Jewish World Review August 25, 2011 / 25 Menachem-Av, 5771
The tyranny of scientific consensus
By Jay Ambrose
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | Albert Einstein, a genius who altered our understanding of the universe, could be as harsh on new ideas as Pope Urban VIII in cracking down on Galileo and simultaneously protecting establishment science.
Einstein's retaliatory behavior serving the mistaken status quo, which I learned about in Simon Singh's outstanding book, "Big Bang," is relevant today for its lesson that consensus can too readily beat up on innovative possibilities.
Though almost universally embraced, Einstein's general relativity theory had a problem, namely that it hinted at a calamitous crash of everything someday, and so he imagined a "cosmological principle" buttressing the scientific consensus of an eternal, stable universe. Hurrah, most scientists said.
A couple of others saw it differently, concluding the universe was expanding. The venerated Einstein, once a dissenter himself, was abusive. To one, he said your math is OK but your physics deplorable. Because of the criticism and establishment resolve, Georges Lemaitre, a Belgian cleric, quit advancing his big bang theory, which, of course, is the establishment theory today, as is the theory of an expanding universe.
Look in now on Galileo, the Renaissance genius whose penetrating insights included one proposed by two brilliant predecessors -- that the Earth was circling the sun instead of vice versa.
Here, too, was an idea challenging a scientific consensus that also happened to be religiously comfortable. Especially given Galileo's simultaneous theological forays, a pope told him to quit advocating it, an online article reminds us. When that pope died, a curious, open-minded friend of Galileo's assumed the position and told him he could write a book examining both sides of the question if he did not hoot it up for a circling Earth and made clear the pope favored a circling sun.
Galileo in fact made clear where he stood while portraying the pope as a goofus. Urban VIII agreed to a trial, but it does not follow that the Catholic Church was trying to nix science. Notwithstanding opposite contentions, convincing arguments show the church believed in science and had made it known that understanding of scripture could be revised in the face of proven theses. At the time, the majority of scientists were offering up logical reasons to debate Galileo's proposition, though that hardly excuses harassment.
In the end, seven of 10 cardinals voted that Galileo's actions suggested heresy and sentenced him to prison, although this was quickly changed to house arrest. Galileo lived a long, easy life and put out new, important papers though told not to. While he was less easily intimidated than Lemaitre, it is noted that that in removing the earth from the center of the universe, he made a major mistake. He conferred that honor on the sun.
One science historian has said old theories don't die until old scientists die, and you figure it could be a long wait when reading that 97 percent of certain climate experts believe in global warming and media colleagues announce the debate is over. But hold on -- the study showed these scientists believed the planet is indeed warming and that human activity had something to do with it, which is what many of the skeptics also believe.
The chief issue is whether a catastrophe will result and we should spend trillions to prevent it, and the answer is that many alert scientists doubt it based on data, a ton of scientific questions, simulation failures and demonstrations that the wrong government program could do far more damage than good.
Some scientists, paying close heed to their radical environmentalist religion, have gone on record as saying exaggerations are OK to stir the public. Contrary to them, countless lives have been lost because of exaggerations, such as overreaching on DDT.
Quite a few of the eco religionists out there would make an apologetic Einstein and Pope Urban VIII blush. James Hansen of NASA said CEOs fighting his warming theories should be tried for crimes against humanity. I don't think the punishment he favored was house arrest.
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Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado.
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