My monthly astrophysical column written for the Astronomical Society of Southern Africa.
I have regrets; not overwhelming, psyche-twisting regrets, but nevertheless there are things in my life that I wistfully wish could have been played otherwise. One of them is that I missed (due to a persistent and mysterious viral infection of my inner ear) Prof Mike Watkeys’ talk at the May meeting of our society. From what I understand from friends who attended, Dr Watkeys nailed his colours to the mast: There is nothing we can do about climate change.
This is momentous. Mike Watkeys is no disaffected, table-beating iconoclast protesting all and sundry in the best anti-establishment traditions; here we have a respected member of the scientific community calling it as he sees it, despite the fact that it is not the party line and will garner him few friends and no funding support. I shall here attempt to put this in perspective.
In 1962, historian of science Thomas Kuhn published his landmark book, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” In it, he coined a term that has become so widely used that it is almost a cliché—Paradigm Shift. It refers to a revolutionary change in the assumptions employed in the practice of hard sciences, an overturning of the so-called standard models. The reason that standard models become as entrenched and zealously defended as they have been is sociological, and has almost nothing to do with physics or chemistry. Scientists, for all their bravado about objectivity, are after all as human as you or I, and demonstrate just the same passion for the canonisation of their opinions as politicians and religionists do. Sir Fred Hoyle put his own brand of witty cynicism on the matter: “To hear scientists talk today, you would think the first moment in human history in which nonsensical views are not widely held is now.”
It is for this reason that historically, paradigm shifts have been dreadfully slow in coming about. It’s not that the science indicating change was weak; it’s simply that the rulers of society, as in Church and Crown, have such an exaggerated aversion to being shown wrong. Politicians and clergy, it seems to me, would in many cases rather die than admit they were fundamentally incorrect in their assumptions, and when they reach out to take ownership of a scientific theory, heaven help us!
For more than a thousand years, the paradigm known as geocentrism ruled the roost. From appearances only, it seemed obvious that the Earth was stationary at the centre of the Universe, and that celestial bodies revolved about it. This tied in rather nicely with the biblical view, so the science was therefore endorsed by the church, and defended so harshly that critics were actually burned alive for daring to suggest otherwise. In the early 1500s, a canon of the Church, Nicolaus Copernicus, reconsidered the motions of objects on the sky, and came to the realisation that all was not as it seemed. The anomalies inherent in the Standard Cosmological Model of the time could be rationally explained if the Earth were not in fact standing still in the middle of it all, but indeed subservient to the Sun.
It was a terrifying thought, especially for poor Copernicus, a man of the cloth who was expected to toe the party line. He wrote his vision into his watershed book “On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres ” and hid the manuscript in a box under his bed for more than thirty years. It was only as he lay dying on that very bed that he finally brought out his dark secret and requested that a cousin have it published. He didn’t have it completely right—he retained some of Ptolemy’s epicycles—but the fundamental principle was there: The Earth was not necessarily the biggest or most important thing in the cosmos. It obeyed an imperative from the Sun, which had power over it, and thus the roles were reversed. It was as if Copernicus had loosened the keystone in geocentrism’s arch, and the walls of Jericho were about to come tumbling down.
Well, it wasn’t going to be as easy as that. It would still be a hundred years and many more martyrs would perish at the hands of those who wielded power before sheer logic overwhelmed the dogma. Galileo was lucky to escape with his life, and it was only his popularity in Italian society that saved him from harsher punishment than house arrest and censorship. Believe it or not, there are to this day still people who maintain that the Sun and stars orbit a stationary Earth; I have had some emails recently from a crowd in the USA, some of whom sport doctorates in science apparently, who are using a mathematical model to support geocentrism. As I said, belief is not surrendered easily…
Cosmology went into an ideological vacuum. Heliocentrism brought with it the disconcerting corollary that we really didn’t know very much after all. It seemed the vastness of the unfolding Universe defied a convenient, comfortable explanation—at least, as far as science was concerned. The dominant theological explanation, involving supernatural forces and a creation ex nihilo at some point in the past was still tremendously popular, but there was a dire need to replace geocentrism with a model that would fit the religious view. A Roman Catholic priest and qualified astronomer named Georges Lemaitre devised it. We now know it well by its colloquial name—Big Bang Theory. The rest, as they say, is history.
What has this to do with man-made climate change theory and Mike Watkeys’ talk? Quite a lot, actually. Big Bang Theory has been my nemesis. Fighting against what I perceived to be an irrational theory impacting on my chosen field was hardly a rewarding endeavour. I certainly didn’t make any money out of it. To be fair, though, in attempting to show the scientific weakness of the prevailing Holy Cow, I learnt a lot, not so much about science as about human nature. It was clear that notwithstanding whatever it was that seeded the development of this theory, what it had become within a decade of its inception was a fully-fledged belief system, even in the minds of scientists. It is fiercely defended, and dissidents are dealt with severely and contemptuously. I was ready to give up and retire to a pleasant life in the country with my telescopes and my cameras and my books. Then along came Anthropogenic Global Warming. With that, a light came on at the end of my tunnel.
I am a passionate environmentalist, especially concerned with the conservation of threatened species. When Al Gore thrust his movie and his plot upon an unsuspecting world, it arrived all nicely cloaked in green. I watched “An Inconvenient Truth” with my green spectacles firmly in place, and that meant I took my bias to the viewing. However, that very first time I looked at it, alarm bells went off in my head. Something didn’t ring true. Especially Al Gore himself. I have a deep suspicion of politicians generally, perhaps the American species more than others, and something in my bones was telling me, “Paleface speak with forked tongue!” I decided to check him out. What I discovered horrified me.
There is no need for us now to regurgitate all the wickedness of Anthropogenic Global Warming—it’s been done, and Prof Watkeys capped the deal. It’s a rapidly sinking ship, and the only poor souls still clinging to the railings are those with some sort of vested interest and those glossy green pseudo-environmentalists whose sanctimoniousness exceeds their common sense by a wide margin. Let’s get something straight—when you argue in favour of a prevailing paradigm, you stand a good chance of being well fed; when you oppose it, you starve. Well, allowing for a bit of creative exaggeration, I’m sure you get my drift. It’s not about science; to put it crudely, it’s about shekels. Al Gore registered his first carbon trading company in 1992—go figure! So here we have a theory that clearly fits all the parameters that qualify a paradigm. From here on in, the debate would be purely emotional.
So what was my agenda in all this? What really caught my attention was that the science underpinning the theory was so utterly, blatantly flawed, to a much greater degree and more obviously so than the foundations of Big Bang Theory. Added to that was the hint of purposeful deception, something that doesn’t exist in BBT as far as I know, all leading to a tantalising premonition: It was likely, in my view, that this paradigm would crumble much more quickly than those carved into cosmology, perhaps even in my lifetime, and in so doing just possibly create a precedent. With the fall of AGW, we may have a concrete example, virtually within a single generation, of how paradigms become entrenched; how they are adopted by politics and religion; how they gain gravy-train momentum; how they appease social conscience; and finally, how revolutionary shifts occur. With this burned into our collective psyche, we may then realise that we were cowed by authority, career pressure, and clever propaganda into becoming true believers. After the fall of AGW, I earnestly hope, society will turn to Big Bang Theory with the same critical eye, and, I hope even more earnestly, toss it onto the same rubbish heap as AGW. Then the real cranks will come out of the woodwork.
Until then, I shall relax with my telescopes and my cameras and my books, and drink tea in the shade of an Acacia tree in the company of cleverer monkeys than I. It’s a good life.