Global Warming Ambush Journalism And Historical Analogies Gone Awry

First up, Senator Inhofe was ambushed by a couple of global warming activists yesterday who were hoping to catch him saying something stupid on tape.  It didn’t quite work out that way.  The little crew was led by Mark Hertsgaard. 

Yesterday, Hertsgaard had a piece in Politico accusing the Republicans of scientific heresy and invoking Galileo to argue that skeptics should be dismissed as flat-earther cranks:

Will it take the Republican Party as long to accept modern science as it took the Roman Catholic Church? The church waited 359 years to admit Galileo was right — the earth does move around the sun. Not until 1992 did the Vatican officially withdraw its condemnation of the man Albert Einstein called the father of modern science.

Today, even children know that the earth revolves around the sun. But that idea was heresy to the 17th-century church. When Galileo would not abandon his views, the Inquisition put him on trial in 1633. He was forced to recant under penalty of death, then lived under house arrest for the rest of his life.

Now the House Republican majority is launching its own attack on Galileo’s scientific descendants. Rejecting mainstream climate science became a GOP litmus test during the 2010 midterm elections. Republican leaders then floated the idea of putting mainstream climate science on trial in congressional hearings.

* * *

There is no point trying to change the climate cranks’ minds. For economic as well as ideological reasons, they will no more acknowledge the truth of man-made global warming than the 17th-century Vatican would concede that the Bible was not literally true.

The rest of us, however, can change how we relate to the cranks.

As Republicans seek to repeal climate science, it is past time for the chattering class in Washington to stop giving them a pass. Climate cranks should instead be called to account for the terrible damages they have set in motion and prevented from further sabotaging our nation’s response to this crisis.

Robert Tracinski responds by showing that Hertsgaard’s grasp of Galileo’s historical importance is as flawed as his understanding of science and the scientific process:

Galileo was persecuted-threatened with torture and forced to recant-for advocating the theory that the planets revolve around the Sun, which contradicted the Church-sanctioned dogma that the Sun and planets revolve around the Earth. . . . Galileo’s specific contribution was to demonstrate the physical basis for the heliocentric system. . . .  Galileo also contributed crucial observational evidence to back the new theory. . . . 

But physical explanations and observational evidence are precisely the weak points of the global warming dogma. The whole global warming theory began with mathematical computer models. But the actual observational data isn’t there. . . .

* * *

So the global warming dogma is based on the exact opposite of Galileo’s achievement, elevating speculative mathematical models above physical explanations and direct observation.

The more profound distortion in Hertsgaard’s argument is his inversion of Galileo’s cultural role. Galileo was not speaking on behalf of the kind of government-backed scientific “consensus” that we are constantly told is behind global warming. He was a cantankerous polemicist who challenged the scientific establishment and its consensus. This included not just the Catholic Church but also the entrenched scholastics at the University of Pisa.

* * *

The irony is that the entirety of Hertsgaard’s argument is an appeal to authorities and institutions and “mainstream climate science,” a phrase he keeps repeating.

* * *

Hertsgaard’s article is partly a cautionary tale about one of the occupational vices of the political polemicist: using historical examples and symbols to score rhetorical points, without really understanding them. . . .

But it is also an example of the way the left uses science, not as a vital thinking method, but as a political pose. They drag out science as a prop, without understanding the basic method and attitude of science.

Part of the reason why Galileo is remembered as one of the fathers of modern science is his thoroughgoing rejection of this subordination to authority. His achievement is reflected in the motto of Britain’s Royal Society: nullius in verba, “on no one’s word.” The idea is that even if a Galileo or a Newton were to present a new theory, his prestige should count for nothing. He still has to show his data and prove it.

The same goes for climate scientists, environmentalist activists, and hack political writers.

In other words, Galileo was the “outlier” (Hertsgaard’s word for scientists that disagree with his views on global warming) skeptic of his day, not part of the consensus herd.

The core of science is skepticism.  Once those who purport to be on the side of science abandon that skepticism, they have entered the realm of politics.  That is particularly true for hack political writers with a book to sell, or climate scientists grasping for grant dollars.

Published in: on February 18, 2011 at 12:37 pm  Leave a Comment  

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