Climate Change Denial and the Galileo Fallacy



The article below is reprinted with permission from the author and was originally published in the July/August 2012 issue of Orion.

No one would want a novelist to perform brain surgery with his pen. No one would want zoologist to then write textbooks claiming those misadventures as best medical practice. Society understands the architecture of academia and knows there are specific rooms of neuroscientists, windowsills of botanists, stories of epidemiologists, a turretful of astrophysicists. Most individuals have enough sense to know when they reach the limits of their knowledge. The media accepts the idea of specializations and accords greater respect to those with greater expertise. With one exception: climate science.

When it comes to this academic discipline, it seems that if you have a zoology doctorate on sexual selection in pheasants (this is true), editors will seek your contrarian view more avidly than if you have qualifications in climate science and a lifetime’s professional expertise. The press is littered with climate “heretics” with academic backgrounds in history, the classics, or literature. Not climate science.

I recently watched a debate between a climate scientist and that pheasant-expert turned-journalist, who also had an unfortunate background in banking. (He was chairman of the bank Northern Rock up to its ignominious collapse in 2007, and was accused in Parliament of “harming the reputation” of British banking. Whoops.) An audience member asked: “Please could you explain how it is that you are ‘right’ while all climate scientists are wrong?” He could not. I almost felt sorry for him.

I know he has lectured publicly on scientific heresy. I think he wants to be Galileo. Contrary to the beliefs of some contrarians, academia welcomes the galileos and encourages skepticism: It wants its hypotheses robustly tested precisely because it wants to pass those tests. It has a stern system of peer review; it is judicious and conscientious. For sure, it can be tedious, no caveat too small, no qualification too painstaking, no reference too abstruse. (Herodotus, we’ll be with you shortly). It may spend years debating the infinitesimal advantage of crenelation over machicolation of its ivory towers until it is disturbed by a terse demand from wider society to come down to earth.

This demand usually means asking academia to justify itself in terms of business and money. But what if it were asked to justify itself in the name of public knowledge? What if it were required to play a role right at the heart of democracy? Society needs the integrity and expertise of academics in the puzzling out of some of its biggest quandaries: issues of nuclear power, health, genetics, social justice, and climate science above all. A democracy then needs that knowledge disseminated through the press, but the media’s ambition to be entertaining and provocative too often overrules its respect for intellectual rigor. Journalists cannot hold degrees in every subject they report on, but their job is not to pretend they know the science better than the experts.

Donato Cianci
10/31/2012 3:25:12 PM

Americans have destroyed their bodies and their habitat in a short 250 years, of greedy consumption and waste-making, and suckered the rest of the world’s population into growing too large and trying to emulate their unbridled consumption and waste. They spend trillions per year on armies to overcome their illusory fears of being attacked through the front door, while climate change they have wrought is flooding in through the back door, destroying their shelter, energy, and food resources. Your culture is doomed, never did have a viable vision.The archetypal American is not Daniel Boone, conquering Nature, it's the Pied Piper, drawing generations of the child-like people of the country and the world into marching off a cliff, the magic flute he plays piping a tune of lies, promising candy and games and easy fun living. Why do I care? Because I have witnessed in my lifetime how your immoral attitude to the land and its inhabitants, as products to be consumed without limit, has spilled over into my country, Canada, and now threatens us with the same destruction of civil life you face as your consumption-dependent culture breaks down in chaos. Do I think my diatribe will do the least good, no.... But the narrative has to change, if we are to have any hope at all of leaving something for our grandchildren to survive on. Begin by facing reality. Salvation will not happen. All you can do is change your ideals, preserve life, forget unbridled liberty of consumption, and make the hope of mere survival your idea of happiness.

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