Important lessons we can learn from history

I am thankful that Jim shared his thoughts about “The Mix of Propaganda and Predictions”. It was an interesting read, but I think he missed something with the example he selected. Hanlon’s Razor should have been employed: “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”.

Why is this important? Well, using the issue of climate change as Jim does, he correctly lists a series of predictions from 1970 onwards. The problem is, he attributes them to propaganda rather than stupidity. In the 1970’s, scientists did believe that the earth was cooling; this was an empirical fact according to the measurements taken. At the time, many prestigious institutions agreed and supported this, stating that by 2020 a new Ice Age was likely to occur in Europe. Now, step forward a good old enemy of science… bias. For somewhat obvious reasons, the most reputable universities in the world are in Europe and the US, (populations don’t worry too much about building universities unless they reach a certain level of economic development). Both Europe and the US are in the northern hemisphere, and a similar study conducted in New Zealand managed to empirically prove the exact opposite of the cooling story; the atmosphere was warming.

How can the earth be both cooling and warming simultaneously? Simple, there was another factor in the atmosphere which was unaccounted for: smoke. It was subsequently discovered that smoke particles in the atmosphere,which were vastly more present in the US and Europe due to industrial development, repelled more heat than greenhouse gasses contained. Therefore, both studies were correct to indicate in the northern hemisphere that the temperature was decreasing, whilst in the southern half it was increasing.

This whole issue of the earth cooling was therefore stupidity rather than malice. With the various clean air rules enacted over Europe and the US, (removing the smoke from the air), the observations changed in the northern hemisphere, therefore, the atmosphere was warming.

We arrive in the present day with the phrase “trust the science”, (the most anti-scientific statement that anyone can utter, although possibly beaten by “the science is settled”). Indeed, I would say “the science”, is the fastest growing religious cult in the world. As soon as we enter this mindset of “the science is settled”, or “trust the science”, we close our mind to the possibility we are wrong. We look back on the Victorians, Middle Ages or the ancient world, and think, “how could these people be so stupid believing X, Y or Z”? Do we really think future generations won’t look back and not say the same about us?

Remember, in 1608 the science was settled; the Earth was the centre of the universe. Even in 1616, the idea that the earth was not the centre of the universe was “foolish and absurd”, despite being correct. Note: The heliocentric model proposed by Galileo was incorrect, because the Sun itself is not the centre of the universe. However, it is fair to say, his theory is more correct than stating the earth is the centre of the universe; the idea that the earth orbits the sun was correct.

The scientific method has given us a wonderful ability to test specific claims, and prove truths about the universe we inhabit. It was true that the air temperatures were cooling in the 1970s, but we can never assume that it tells us everything. We should do what we can to make our world a better place, that means using science to guide us, but not following it as a cult. After all, we should all remember the motto of the Royal Society, the oldest continuously existing scientific academy in the world. Their motto is: Nullius in verba – Take nobody’s word for it.

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