NOAH’S RAINBOW SERPENT – observations by Ian MacDougall

Three Cheers for Controversialists

Posted in Natural Science, Political Economy by Ian MacDougall on April 25, 2009 Edit This

There has been a centuries long fight between reason and religion. It has happened because of a natural human desire for internal mental constructs to be accurately based on whatever reality is external (’out there’).  At the same time, we wish the reality out there to accord with what we subjectively prefer it to be, and choose to believe it to be. We can interrogate ourselves internally and mentally for an answer to the question ‘what is going on?’ The collective answer we get from that is religion: naturally more than one as we go from person to person and society to society. Either as an alternative or as a supplement, we can interrogate nature. When we do, the result is science. While there are many religions, there is only one science; that is, in the sense that there is only one true and correct answer to the question ‘what is going on?’ as it is asked at any level, from astronomy down to particle physics.

 At the same time, the well known fact that every answer only raises more questions means that science has never become a finally drafted ‘closed book’, and likely never will be. Nor has the last word been said on the study of knowledge itself, which the specialists call epistemology.

 Neither will religion’s book ever close, because the needs of individuals and human hierarchies change. New creeds are invented and old exhausted ones die. History also testifies to much violent replacement of one religion by another, and it is still going on today.

 Plato produced the first written record of a controversy between science and religion, in his Apology. There he described how Socrates, his teacher and the leading thinker in the Athens of his time, was condemned to death both for questioning the fundamentals of the prevailing religion, and for encouraging others to do so.  Centuries later, in 1600, Giordano Bruno was condemned by the Catholic Church and burned at the stake in Rome for much the same thing. Sixteen years after that, the physicist Galileo Galilei nearly met the same fate at the hands of the Church. All that before we even mention Darwin. Science and religion have always had an uneasy relationship. The story is the same in the parts of the world dominated by other religions, including of course the Soviet version of Marxism.

 It is not surprising therefore that the current public issue of climate change should drag up a few ghosts from the past.  The question ‘is the planet warming?’ is fairly easily resolved. It looks very much that way from satellite altimetry data, which is accurate enough to enable the NOAA  (US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) to conclude that mean global sea level is trending upwards at 3.2 mm per year.  ( 1  )  Unless the Earth’s crust under the oceans is being uniformly heaved outwards, the cause can only be a combination of melting ice and/or thermal expansion of the oceans; that is either way or both, global warming. The question ‘what is causing the warming?’ is not so easily resolved, except that we can say with certainty that it is either due to anthropogenic (’man-made’) increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide, or to a combination of that and something else, however we choose to weight each component. Or perhaps it is the ’something else’ on its own, which could include change in the intensity of solar radiation (solar flux (2)  and undersea volcanism.  

It is appropriate that the man who is arguably Australia’s most famous geologist, Ian Plimer, should enter the fray with a book which enlists a mass of scientific data to argue that global warming is nothing to worry about. This characterises him as a climate change optimist, as against the climate change pessimists: those who maintain that there is something to worry about, and in whose number incidentally I include myself.

 Plimer’s book Heaven and Earth  (Connor Court, 2009) will help resolution of the issue at the scientific level, at least in the public mind.  It is also understandable that he and his co-thinkers should attempt to frame the issue in terms of the historic conflict between science and religion referred to above, and to characterise those they oppose as closed-minded and quasi-religious. Plimer more than any other Australian scientist has fought his share of battles with the creationists, and has been prepared to put large amounts of his own money on the line in doing so. Understandably then,  he characterizes those in the camp of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the present government of Australia, the economists Stern and Garnaut, and above all the climatologist James Hansen of NASA as ‘the orthodoxy’ against which an army of protestants is rallying. In that he is supported by other formations of dissenters, including the one calling itself, understandably but not appropriately, ‘The Lavoisier Group’ (3) after the great French chemist Antoine Lavoisier, who was guillotined by the fanatics of the French Revolution.  

This part of the debate hinges on the answer to the question, ‘what after all is the modern orthodoxy?’ It can only be the argument for business as usual and that there’s nothing to worry about; precisely the case that Plimer supports. It was against this that James Hansen, head of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies in New York, nailed his thesis early to the cathedral door: in the form of his 1988 testimony to Congress and his 2003 paper Can We Defuse the Global Warming Time Bomb?  In that paper, Hansen argued that human generated forces on the climate had come to outbalance natural ones. According to his Wikipedia entry:  “In a 2004 presentation at the University of Iowa, Hansen announced that he was told by high-ranking government officials not to talk about how anthropogenic influence could have a dangerous effect on climate.” Those officials maintained that it is “not understood what dangerous means, or how humans are actually affecting climate…” (4 )

 Lavoisier dissented against the prevailing chemical orthodoxy of his day on the subject of combustion. A lone and oft-ridiculed voice, he was none the less shortly proved right. The Lavoisier Group now use the name of that dissenting chemist in order to defend the climate orthodoxy against climate dissenters. An orthodoxy distinguishes itself precisely though its power as an establishment and its attempts to silence opponents, which will work if it is strong enough. To my knowledge, neither the members of the Lavoisier Group nor Plimer nor any of their co-thinkers have experienced authoritarian attempts to silence them on the subject of climate change. The same cannot be said of James Hansen, or of the climatologists in Australia’s CSIRO.  ( 5)

 Another Australian controversialist of note is Keith Windschuttle. His book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History Volume 1 (Macleay 2002) attacks the commonly accepted and therefore ‘orthodox’ view amongst historians who write about Aboriginal Australia that there were widespread massacres and other acts of violence on the frontier. I think it is fair to say that Windschuttle has done more than any other historian to stimulate research, analysis and debate in that particular field; but ironically, only to strengthen the ‘orthodox’ position. (I am publishing a detailed (26,000 word) critique of Windschuttle’s book on this site as a four part series, approaching the subject from what I believe is a completely fresh angle.  Though I have encountered certain difficulties in going from Word to an HTML post, particularly concerning diagrams and tables, nonetheless if you are interested, watch this space.)

 But back to Ian Plimer: from what I have read of his book in reviews so far, plus his own exposition to the Sydney Mining Club: ‘Human-induced Climate Change: a Load of Hot Air’ (6) Plimer’s is the strongest scientific case to date for the ’skeptical’ position on global warming. As I said, I term his the ‘optimist’ position, the short form of ‘optimist-she’ll-be-right-business-as-usual’.  I have Plimer’s book on order, and am eagerly awaiting its arrival. It may of course, change my mind.  I would dearly love it if he and all the other ’skeptics’ were to be proved right.  Except that I can already see holes in his case one could drive a coal train through, just from his talks at the Sydney Mining Club and on the ABC (7 ), and from the reviews to date of his book.  

 More later. The stakes are high, so watch this space.