Battlepanda: How Sir Harold can help us help the GWDs


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

How Sir Harold can help us help the GWDs

Global Warming Denialists often like to reference scientists who went against the herd and turned out to be right, like Galileo. This enable them to feel pleasantly brave and truth-teller-ish even as they wallow deeper in their delusion. Well, here's a good reposte to that talking point.
To be sure, there are a handful of scientists, including MIT professor Richard Lindzen, the author of the Wall Street Journal editorial, who disagree with the rest of the scientific community. To a historian of science like me, this is not surprising. In any scientific community, there are always some individuals who simply refuse to accept new ideas and evidence. This is especially true when the new evidence strikes at their core beliefs and values.

....A historical example will help to make the point. In the 1920s, the distinguished Cambridge geophysicist Harold Jeffreys rejected the idea of continental drift on the grounds of physical impossibility. In the 1950s, geologists and geophysicists began to accumulate overwhelming evidence of the reality of continental motion, even though the physics of it was poorly understood. By the late 1960s, the theory of plate tectonics was on the road to near-universal acceptance.

Yet Jeffreys, by then Sir Harold, stubbornly refused to accept the new evidence, repeating his old arguments about the impossibility of the thing. He was a great man, but he had become a scientific mule. For a while, journals continued to publish Jeffreys' arguments, but after a while he had nothing new to say. He died denying plate tectonics. The scientific debate was over.
It goes without saying that neither heliocentrism or plate tectonics have anything to do with global warming. You can find any number of examples of scientists going against CW and turning out to be right, or wrong. Still, it's depressing how often the perception of who "wins" a conversation hinges on rhetorical points. This is a good one.