Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day

Wisconsin has a special connection to Earth Day, which was started in 1970 by Senator and former Wisconsin Governor Gaylord Nelson. One of the more interesting pieces I’ve read about this year’s Earth Day (which is today) was put together for Isthmus by Rob Zaleski, who for years wrote for the Capital Times.

Zaleski’s piece is well-researched and full of quotes from the new generation of environmental scientists at the UW. The gist of it is, there’s hope. In fact, the title of the piece is “Hope For The Planet”.

But, predictably, 12 words into the piece, Zaleski cites Al Gore’s Powerpoint-presentation-made-into-a-movie, “An Inconvenient Truth”, which has been picked apart by scores of scientists who have no axe to grind. Zaleski reminds us that Gore’s Powerpoint won an Oscar, as if to lend some credibility to the presentation.

Let’s talk about “science” and “consensus” for a moment.

In the mid-1800’s, the predominant theory about post-surgical infections was that they were caused by “a mystery gas in the air”. I’m NOT making this up. Along came a Glasgow surgeon named Joseph Lister, who theorized that post-surgical infections were caused by microscopic things called “bacteria”. The consensus of surgeons and scientists was that Lister was off his rocker. Lister sterilized his operating room and instruments with carbolic acid - the first person ever to do so - and suddenly, the hospital, which at that time was a place to die, became a place to be saved.

In the 1930’s, just as the Third Reich was rolling strong in Germany, a hundred German scientists signed a letter against Albert Einstein, proclaiming that his “theory of relativity” was a Jewish hoax. Consensus. (Einstein, by the way, said “if what they are saying were true, one signature would have been enough”.)

Science is not about consensus, whether it’s science about the environment, science about bacteria and infections, or science about time and space.

Al Gore, who is a politician, knows a lot about consensus, since much of politics is about consensus. So when he, and anyone else for that matter, talks about “the consensus of scientists” about global warming, it’s a political construct. It’s not science. Science is about objective truth and reproducible results.

In case after case of people like Albert Einstein and Joseph Lister and scores of other scientists, their names are household words precisely because they broke with consensus.
It would be too snarky even for me to question global warming in light of yesterday’s snow and the past month of below-average temperatures. I don’t have much faith in meteorologists and their ability to actually predict the weather, since they’re wrong so often.

But please don’t tell me that “consensus” has anything to do with truth, inconvenient or not.



    Yes, Earth Day, the celebration of an 160,000 year failed ecological experiment involving the journey of man.
    For some fun check out the tag above.

  2. I concour that in coming to grips with truth or its sometimes weird cousin, scientific fact, consensus can be as deceitful as faith. Luckily it is not necessary for us to ascertain the truthiness of the Gore assertions. Climate change, for whatever reason, is clearly happening and the facts or truths about why are ultimately irrelevant. Attempting to resolve the why of it to everyone's satisfaction can only distract and will ultimately trip us up. If we were to embrace Professor Gore's teachings and busily set about cleaning up our environmental act, what is the worst that could happen? We might well end up with a cleaner world less dependent on setting hydrocarbons afire to power the engines of commerce. And maybe as byproducts of that effort we would foster the creation of some new jobs and even whole industries. Personally I'd be OK with that outcome.