that only a benevolent god could have produced them and, therefore, the material world -- like Brahe’s sun and its five planets -- must revolve around them.

Brahean Blunders abound and not only in the realms of science (like Brahe’s field, astronomy) and pseudo-science (like intelligent design). We see them in the political ideologue who, faced with contrary, unpalatable yet undeniable facts, stubbornly manages to retain his dogma, often remarkably unchanged. Capital punishment doesn’t actually reduce the murder rate? Well, it “sends a message” nonetheless. Climate heating up? Well, there’s always been variability in the Earth’s temperature, and besides, global warming might actually be good for us.

I suspect that Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has consciously engaged in a kind of Brahean maneuver with respect to the recent Israeli withdrawal from Gaza: Under pressure from undeniable political and demographic realities, he pulled back from Gaza. But unwilling to take those facts to their logical conclusion, he was able to hold on to his his deeper goal, namely, continued Israeli occupation of the West Bank, which emerges as the Zionist equivalent of geocentrism. I also suspect that in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, American conservatives will partake of their own Brahean Blunder, acknowledging begrudgingly that maybe government has some very limited, teensy-weensy role to play when it comes to contributing to the public good -- but insisting that such a role should be limited to disaster relief only.

I even confess that liberal/left-wingers such as myself must have our own catalog of Brahean Blunders -- but because I am no less Brahean than anyone else, I’m too close to my own perspective to identify them! (The best view in Warsaw is from the top of the Palace of Science and Culture, because that is the only place in the city from which one cannot see this hideous example of Stalinist architecture at its worst.)

Finally, there is the biggest Brahean Blunder of them all: refusal to admit to the possibility of Brahean Blunders in the first place.