Friday, 9 September 2011

Rick Perry and Galileo: BFFs?

With the impending doom that is the Republican presidential nomination looming ominously on the horizon, Wednesday was the night of the latest debate between the Republican candidates. On the list of talking points was the inevitable question about global warming. Denying global warming is de rigueur in the Republican party these days, so it wasn't surprising that, with the exception of Huntsman, the idea of anthropogenic climate change was scoffed at across the board. It was Rick Perry, though, that did manage to raise some eyebrows when he delivered this gem:
"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 just 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."
Oh, Rick, you silly man. How art thou wrong? Let me count the ways:

1) The science is settled on the issue. Anthropogenic climate change is a reality, one that is accepted by the vast majority of scientists. Some of the exact particulars of the issue are currently under debate - long-term climate projections for the future, the extent to which particular pollutants have contributed, etc - but these are not the things that Perry claims are unsettled. It is the mere existence of anthropogenic climate change that Perry denies, and as far as science is concerned, that issue most certainly is settled.

2) Galileo was not "outvoted". Perhaps this was just a bad choice of words on Perry's behalf, but I fear that it indicates a deeper misunderstanding of how science works. Scientific debates are not settled by a vote. Scientists are not polled for their opinions and the ideas of the majority put forward as the scientific reality. The "truth" is not determined by popular vote, but by careful and critical consideration of the evidence. I'd like to think that Perry realizes this, but given the anti-science attitude that he and many others in the Republican party display, I'm not so sure that he does.

3) Does Perry not realize that Galileo's ideas were not suppressed by the scientific community, but rather, by the Church? Perhaps, as a religious conservative himself, Perry has chosen to overlook this fact. Galileo's case does not parallel the criticisms against climate change denialists. Galileo did not meet resistance from the scientific community, for one. The heliocentric model was supported by a large number of Galileo's contemporaries, including Copernicus (who was the father of modern heliocentrism!), Johannes Kepler, and to some extent Tycho Brahe (who had posited his own heliocentric model of the solar system). The condemnation of heliocentrism came from outside the scientific community. It raised the ire of the religious community (much like the concept of global warming does today!). Compare this to climate change. Climate change "skeptics" do not form a large portion of the current scientific community and are largely found on the fringes of science and often in disciplines unrelated to climate change. They are criticized by the scientific community itself, and this in no way parallels the persecution experienced by Galileo.

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