Climate politics fit into history of fighting science

June 30, 2014 

  • At issue: June 3 Washington Post article, "Poll: 70% back carbon-emission limits; Americans also willing to pay higher energy bills"

The controversy about global warming and climate change is just the most recent example of people letting political, economic or religious ideology trump scientific facts. This is nothing new, but hindsight can teach us a great deal about the dangers of subscribing to this practice.

Aristotle's ideas provided the foundation for much of Western thought until the Age of Enlightenment, but many of those ideas were wrong. Aristotle believed that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones because of their weight. Now we know that all objects fall at the same rate in a vacuum, but since he had no way of doing experiments in a vacuum, Aristotle only made what he thought was a reasonable explanation.

Similarly, the Greek thinker Ptolemy proposed that the Earth was the center of the universe, a belief that existed until the time of Copernicus. The Catholic Church used it to prosecute and condemn Galileo for supporting the sun-centered model proposed by Copernicus. According to some sources, when Galileo was forced to recant his view of the universe, he uttered under his breath, "Yet it moves."

The ancient mathematician Eratosthenes estimated the radius of the spherical Earth to a remarkable degree of accuracy, yet even today there are still people who claim the Earth is flat.

For thousands of years, even learned people like Aristotle supported the claim of spontaneous generation, the idea that life could spring from the nonliving. It took the experiments of Louis Pasteur to refute this idea in the 19th century.

More insidious examples occurred in the 20th century. German scientist Albert Einstein's theory of relativity, revolutionized the scientific view of the Newtonian universe and formed the basis for the work that led to the invention of the atomic bomb. The problem was that he was Jewish, a fact that did not sit well with the Nazi regime which believed the Jews were an inferior race who could not have intellectually accurate theories.

Adolf Hitler and his cronies rejected Einstein in favor of a truly crackpot theory called the Ice World Theory, proposed by Austrian thinker Hans Horbiger. Instead of actual research, Horbiger supposedly had a vision that the entire universe, even the sun, consisted of different kinds of ice. Why? In the parlance of its adherents, "Our Nordic ancestors grew strong in ice and snow; belief in the Cosmic Ice is consequently the natural heritage of Nordic Man," which agreed with their belief in the superiority of the so-called Aryan race.

African-American athlete Jesse Owens embarrassed the Nazi regime by winning four gold medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, yet Hitler still clung to his absurd idea of racial superiority.

Gregor Mendel's groundbreaking work on the genetics of pea plants complemented Darwin's Theory of Evolution. Even though Mendel's work was well known and widely accepted by the start of the 20th century, some scientists rejected his theories. In particular, a Russian scientist, Trofim Lysenko, rejected the Mendelian genetics theory because it flew in the face of the political ideology of the ruling Communist Party.

In the communist ideology, a species could be changed by suitably altering the environment. Instead of selecting, breeding and hybridizing high-yield strains of crops, Lysenko attempted to improve crop production by giving the plants more fertilizer or water. This became known as Lysenko's Folly and directly led to widespread famine in the Soviet Union. The political ideology of communism was no match for the reality of Mendelian genetics.

We are facing much of the same problem today with those who deny global climate change because it conflicts with their political or economic ideologies.

According to a recent poll, the world's scientists believe that there is a 95 percent chance that current erratic weather patterns and increasing oceanic and atmospheric temperatures are directly related to humans' consumption of fossil fuels.

These scientists base their conclusions on data gathered from various places on Earth, including the ice cores of Greenland and Antarctica, as well as the rising acidity of the oceans.

Just as Lysenko's Folly led to disaster for his country, the American Folly of rejecting the reality of climate change will lead to disaster for our entire world. Put it another way: Would you play a game in which you have a 95 percent chance of losing?

Roger Guffey of Lexington is an adjunct professor at Bluegrass Community and Technical College.

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