The Shadow of Galileo: What Do We Know About Climate Change?
Religion & Liberty Online

The Shadow of Galileo: What Do We Know About Climate Change?

We know about climate change and global warming, right? After all, we’ve been talking about it for decades. The polar bears losing their homes, the wild swings in temperatures, too much snow, not enough rain, etc. But what do we really know?

That’s the question Phil Lawler asks. He thought he knew about climate change as well. But now he is convinced that what we are talking about when we talk about climate change has shifted from being a scientific issue to being a political one.

Consider how many newspaper editorials have been written about climate change—by journalists no more familiar with the science than I am. Rather than allowing the scientists to settle their disputes in the proper way, by conducting careful experiments and publishing arguments in peer-reviewed journals, political leaders have leapt into the fray. Despite his own obvious lack of credentials, President Obama has denounced some participants in the scientific debate. Former Vice President Al Gore has set himself as an expert on the subject, jetting constantly around the world to scold people who consume fossil fuels.

The politicization of the debate has damaged the causes of scientific integrity and academic freedom. Learned professors whose research clashes with the prevailing orthodoxy complain that they have been denied research grants, ostracized by professional societies, and even exiled from their academic posts (tenured or not) because of their views.

The scientific community is now denouncing colleagues on this issue, rather than relying on scientific methods to test hypotheses. (Remember 9th grade science: hypothesis, research, test, conclusion?) But the politicization of the issue of climate change has moved the discussion from the scientific method to “I don’t agree with you, so you’re wrong. Further, you’re a bad scientist.”

For a scientist who dares to contradict the views that are currently in fashion, the pressure can be “virtually unbearable.” That was the term used by Lennart Bengtsson, a Swedish researcher with impeccable credentials who left his post at the Global Warming Policy Foundation– a group that had encouraged skepticism about policies designed to slow global warming—after receiving hundreds of angry and abusive messages from scientific colleagues.

Why would a scientist denounce a colleague, rather than test out his ideas? For that matter, why would scientists sign their names to petitions urging the public to ignore certain other scientists? These are political tactics, far removed from the scientific method.

Lawler reminds us that scientific facts are not arrived at by majority vote. The issue of climate change is far too important to let politics play its ever-increasing role in this topic. The scientific community must rely on science, not opinion or knee-jerk reaction, to inform and instruct.

Lawler also has a caveat for the Church, in memory of the scientist Galileo:

Nearly 500 years ago, powerful prelates leapt prematurely into another scientific debate, denouncing the work of Galileo, with consequences that burden the Catholic Church to this day. The problem at the time was not with Galileo’s scientific research, which the Church had sponsored, but with the determination to make scientific conclusions fit into a preconceived ideological framework. Let’s not repeat that mistake.

Read “The Church, climate change, and the shadow of Galileo” at Catholic Culture.

Elise Hilton

Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.