In the centuries leading up to Galileo, the Aristotelians thrashed around desperately trying to save the astronomical doctrine–named after Ptolemy–that had the Earth at the center of the universe. But the more we learned about the actual universe, the harder it became to sustain the theory, according to which the heavenly bodies moved in circular orbits, and the only fixed, immovable point in the universe was…us. Even Copernicus, whose name is permanently attached to heliocentrism (planets revolve around the sun, not the earth), tried to salvage the theory of circular planetary orbits; it took Kepler to sort out that orbits are elliptical. Copernicus kept on diddling with the orbits by inventing endless “epicycles” to account for the annoying fact that the planets didn’t show up where they were supposed to be.
In other words, annoying facts had subverted a beautiful theory, and the beautiful theory had to go, even though many of those who called attention to the annoying facts would be burned at the stake, thrown in jail, censored and ruined along the way. For many happy years, Barbara and I and baby Simone lived just off Campo dei Fiori in Rome, where Giordano Bruno was burned alive for daring to suggest that the beautiful theory didn’t account for the real world. There’s a grim statue of Bruno in the Campo, a durable reminder of the dangers truth tellers encounter for speaking their minds.
Sometimes these “paradigm shifts” happen very quickly. Other times are maddeningly slow. And we’re invariably surprised when the beautiful theory bites the historical dust, even though we had long known the theory was claptrap. Gorbachev probably knows that subject better than most…his whole world collapsed along with the myth of communism.
However, the myth lingered, and has had a brief reincarnation in the person of President Obama. Now its hollowness is being exposed once again, as the failures of the state overwhelm us from many sides. The Obamacare fiasco attracts the most current attention, because it causes so much direct pain to so many people, and promises even more for more in short order. The various “fixes” are replays of the epicycles, and will have the same effect (footnotes in the history texts of the future).