President Obama came to California. He saw a drought. He announced the cause to be global warming and left. How accurate was the president’s diagnosis of harmful, man-made climate change in stopping rain and snow? First, a bit of a reminder about what the president has called “settled science.”
Until 1982 “settled science” decreed that stomach ulcers were a result of bad diet, too much gastric acid, or undue stress. Then Australian scientists Barry Marshall and Robin Warren shocked the medical community with an unlikely thesis: The real culprit for peptic ulcers more often was infection by the Gram-negative bacterium H. pylori, a common but sometimes dangerous agent in the gut that could be treated with antibiotics. The practice of gastroenterology was turned upside down.
Settled science insisted that annual mammograms were necessary to reduce the morbidity from breast cancer, on the logical hypothesis that only early detection could allow successful treatment of a disease whose contours were so poorly understood. Now, a new comprehensive Canadian study finds that there is no statistical evidence that a breast scan every year is any more efficacious in preventing morbidity than more sporadic testing.
In other words, nothing scientific is ever quite settled. Scientists debate the proper protocols through still more study and investigation in the arena of empirical give-and-take.
In similar fashion, the vast majority of the 19th-century medical community insisted that postoperative infections were due to bad air. Surgeons once prided themselves on their filthy bloody gowns as proof of their industriousness, convinced that airing out hospital miasmas would alone stop gangrene and other wound-related diseases. Then the surgeon Joseph Lister proved that Louis Pasteur’s theories of micro-organisms causing disease also applied to wounds — and that the use of antiseptics amid sterile conditions in the operating room and in hospitals generally could vastly curtail postoperative deaths. Soondek hospital whites, bleaches, and chronic washing became the new orthodox protocols, and Lister became canonized whereas he had formerly been dismissed as eccentric.
There is a long tradition dating back to Galileo — and beyond, to Democritus — of scientific heresy suddenly becoming orthodoxy, as “settled” doctrines cannot stand the light of free discussion, critique, and investigation.
Despite the Western inductive method and freedom of expression, however, human nature remains tribal. Scientists, like everyone else, find comfort in what is familiar, orthodox, and shared by their peers. Often they have invested lives and careers in ensuring that status-quo theories become unquestioned. They can be deeply suspicious of what is not institutionalized, and on occasion wildly intolerant of the nonconventional.
Such homogeneity also becomes wrapped up in religion, government, and culture. Skeptics like Galileo or Lister are often hounded, censored, and ridiculed. Plato so disliked the unorthodox, but prescient, atomic theory of Democritus that he dreamed of having his written work burned.
Just as, in the distant past, the dissident scientist was often dubbed atheistic or subversive, today the skeptic of man-caused global warming is dismissed as fundamentalist, illiberal, or anti-democratic. For many elite critics of Western culture and society, global warming has become central to a larger critique about the frenzied pace of capitalistic production, wealth creation, and consumption. Or rather, global-warming orthodoxy has become a partisan tool to stop things deemed bad, like fracking, horizontal drilling, or the Keystone Pipeline.
Often there is the flavor of elitism, as those with capital, secure jobs, and good salaries are less likely to suffer from the very real consequences of their own ideologies. A tenured climatologist, a Hollywood star, or a government bureaucrat, for example, is certainly not so immediately vulnerable to radical shifts away from a carbon-based economy as are truckers, well drillers, or construction workers. In the case of the now-billionaire Secretary of State John Kerry, who has a propensity for collecting carbon-spewing recreational vehicles and luxury boats, his lecturing poor Indonesians on limiting carbon use seems especially galling.
I do not know whether there is such a thing as deleterious man-made global warming, but I do know that it has become the new orthodoxy to such a degree that its adherents are now trying to silence their critics and would make the grand inquisitors of the past proud. Recent examples include a campaign to censor a Washington Post column by Dr. Charles Krauthammer, a Los Angeles Times protocol of not publishing letters skeptical of global warming, and a lawsuit to discredit the brilliant satirist Mark Steyn, who, as humorists are wont to do, mocked a pompous proponent of global warming.