The Corner

Culture

Pope vs. Popper

Nigel Lawson, a key Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister) during the Thatcher era, writing in the Financial Post:

Throughout the ages the weather has been an important part of the religious narrative. In primitive societies it was customary for extreme weather events to be explained as punishment from the gods for the sins of the people; and there is no shortage of this theme in the Bible, either – particularly, but not exclusively, in the Old Testament. The contemporary version is that, as a result of heedless industrialization within a framework of materialistic capitalism, we have directly (albeit not deliberately) perverted the weather, and will duly receive our comeuppance.

There is another aspect, too, which may account for the appeal of this so-called explanation. Throughout the ages, something deep in man’s psyche has made him receptive to apocalyptic warnings that the end of the world is nigh. And almost all of us, whether we like it or not, are imbued with feelings of guilt and a sense of sin. How much less uncomfortable it is, how much more convenient, to divert attention away from our individual sins and reasons to feel guilty, and to sublimate them in collective guilt and collective sin.

And that’s why there’s reason to worry about the eco-encyclical: it may be soaked in loathing for the ingenuity of humanity, and its prescriptions, if followed, would bring misery in their wake, but it is drawing on themes that have flourished for millennia. Pope Francis, I suspect, would chain Prometheus to that rock.

An antidote to all this comes from an article by “lukewarmer“ Matt Ridley in the June issue of the Australian magazine Quadrant (editor a certain John O’Sullivan). The whole thing is very well worth reading, but here’s an extract (my emphasis added):

 The “bad idea” in this case is not that climate changes, nor that human beings influence climate change; but that the impending change is sufficiently dangerous to require urgent policy responses. In the 1970s, when global temperatures were cooling, some scientists could not resist the lure of press attention by arguing that a new ice age was imminent. Others called this nonsense and the World Meteorological Organisation rightly refused to endorse the alarm. That’s science working as it should. In the 1980s, as temperatures began to rise again, some of the same scientists dusted off the greenhouse effect and began to argue that runaway warming was now likely.

At first, the science establishment reacted sceptically and a diversity of views was aired. It’s hard to recall now just how much you were allowed to question the claims in those days. As Bernie Lewin reminds us in one chapter of a fascinating new book of essays called Climate Change: The Facts (hereafter The Facts), as late as 1995 when the second assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) came out with its last-minute additional claim of a “discernible human influence” on climate, Nature magazine warned scientists against overheating the debate.

Since then, however, inch by inch, the huge green pressure groups have grown fat on a diet of constant but ever-changing alarm about the future. That these alarms—over population growth, pesticides, rain forests, acid rain, ozone holes, sperm counts, genetically modified crops—have often proved wildly exaggerated does not matter: the organisations that did the most exaggeration trousered the most money. In the case of climate, the alarm is always in the distant future, so can never be debunked.

These huge green multinationals, with budgets in the hundreds of millions of dollars, have now systematically infiltrated science, as well as industry and media, with the result that many high-profile climate scientists and the journalists who cover them have become one-sided cheerleaders for alarm, while a hit squad of increasingly vicious bloggers polices the debate to ensure that anybody who steps out of line is punished. They insist on stamping out all mention of the heresy that climate change might not be lethally dangerous.

And on the reaction to the current “pause” in global warming:

Excusing failed predictions is a staple of astrology; it’s the way pseudoscientists argue. In science, as Karl Popper long ago insisted, if you make predictions and they fail, you don’t just make excuses and insist you’re even more right than before. [Britain’s] Royal Society once used to promise “never to give their opinion, as a body, upon any subject”. Its very motto is “nullius in verba”: take nobody’s word for it. Now it puts out catechisms of what you must believe in. Surely, the handing down of dogmas is for churches, not science academies.

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