Thursday, September 15, 2011


I thought that Rick Perry’s comparison of climate change deniers to Galileo would get some traction, as it’s such an obviously ridiculous analogy.  As I haven’t seen much discussion of it, maybe it’s not as obvious as I thought.  So let’s look at the two in a kind of Madlib, fill-in-the-blank format.  I will have to make one small adjustment first: Galileo gets to be the climate scientists, not the climate change deniers.

Once upon a very long time ago, back in the:
  1. 4th century BCE,
  2. Industrial Revolution,
there was a theory.  The theory said that:
  1. the sun and the planets rotate around the earth.
  2. the sky is so big that we can keep pumping garbage into our atmosphere without causing any damage.
It wasn’t a very well-backed theory and a lot of scientists argued with it, but it was popular and a lot of people believed it.  They liked believing it.  It made them feel:
  1. important.
  2. safe.
There were some problems with this theory, though.  Little things like it didn’t match real world observations.  So:
  1. epicycles were added to the orbits, to explain away the problems.
  2. cities enacted the first clean air acts, banning the more obvious smog causing pollutants.
But this wasn’t enough.  So a new theory was developed; it was:
  1. Tycho Brahe’s idea that the other planets rotate around the sun but the sun rotates around the earth.
  2. the 1970s theory that pollutants would block the sun and cause another ice age.
Unfortunately, this theory didn’t match the real world either.  So another theory was found that matched all the real world observations.  This theory was called:
  1. the Copernican or heliocentric model
  2. global warming, though I prefer climate instability
and it argued that:
  1. the earth and the planets all orbit the sun.
  2. pollutants in the atmosphere cause a greenhouse effect where heat is trapped in the atmosphere, slowly warming the planet and disrupting world weather patterns.
This theory was developed in:
  1. the early 17th century
  2. the late 20th and early 21st centuries
  1. two renowned scientists named Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei.
  2. many well-respected climatologists.
Within a very short period of time, a very strong consensus developed among everyone with any credibility who looked at the data.  This time, the theory was right. It matched the real world observations perfectly and, over time, as more evidence came in from:
  1. observations made with the newly invented telescope,
  2. hundreds of researchers all over the world,
the new evidence was a perfect match for the theory.  In science, this is the real test.  Developing a theory that matches existing observations is great, but to be truly convincing, a theory must predict evidence that has not yet been collected.  This theory met that test and convinced everyone who relied on reason and science.  But not everyone does.  There were still skeptics, people who didn’t like the new theory, people who felt uncomfortable with change and preferred to rely on tradition and faith.  Some were ignorant and insecure, but others had self-interested motives to deny the new knowledge.  These people were afraid that accepting the reality of the earth’s functioning as a planet would weaken their power base.  They privileged their reading of the bible over facts and evidence.  They were:
  1. the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church,
  2. the leaders of evangelical Christian movements in the US and politicians who rely on evangelical votes,
and they saw this theory as undermining the literal received truth of the bible.  Their belief system was, they feared, too frail to survive having so much as one of its myriad of elements challenged.  They could have reexamined their understanding of their sacred text (the divine being said the sun rose and set because he was speaking in language his people could understand), they could have used the age-old ‘mysterious ways’ argument to claim that there is no need for faith and science to be in perfect synch (if the divine could allow the Holocaust, a little planetary movement should not be a big stretch).  But they didn’t.  They made the choice to take an absolutist position and attack science for its audacity in disagreeing with them.

But it’s hard to attack an abstract.  So instead they attacked the scientists.  They couldn’t reach them all; some they had no jurisdiction over.  So they left:
  1. Kepler, who was not only in far off Germany but a Protestant
  2. The European, Asian, etc. scientists
alone and focused their attacks on those they could hurt.  Not right away though.  Their first responses were actually encouraging.  The first real notice they took of the theory was in:
  1. 1611 when Galileo lectured on the subject in Rome.
  2. 1989 when Bill McKibben wrote the first popular (rather than abstrusely scientific) account of the evidence.
The most notable responses were:
  1. a review of Galileo’s work by Jesuit mathematicians at the Collegio Romano, who granted it certification.
  2. the first President Bush’s promise to “fight the greenhouse effect with the White House effect.”
Then they thought about it some more and decided it might be dangerous.  They tried to silence the theory by:
  1. calling Galileo before the Inquisition and instructing him not to "hold, teach or defend" his beliefs; that he continued to hold them was evident to anyone who spoke with him on the matter, but the church left him alone as long as he kept those ideas out of the public sphere -- the original "don't ask don't tell".
  2. blocking publication of federally funded research into the impact of climate instability, preventing NOAA and NASA scientists from speaking publicly, and censoring reports and websites.
When those efforts weren’t enough, they turned to discrediting the scientists by:
  1. recalling Galileo to the Inquisition and excommunicating him, not for his belief in science, but for disobeying their gag order.
  2. trolling through their emails looking for evidence of fakery, evidence they didn’t find, but that didn’t stop them from pretending they did.
Through these measures they manage to obscure the near-universal scientific consensus and convince the gullible that their position was anything other than an attempt to bully the truth into submitting to their political ambitions.

It’s almost as if they’re the same story.


  1. Nicely put. The use of false analogies is just about the easiest way to muddy an issue.

  2. Thanks. Sadly, it's easier to fit mud into a pithy sound bite than truth.