Few people find it easy to accept ideas that run counter to their own beliefs, prejudices and education. We who recognize and accept the scientific evidence that our planet's climate is being dramatically altered by human actions such as greenhouse gas emissions from our reliance on fossil fuels often find ourselves at a loss to understand the stubborn denial of that evidence by otherwise intelligent, reasonable people. Yet, paradigm shifts in our view of the world rarely come without controversy More often than not, an extended period of time must pass before the new conception of reality is accepted by a majority of not only scientists and lay people, but especially those institutions that have a vested interest in their now outdated "truth."
Case in point: The so-called Copernican revolution.
Once upon a time, Europe's greatest minds believed that the sun revolved around the earth. Oh, they accepted that the earth was round--these were educated men after all, not for them the simple fear of sailors that the earth was flat and one could sail over the edge never to be heard from again. Yet, in their minds, reinforced by ancient Greek texts and their theology, man was the epitome of God's creation, and thus the earth must be at the center of the universe. Thus, it was little wonder that they fully accepted the elaborate cosmology of the 2nd Century CE astronomer and mathematician, Klaudios Ptolemaios, commonly known as simply Ptolemy, which supported their vision of an anthropocentric universe. Here is a graphic depiction of Ptolemy's geocentric cosmos in all its complex and intricate splendor:
As you can see, the earth is at the center, and the sun the moon and the stars all revolve around it, though to make allowances for actual observations, they do not orbit the earth is perfect circles. Instead, to make his theory fit the data, Ptolemy posited many small loops in their orbits, or what he called epicycles. It's a marvelous intellectual achievement. Unfortunately, despite his genius, his model was completely wrong. Yet for hundreds of years among Islamic and Christian scholars, it was the standard model of our universe. It's fair to say that in Europe, Ptolemy's geocentric model, as convoluted as it was, had become the accepted dogma, not only among those who studied astronomy, but also the Catholic Church, which adopted Ptolemy's theories as if they were sacred scripture.
It's easy to understand why. Ptolemy's model supported their vision of man at the center of God's creation. In short, a very powerful institution had a vested interest in seeing that Ptolemy's theory remained unchallenged as the only legitimate view of reality.
When Copernicus first concluded that we human lived in a heliocentric cosmos, one in which the earth revolved around the sun, he kept this idea to himself, and did not publish his treatise, On the Revolutions, during his lifetime. He was wise to wait. He knew that such ideas would be considered heretical by the Catholic Church. Though his ideas gradually came to be accepted among astronomers, many, even the great Tycho Brache, refused to acknowledge it was a valid conception, because it contradicted, in his mind, passages in the Bible, and also contradicted the writings of Aristotle, who he revered, regarding physics.
If Tycho destroyed the dichotomy between the corrupt and ever changing sublunary world and the perfect and immutable heavens, then the new universe was clearly more hospitable for the heliocentric planetary arrangement proposed by Nicholas Copernicus in 1543. Was Tycho therefore a follower of Copernicus? He was not. Tycho gave various reasons for not accepting the heliocentric theory, but it appears that he could not abandon Aristotelian physics which is predicated on an absolute notion of place.
Brache, however, could no longer support Ptolemy either. His own astronomical observations of comets, and of the motion of the planets, the moon and the sun had shown him that the Ptolemiac model was flawed. So he compromised hi9s own principles:
Tycho developed a system that combined the best of both worlds. He kept the Earth in the center of the universe, so that he could retain Aristotelian physics (the only physics available). The Moon and Sun revolved about the Earth, and the shell of the fixed stars was centered on the Earth. But Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn revolved about the Sun. He put the (circular) path of the comet of 1577 between Venus and Mars.
Johannes Kepler, with his prediction of elliptical orbits and Galileo's observations of the moon and planets through his telescope, gradually brought more acceptance to the notion of a universe in which the sun was at the center, and the earth merely one of the planets that revolved around it. Yet, as we well know, Galileo's acceptance of heliocentricity, and his publication of works in support of the ideas of Copernicus, especially his book, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, led to a trial by the Inquisition on charges of heresy in 1633. As a result, Galileo spent the rest of his life under house arrest.
It wasn't until Newton theories regarding motion and gravity that the idea of a Copernican cosmology was finally accepted, not only by scholars and astronomers, but by the majority of people. As Steven Sherwood notes in his article, "Science controversies past and present," published in the October 13, 2011 edition of Physics Today, the slow rate of acceptance of the Copernican theory has parallels to the modern day controversy regarding human caused climate change.
At its heart, global warming is a physics problem, albeit a messy one that cannot proceed far without bringing in meteorology, oceanography, and geology. (See the article by Raymond Pierrehumbert in PHYSICS TODAY, January 2011, page 33.) The climate debate has spread far beyond the confines of any of those scientific circles and into the media and public sphere, where politicization and vitriol are legion. [...]
Although nearly all experts accept that the greenhouse gases emitted by humans have caused significant warming to the planet and will likely cause much more, only about half the US public agrees, even after years of heavy media coverage. How did we get into such a mess? What are the implications for science, for how it should be communicated, and for how debates should be interpreted? Some insights may be gained by noting that global warming is not the first “inconvenient truth” in physics. Consider this description of another, bygone debate [regarding Copernicus and his heliocentric model of the solar system]:The decision [whether to accept the new theory] was not exclusively, or even primarily, a matter for astronomers, and as the debate spread from astronomical circles it became tumultuous in the extreme. To most of those who were not concerned with the detailed study of celestial motions, Copernicus’s innovation seemed absurd and impious. Even when understood, the vaunted harmonies seemed no evidence at all. The resulting clamor was widespread, vocal, and bitter.[...]
Despite the power of the new theory and its observational successes, many people, even in the scientific community, could not relinquish the idea that the universe was built around them. Their belief was so strong that some scientists simply refused to look through Galileo’s telescope, and others invented ridiculous explanations for what it showed. Compromise models became popular; Tycho himself proposed that the planets orbit the Sun but maintained that the Sun and its entourage all orbit Earth. Over time such crutches fell by the wayside; Copernicus’s view was generally accepted among scientists by the late 17th century and among the public by the late 18th century.
The progression of the global warming idea so far has been quite similar to that of Copernicanism. The idea that changes in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations can and do cause significant climate changes (a notion for which I will use the shorthand term “greenhouse warming”) was proposed qualitatively in 1864 by renowned physicist John Tyndall, when he discovered carbon dioxide’s opacity to IR radiation. In 1896 Nobel laureate Svante Arrhenius quantitatively predicted the warming to be caused in the future by coal burning; the prediction was tested and promoted by steam engineer Guy Callendar in the late 1930s. At first few could accept that humans were capable of inﬂuencing the climate of an entire planet, but over time, and with more calculations, scientists found the possibility increasingly difficult to dismiss.
Much like the time of Galileo, a new scientific paradigm, the theory that climate change is rapidly occurring and results from increased emissions of greenhouse gases, threatens a powerful and influential interest: the massive corporations that extract fossil fuels, whether they be coal, methane or crude oil. The means available to that "special interest" to promote opposition to the evidence of climate change, however, is far greater than what was available to the Church in the 16th and 17th centuries, due to our revolution in communications technologies. I might also add that the power of those corporations, which extract, refine and/or distribute fossil fuels, to produce propaganda and fund climate change skeptics in order to confuse and befuddle people who do not have the scientific background to understand the analysis of the data that supports the claims of climate scientists is also much greater.
Furthermore, their interest in denying climate change is also far more intense. After all, the Roman Catholic Church still exists and thrives today, despite losing the battle over heliocentricity. The large corporations whose profits depend upon our continued reliance upon fossil fuels to produce energy, however, cannot afford to allow climate change science to go unchallenged, for its acceptance beyond the relatively small number of researchers in the field of climate studies, would directly impact their bottom line, i.e., their revenues and profits. They have proven, and will continue to prove, a far greater adversary to acceptance of climate science than the Catholic Church ever did to Copernican ideas about the true nature of our solar system.
Copernicus's theory that the sun did not revolve around the earth, while quite disruptive to certain segments of society in his time, was not directly connected to a global crisis that threatens the extinction of millions of species, and potentially the lives of billions of human beings. Sadly, we do not have 200 years to wait for our fellow citizens and others who do not recognize that threat to the earth and our future upon it from humankind's continued use of fossil fuels and the carbon emissions they generate.
So how do we fight the lies, half lies, falsehoods and misconceptions that any scientific theory that threatens the status quo will generate? Well, it will take hard work (and I don't mean clearing brush at a fake ranch in Texas) by those of us not blinded by the smokescreen of propaganda and the politicization of what, under other circumstances would be a straight forward, objective and apolitical issue. However, there are ways and means to convince people who are skeptical of climate science that they skepticism is unwarranted, and for those of you who missed it, those methods are described quite nicely in ercf's splendid diary Why debunking so often fails. That diary provides everyone with a process to avoid the pitfalls so many of us fall into when we attempt to change the minds of those who either reject humanity's contribution to global climate change or are too confused by the mountains of denialist disinformation to know who to believe on the subject.
Why should you bother convincing people who think the pundits at Fox News ---propagandists who daily lambaste environmentalists and climate scientists as bleeding heart tree-huggers, Gaia worshipers, junk science whackos and/or greedy bastards sucking up government grant money to make themselves and Al Gore rich -- are the only fountain of truth left in America, and Exxon, et alia, have our best interests at heart, that they have it all wrong about the science of climate change? It's simple. We are not Copernicus. We simply can't afford to wait 200 years for climate science to be accepted by the masses this time.