PoliSci: Galileo Galiperry

In the most recent Republican Presidential Candidate debate [1], moderator John Harris from Politico put candidate John Huntsman on the spot about his criticism of many fellow Republicans as “a bunch of cranks.” Harris then said,

HARRIS:  . . . You yourself have said the party is in danger of becoming anti- science. Who on this stage is anti-science?

Huntsman then responded:

HUNTSMAN: Listen, when you make comments that fly in the face of what 98 out of 100 climate scientists have said, when you call into question the science of evolution, all I’m saying is that, in order for the Republican Party to win, we can’t run from science.

In Huntsman’s other comments, he didn’t name any names. But afterward Harris turned to Governor Perry to confront him on his boldly anti-science statements.

HARRIS:  . . .  Governor Perry, Governor Huntsman were [sic] not specific about names, but the two of you do have a difference of opinion about climate change. Just recently in New Hampshire, you said that weekly and even daily scientists are coming forward to question the idea that human activity is behind climate change. Which scientists have you found most credible on this subject?

Perry then responded (I’ve removed text where he stumbled or stuttered in his response, but preserved entirely  the meaning of his response):

PERRY: Well, I do agree that . . .  the science . . . is not settled on this. The idea that we would put Americans’ economy at . . . jeopardy based on scientific theory that’s not settled yet, to me, is. . .  is nonsense . . . just because you have a group of scientists that have stood up and said here is the fact, Galileo got outvoted for a spell. . . . Find out what the science truly is before you start putting the American economy in jeopardy.

Harris then took Perry to task on his process of finding out the science:

HARRIS: Just to follow up quickly. Tell us how you’ve done that . . . Are there specific . . .  scientists or specific theories that you’ve found especially compelling . . . ?

Perry responded with a kind of half-answer, half policy statement, without really answering the question (he doesn’t name a single scientist):

PERRY: Let me tell you what I find compelling, is what we’ve done in the state of Texas, using our ability to regulate our clean air. We cleaned up our air in the state of Texas, more than any other state in the nation during the decade. Nitrous oxide levels, down by 57 percent. Ozone levels down by 27 percent. That’s the way you need to do it, not by some scientist somewhere saying, “Here is what we think is happening out there.” The fact of the matter is, the science is not settled on whether or not the climate change is being impacted by man to the point where we’re going to put America’s economics in jeopardy.

Perry is dead wrong on the science which is, in fact, completely clear:

  1. The average global temperature has risen about 1.0 degree Celsius since the mid-1800s. This is only an average. Some areas have risen more, some less. To put this in perspective, if your body temperature increased by about 1.0 degree Celsius you would be running a fever of 101F and would require medical attention. A 1.0 degree Celsius rise  is about the same as a 2 degree Fahrenheit increase in your body temperature from 98.6F. Temperature increases always have serious consequences, just as temperature decreases have serious consequences.
  2. CO2 has increased in concentration in the atmosphere since the mid-1800s, which coincides directly with the period when humans began using the high energy content of fossil fuels to power our industrial revolutions.
  3. The CO2 which has been added to the atmosphere has a nuclear fingerprint that tags it as having come from sequestered carbon sources, such as buried coal and oil deposits. Carbon from near the surface of the Earth has a different fingerprint. The amount of sequestered-carbon-based CO2 in the atmosphere is the primary component of CO2 which is increasing.
  4. CO2 is a greenhouse gas. Increased CO2 traps more heat and raises the temperature. This causes more water to enter the vapor state. Water vapor is a much stronger greenhouse gas. The added water vapor amplifies the warming effect of the CO2. More heating and more CO2 continues to add more water vapor to the air, further amplifying the warming.

What bothered me most about his response was his invocation of Galileo to defend his thinking. As an educator, and an armchair lover of science history, his complete ignorance of both science and science history was striking. Why invoke something you clearly don’t understand to defend your ignorance?

The one thing Perry has right is that Galileo was definitely going against the status quo. The science debate about whether or not the Earth was the center of the universe was not purely a science debate, however; it was informed in Europe by Biblical literalism, which meant that the common belief that the Earth was the center of the universe was the prevailing belief. However, that belief (like many others about the universe at the time) was held absent any actual data, or at least absent strong and convincing data.

Galileo was one of the first to turn the telescope to the sky and study astronomical bodies. What he observed became the first CONCLUSIVE evidence that the Earth could not possibly be the center of the universe. He saw the moons of Jupiter for the first time, and those moons clearly orbited Jupiter and NOT Earth. He studied the phases of Venus and interpreted their pattern to mean that Venus orbited the Sun, and not the Earth. If the moons of Jupiter and the planet Venus was not orbiting the Earth, why would the Sun or all the other stars be orbiting the Earth?

Galileo used a version of what we now call the scientific method. He gathered evidence. From this data he discerned that the hypothesis of a Sun-centered cosmology was a better explanation than the Earth-centered cosmology. He wrote up his findings in a book, the prevailing method of disseminating scientific evidence at the time. The book couldn’t be printed fast enough. His colleagues consumed his ideas, gathered more evidence, argued about the implications. But his method of argument, and his conclusions, angered the Pope. Galileo was dragged before the Inquisition, forced to confess, and then imprisoned in his house for the rest of his life.

Galileo used experimental methods to gather evidence, compared two hypotheses, and discerned that one was a much better explanation. Today’s practicing scientists use the same approach.

They gather data. Global land and sea temperature measurements overwhelmingly tell us the Earth has been warming at an increasing rate since the 1800s. That warming is in the lower atmosphere; the upper atmosphere (stratosphere) is cooler, telling us heat is trapped down here by the surface. They have measured CO2 levels and observe they have risen ahead of warming. They have measured the nuclear properties of the CO2 and learned that it came from carbon originally sequestered deep in the earth, rather than surface carbon.

The best hypothesis that explains all the data is human burning of originally sequestered fossil fuel, trapping more heat and warming the Earth. 98-99% of active climate researchers not only agree with this conclusion, they routinely use it to predict the outcome of climate disruptions across the Earth. Those researchers are the descendants of Galileo, using science to understand the world.

People like Rick Perry don’t understand science, and they certainly do not practice it. They think that when people put their ideas on the internet, YouTube, or in a self-published book that this amounts to science. It does not. Skepticism without reference to actual data is not actual skepticism; it’s denialism.

Certainly, Perry or the “scientists” he did not name and who deny climate change are not Galileos. They are Inquisitors, lacking an understanding of science as a means to understand the natural world. They stand in judgment of scientists. They try to poison the public against scientists and the scientific method, and when they fail they try to redefine science. But like the Pope and the Inquisitors, all that will be remembered is that they stood against the truth, and fell before it.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/08/us/politics/08republican-debate-text.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all