Galileo and the Climate Change Debate

By July 19, 2014Blog

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In the United States, we love to root for the underdog, the voice of reason standing firm in the face of intolerance and resistance.  On the climate change debate, the role model of that figure is the 17th century scientist Galileo Galilei and his clash with the Catholic Church. There are three important components to the parallels between this clash and the clash over climate change. First, Galileo’s work changed how we thought about the universe and our place within it. Second, he was forcibly silenced for holding opinions at variance with those in power, namely the Catholic Church. And third, he used the scientific method to prove the theories, first developed by Copernicus, that so upset the status quo.

Some who challenge the science around climate change have sought to claim the Galileo mantle.

One organization that has been critical of climate science has explicitly adopted the name “The Galileo Movement” and argues that the science behind climate change has been falsely presented as settled.  As they see it, they are the ones who are pushing against the dominant orthodoxy and facing ignorance and intolerance as a result.

As explained on their website, anyone who dares to challenge the “climate status quo” is unfairly branded a “skeptic” or “denier” and treated as an enemy to science.  Members of this movement claim to working to both liberate  people from intellectual tyranny, allowing them to “reclaim their lives from media spin and politician’s control” and protect the economy from destructive government intrusion.

Galileo Galilei 2.jpg


“Galileo Galilei 2” by Domenico Tintoretto – [1]. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

But some refute this comparison and believe it is historically and scientifically incorrect.  Merely challenging the mainstream does not qualify a comparison to Galileo.

Galileo used science and the scientific method to refute a position based on superstition, religion or institutional beliefs. Similarly, the theory of human-induced climate change is evidence-based science while the contrarian arguments are often belief-based with very few publishing peer-reviewed papers. It is the notion of climate change that is overturning historic orthodoxy that humans and human action cannot possibly alter the Earth’s climate on a global scale and that we have the unrestricted freedom to dominate and subdue nature granted to us in the Old Testament (Genesis 1:28).

Galileo moon phases.jpg

Moon phases drawing by Galilei (1616) Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In an article in Physics TodaySteven Sherwood, a Meteorology and Atmospheric Climate Dynamics Professor at the University of New South Wales, sums it up this way,

“Relativity contrarians basked in conspiracy ideas, claimed to be able to disprove Einstein’s theory, and were convinced that the scientific establishment was suppressing their alternative views – all claims echoed nowadays by climate contrarians. But it is not hard to spot the differences between those groups and the real world vanguard of the scientific revolution. Copernicus, Einstein, Charles Darwin, and Alfred Wegener, the founder of plate tectonics, all proposed powerful new theories that challenged core assumptions held by humanity for generations. Their theories steadily gained traction among up-and-coming experts, then among the general population. Relativity and climate contrarians instead offer a wide range of mutually exclusive and sketchy proposals, which generally predate the new theory and lack predictive power. But because the contrarian proposals reinforce traditional beliefs, they enjoy a prolonged period of public popularity even as their currency among successive generations of experts approaches zero.”

In fact, it is climate scientists, not climate contrarians who are being harassed for their beliefs. Some of my collection of hate mail includes: “you are doing the work of Satan,” “you must be a secular evolutionist,” “Greetings Comrade, why do you want the Marxist destruction of civilization?” and “Why do you expect us peasants will take you are your fellow ‘scientists’ seriously?” Others receive far worse. Texas Tech Atmospheric Scientist and evangelical Christian, Katherine Hayhoe began to receive hers after Newt Gingrich publicly dropped her from a book he was editing when he decided to run for President in 2012. Rush Limbaugh subsequently ridiculed her as a “climate babe” and she began receiving messages like, “you are nothing but a liar, you lie,” “[Misogynistic vulgarism] Nazi Bitch Whore Climatebecile […] You stupid bitch, You are a mass murderer…” Kerry Emmanuel, Professor of Atmospheric Science at MIT, and a self-identified Republican, reporting receiving an unprecedented “frenzy of hate,” threatening him and his wife after he was interviewed by Climate Desk.”

Michael Mann, Penn State Climatologist and creator of the famous “hockey stick” graph of increasing global temperatures, describes a barrage of intimidation that include: an overwhelming number of Freedom of Information Act requests, subpoenas by Republican Congressman Joe Barton, attempts by Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican attorney general of Virginia to have his academic credentials stripped, and being listed in a report by Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) along with 16 other climate scientists for having engaged in “potentially criminal behavior.” On one occasion he was even sent an envelope with powder in it, requiring the involvement of the FBI.

Beyond harassment are examples of systematic attempts to squelch the science. Throughout the 2000s, the George W. Bush administration was continuously accused of “censoring, suppressing and even dismissing federal scientists; distorting and suppressing scientific findings for government reports; manipulating the government’s science advisory system; and ignoring, distorting and selectively using scientific evidence in policy making,” actions that led to critiques from editors of Science, Nature, and the New England Journal of Medicine.

Why would people demonize scientists for doing research related to climate change? The answer is that they are not engaging in a scientific debate over carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas models. They are protecting some deeply held values that they believe are under attack. When I say climate change, what do you hear? Some hear scientific consensus and the need for a carbon price. Others hear more government, extreme environmentalists, restrictions on our freedom, restraints on the free market, and even a challenge to their notion of God. These are their real concerns and they may all be triggered by this one idea. Like the science presented by Galileo, the science of climate change represents a transformative shift in our sense of who we are and how we are connected to the natural world. It is to be expected that such a cataclysmic shift in cultural beliefs would be met with fierce resistance from those who are invested in the status quo for either ideological or economic reasons.

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