Politics & Policy

Starry Enviro?

The cases of Björn Lomborg and Galileo.

There is no realm of modern culture that has institutionalized the concept of “lying for justice” more than environmentalism. Even the hothouse world of racial politics, with its fringe of Tawana Brawley believers and Afrocentric gobbledygook, comes a not-too-close second to the generalized deceit of the environmental movement. After all, the closer racial activists get to the mainstream, the more difficult it is for them to lie. When was the last time you heard Julian Bond claim Aristotle was black?

Meanwhile, the reverse is often — though certainly not always — the case with environmentalists. At professional conferences, in industry publications, and in the clubhouse of environmental policymakers, it is taken as a given that “raising awareness” trumps “explaining the facts” if, that is, increased “awareness” might hasten desirable policies while explicated facts would merely result in continued “pointless” debate. Moreover, mainstream journalists not only know about this doctrine of deceit, they encourage and amplify it, exaggerating already hyped scare-scenarios and downplaying any news of environmental improvement.

As with all ideologies and movements which alternate between apocalyptic and utopian visions, the scaring of children is a particular priority. In one textbook, for example, children are told that, in the future, earth’s natural resources “will become so depleted that our very existence will become economically and environmentally impossible.” This, it warns, will cause “famine, disease, pollution, unrest, crime and international conflicts.” University of Rochester economist Steven E. Landsburg, writing in his wonderful book, The Armchair Economist, about the “naive environmentalism” taught at his daughter’s preschool, summed it up well: Schools offer “a force-fed potpourri of myth, superstition and ritual that has much in common with the least reputable varieties of religious fundamentalism.”

I am sure that when my child is born it will take constant vigilance to keep him or her from ratting me out to the local grade school’s green Gestapo for not separating my bottles, cans, and newspapers. The instructions to today’s children aren’t dissimilar in religious fervor to St. Jerome’s fourth-century incitement to children to join monasteries; “if your father blocks the door, knock him down.”

Again, all of this is justified by our leading scientists as necessary and justified. Stephen Schneider, a highly regarded climate scientist explained the need to lie for justice to Discover magazine:

On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but — which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people, we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climate change. To do that, we need to get some broad-based support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. … Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.

I grabbed this quote from an article by my friend Nick Schulz, who edits a website inversely better than the badness of its name, TechCentralStation. He’s writing about the latest effort to erase the Danish author, Björn Lomborg, from public awareness like an out-of-favor apparatchik airbrushed from a picture of the politburo. In case you didn’t know, Lomborg wrote the hugely-influential-and-therefore-despised book The Skeptical Environmentalist. An honest and by all accounts decent man and academic, Lomborg was a former hard-green environmentalist. In 1997, he set out, with the aid of some students, to disprove the work of Julian Simon, the environmental optimist. Unfortunately for Lomborg, it turned out the dragon he set out to slay was on the right side.

The findings in The Skeptical Environmentalist are hardly shocking to those not indoctrinated into the environmental groupthink which dominates everything from the op-ed pages of the New York Times to the back of your kid’s cereal box. They were: Population growth isn’t a serious problem; global warming — to the extent it’s happening at all — isn’t a catastrophe; current levels of species loss — while not good — aren’t by any means apocalyptic; the quantity and/or quality of our air, water, and natural resources are not vanishing, but are, in fact, expanding and/or improving in many cases; capitalism is not the enemy of the environment, but arguably its best friend. But you can read plenty about this stuff elsewhere, at TechCentralStation (ugh) or in my friend Ronald Bailey’s outstandingly useful (but also poorly titled) book: Global Warming and other Eco-Myths.

The latest assault on Lomborg takes the form of a condemnation from something called the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty. Citing articles in the popular press — including that famed journal of climatology, Time magazine — and work by aggrieved critics, the Danes concluded: “Objectively speaking, the [The Skeptical Environmentalist] … is deemed to fall within the concept of scientific dishonesty.”

Predictably, the Western media immediately seized on the indictment in order to discredit Lomborg further. The whole thing appears to be an outrageously deceitful and nigh-upon Orwellian attempt to vilify an honest academic for publishing inconvenient facts. Reading Lomborg’s response to the Danish denunciation only confirms that. Lomborg is being sacrificed as a heretic by a scientific community more interested in preserving the consensus and conventional wisdom (and research funding) than debating the truth.


In order to illustrate what’s happening to Lomborg, I need to pick on Nick Schulz a bit. That’s okay because: A) Nick is one of my best friends; B) I owe him some grief. About six or seven years ago — when we worked together — we played one of those remote-control trivia games at a bar in Indianapolis called “Wings and Beer.” (Now that’s a great name.) I drunkenly punched in my screen name incorrectly as “Shapfth” instead of “Shaft” and he called me that for the next few years, which annoyed me greatly.

Anyway, Nick Schulz writes: “The smear has now reached a new low, with the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty (DCSD) playing the 17th Century Catholic Church to Lomborg’s heretical Galileo.”

Some air needs to be cleared here. The myth of Galileo as a “martyr to science” — as countless writers and historians have called him — was born of the French enlightenment. “From Diderot to Brecht, the myth of Galileo the rationalist-scientist-martyr [has] dominated Western thought, and even today it shows few signs of abating,” wrote Robert Nisbet in Prejudices. The first choice for hero of reason, Nisbet explains, was actually Isaac Newton. But, unfortunately for the philosophes, Newton was unacceptably pious. So they picked Galileo who, it must be noted, was intensely religious as well.

The story we all learned is that Galileo was condemned for advocating Copernicanism, which held that the Aristotelian view of the sun circling the earth was wrong. And ultimately, this much is true. But, we’re also told that the moral of the story is that Christianity is an enemy of science and that science can only thrive when Christianity and other chaotic superstitions are kept safely in a Pandora’s box, far from institutions of reason. And this is almost exactly and perfectly wrong.

It is simply a lie to say that Galileo and the Church were enemies. A quick review: Galileo was the pride of the Church in Tuscany and was a friend to numerous influential figures within the Church. His work was sponsored and celebrated by his close friend, Bishop Maffeo Barberini. In 1611, when Galileo’s The Starry Messenger came out — which reported his discoveries with his new telescope — the Vatican college in Rome celebrated with a day of parties much like the DNC will when Sidney Blumenthal’s book is released. His buddy Maffeo Barberini eventually became Pope Urban VIII and, as pontiff, eagerly authorized Galileo to write and publish Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems — the book which got Galileo into so much hot water.

For the record, the Dialogue was written as a conversation between three guys in a garden talking about astronomy. Each took a different point of view. The problem was that the character who rejected Copernican thinking was named “Simplicius” — 17th-century Italian for “Shapfth” — and was Alec Baldwinesque in intelligence. The pope had told Galileo he could knock himself out writing about Copernican theories, just so long as he presented them hypothetically. Making the dumbest and most-inflexible character the Aristotelian didn’t quite meet that bar.

Anyway, Galileo was summoned to Rome and tried by the Holy Office — the headquarters of the Inquisition and what Robin says to Batman at Staples — and tried for suspicion of heresy. Galileo was found guilty, sentenced to life imprisonment, and then had his sentenced commuted to house arrest. But, again, there’s more to the story than the popular mythology suggests. The prosecutor, who was on Galileo’s side, wanted the defendant to get off with a reprimand. And the pope — Galileo’s old friend — was reluctant for the trial to take place at all. Afterwards, the pope made sure Galileo was treated with respect.

If Galileo’s research was so dangerous and heretical, after all, why was he sentenced to house arrest? This amounted to “condemning” him to his villa where he did all of his research anyway. In fact, much of Galileo’s most-important work and teaching was accomplished after he was supposedly “silenced” by the Church. He wrote Dialogue Concerning Two New Sciences and corresponded with all of the leading scientists of Europe. He even wrote a letter to Penthouse Forum. Okay, I made that part up.

Yes, I’m skipping over a lot on intrigue and back-story to make an already-too-long column a little-less long. There’s all sorts of interesting stuff about Galileo being both a victim of the Spanish ascendancy within the Church and of the fact that Church’s real problem was with the Reformation, not with science. But, yes, the Church did ultimately make the wrong decision and, under John Paul II, it has apologized for it.

Regardless, I bring all of this up to make one irrefutable point: Galileo’s greatest and most-enduring enemies were not the orthodox clerics of the Church, but his fellow scientists. This was not a case of a superstitious, bureaucratic Church snuffing the light of reason. It was a case of petty and jealous men trying to use the Church to kneecap a whistleblower. If Galileo’s way of things won the day, a lot of people would have looked like fools and, possibly, lost their jobs. And, this had less to do with Copernicanism or heliocentricity than with the fact that Galileo represented the introduction of mathematics into the world of physics. Needless, to say, if you were a physicist who didn’t know jack about math and, all of a sudden, this guy was going to make math a requirement, you’d be bummed.

This is undoubtedly how Galileo himself saw his plight. As Nisbet notes, the earliest and perhaps most-enduring constraints on Galileo’s research was his fear of ridicule and opprobrium from the scientific community. In 1597, Galileo wrote a letter to Kepler admitting that he believed Copernicus had it right, but he was afraid to admit it publicly for fear of being ridiculed by Aristotelian scientists — not persecuted by closed-minded clerics.

According to Pietro Redondi, in Galileo Heretic, it was the Jesuit astronomer Orazio Grassi (who Galileo had mocked mercilessly in The Assayer), who was Galileo’s worst enemy. Grassi, Redondi argues, anonymously denounced Galileo in an elaborate scheme to force the Church to try him under the Inquisition. But Grassi despised Galileo for denouncing his science, not his religion — though one must admit the difference between the two was probably much narrower than we would conceive of things today. (Please: keep the e-mail about atomism to a dull roar.) The full extent of Grassi’s culpability remains hotly debated, but the fact is there were plenty of other scientists who wanted Galileo out of the picture. Christoph Scheiner, for example, had been furious at Galileo for years because Galileo got credit for discovering sunspots (and for correctly deducing their nature). Scheiner helped organize pressure on the Church to try Galileo for heresy and to keep his books from being published.

Galileo’s personal correspondence, according to Thomas Lessel’s excellent summary, reflected that Galileo always saw his true enemies as Aristotelian scientists, not the Church. Indeed, Galileo remained a devout Catholic until he died — despite the fact he could have easily fled to a Protestant nation or, for that matter, converted to Protestantism.

In short, you cannot call the Galileo affair a battle between the Church and science when “science” — in its heart and ambition — was harsher on Galileo than the Church was.


So what does all of this have to do with Björn Lomborg? In a way, everything. Robert Nisbet writes that more scientists probably have been stopped from pursuing research because “of defiance of conventional wisdom in America since World War II with its accompanying bureaucratization and politicization of science than existed in the whole of the world in Galileo’s day.”

“The principle truth to be drawn from the Galileo story is less dramatic than the myth,” Nisbet wrote in 1982,

but far more in accord with the emotions and institutional conditions that prevail today much as they did in the 16th century. Rivalry, jealousy, and vindictiveness from other scientists and philosophers were Galileo’s lot and they are not infrequently the lot of unorthodox minds in modern times. Anyone who believes that inquisitions went out with the triumph of secularism over religion has not paid attention to the records of foundations, federal research agencies, professional societies and academic institutions and departments.

Today, such institutions and associations are deeply invested in massive political and economic arrangements which require that Lomborg be wrong, if he is scientifically right.

Ultimately, the proper way to view the Galileo episode is not of a religious orthodoxy persecuting a martyr to scientific truth, but the forces of scientific orthodoxy using the state to punish a whistleblower. Remember: In Italy at that time, the distinction between the Church and State was at best an academic one. But in our secular age we don’t like to think scientists can play the zealot from the Holy Office. Well, the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty is nothing if not the tool of scientific orthodoxy.

The more-important word in the phrase “scientific community” is not scientific but community, because it is that word which reminds us that scientists are humans. And — surprise — humans are creatures of ego, jealously, and vindictiveness. Galileo himself was an egotist of the first order, which is one reason so many scientists despised him. But by shifting the blame for what happened to Galileo away from the scientific community and onto the Church, scientists — and in a sense the entire secular establishment — have absolved themselves of any culpability. This is not only unfair to the Church; it’s very, very dangerous for science, because it perpetuates a myth that the “sophisticated mind” is immune to inquisitorial zeal.

And we know that is hogwash, because that is precisely what is happening to Björn Lomborg. And don’t be surprised if your child knocks you down if you try to persuade him otherwise.


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