You're no Galileo

You all know about Godwin's Law - first person to introduce Hitler into a thread loses the argument. Well, I'm about to invent a new law, let's call it (oh, I don't know, do you really think so? all right then) Horton's Law. Very similar idea, different hero - first climate change denialist to claim Galileo as a hero in a thread loses the argument.

I was going to use Einstein, because I came across Albert being used as a substitute Galileo the other day. It was the usual kind of discussion in which the rationalists were suggesting that listening to climatologists was probably a better path to enlightenment than listening to unqualified shock jocks or anonymous, and unqualified, bloggers on denialist sites. Came the answer - "What about self-taught geniuses - like that guy from the swiss patent office who invented ... relativity ?"

See how clever that is? Einstein was unqualified, self taught, and yet he overturned the whole establishment of physics. So, your average Joe, working in patent office, or plumber's shop, is potentially able to fluke an answer that has eluded all the climatologists (might also win a big lottery too, while he's at it, no qualifications needed, just gotta be in it to win it).

And the second lesson, implicit in this one, usually explicit when Galileo (Horton's Law, remember) is being used, is of the lone hero, misunderstood and abused, standing alone against the establishment, the forces of evil. Knowing the truth, and single-handedly battling to have his voice heard, have the received wisdom overturned, cause a paradigm shift. In the end beaten down by an oppressive religion and forced to recant, but still, in one last gesture of defiance, one last nod to the posterity that will vindicate him, sadly posthumously, manages to whisper out of the corner of his mouth "Nevertheless it moves".

For the climate change denialist there are a number of Galileos, according to personal preference - Richard Lindzen, Ian Plimer, Anthony Watts, Bob Carter, Christopher Monckton, Tom Cobley. One day, just like Galileo, they will be accorded the recognition they deserve for saving the world from solar panels and the socialist one world government, but meanwhile they battle on, misunderstood and ridiculed, while whispering, from the corner of the mouth, "nevertheless it does not warm".

Now as you might expect from the denialist industry, this kind of mythologizing is a total inversion of reality, like confusing the Arctic with the Antarctic. What was going on between 400 and 500 years ago was a revolution in scientific ideas about the nature of the universe. Beginning with Copernicus, who was a rebel with a cause, the Galileo of his day, and then through Kepler and Galileo, these three scientists overturned the accepted wisdom of Ptolemy (the Sun travelling around the Earth), and the religious establishment that accepted the Ptolemaic universe because it fitted scriptures and the common sense view of the world.

Twenty years ago, the equivalent accepted wisdom, fitting both commonsense and the scriptures, was that the climate of the Earth in the recent past and near future was constant. That humans had a right to do whatever they wished to the planet, having been given dominion over it by god, and, whatever they chose to do, they could never have any effect on the climate. This commonsense view, that there would always be an Arctic, with polar bears; wheat grown in southern Australia; coral reefs flourishing everywhere, would have been held by pretty much everyone. A few geologists would have pointed out that in the longer term climates change, but the response from the man in the street would have been, well, in the longer term we are all dead, worrying about the climate changing some time in the future is like worrying about the Sun burning out.

The Galileo, or Copernicus, of our day was James Hansen. Hansen saw that the climate not only could, but would, change rapidly as a result of human actions and that the change had in fact begun. No one took any more notice of him than they did when Copernicus said the Earth went round the Sun. He was pretty much ignored and then scorned and abused. But, just as Kepler and Galileo, and later others, made observations that established the reality of the Copernican nature of the universe, gradually accumulating so much evidence that science, public opinion, and the church, were forced to accept it; so have other scientists in all the disciplines established the reality of Hansen's hypothesis. James Hansen has been spectacularly vindicated, and he didn't even have to die first!

So next time you are on a thread where some denialist claims to be the new Galileo (or Copernicus), say "I knew Galileo Galilei, Galileo Galilei was a friend of mine, and you, Sir, are no Galileo Galilei."

Then point out that James Hansen is the new Copernicus.

And invoke Horton's Law.

Plenty more questioning of received wisdom on The Watermelon Blog