Revolutionary Ideas

Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin, Carson and Hansen. Most readers will recognize the first three names. A little head scratching might drag up Rachel Carson. But not many people will know that last name. Read on to find out the identity of the last individual, and what these five people have in common.

Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543)
When Copernicus was in his early forties, around 1514, he had a revolutionary idea. From his astronomical observations, he deduced that the sun, not the earth, was stationary, and that the earth and the other planets rotated around the sun. Copernicus was a cautious man, and he knew that such heretical ideas would be attacked by the Church. Scripture made it clear that the earth was the center of the Universe, and the sun and all other celestial bodies rotated around the earth. Copernicus wrote an initial outline of his ideas, but made only a few copies which he gave to close friends. He resisted publishing the completed work, “De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium” (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres). It was not published until 1543, the year of his death.

Copernicus was not persecuted for his heretical beliefs during his lifetime. His work was known, and even encouraged by the Pope and others in the Catholic Church. It was only after his death that some attackers became bold enough to denounce his work. Initially, it was the Protestants. Phillip Melanchthon, a close friend of Martin Luther wrote:

“Some people believe that it is excellent and correct to work out a thing as absurd as did that astronomer who moves the earth and stops the sun. Indeed, wise rulers should have curbed such light-mindedness.”

Sixty years later in 1616 the Catholic Church issued a decree suspending the publication of Copernicus’ work until it could be “corrected,” on the grounds that the idea that the earth moves and the sun does not was “false and altogether opposed to Holy Scripture.” They also prohibited any work that defended Copernicus’ ideas, or attempted to reconcile them with Scripture.

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)
By the time the Church had repudiated Copernicus’ ideas, Galileo was busily making observations with his new telescope. He saw immediately that Copernicus was right, and, unlike Copernicus, he wasn’t cautious about spreading his findings. That didn’t please the Church authorities. His courage was unwise. A few years earlier a famous and respected mathematician and astronomer, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for expressing similar ideas. Eventually, Galileo was brought before the Inquisition. Initially he was found innocent, but his controversial writings on the subject continued, and eventually got him in more serious trouble with the Church late in his life. Ailing, in poor health and threatened with torture, he capitulated and confessed that he had been wrong to say that the earth circles the sun. He was kept under house arrest for the rest of his life. The Church did not lift the ban on Galileo’s writings until almost two hundred years later, in 1822. A hundred and seventy years after that, in 1992, the Catholic Church finally cleared Galileo of any wrongdoing.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882)
Darwin first got the idea of evolution by natural selection when he was on his Beagle expedition in 1831. It was nearly thirty years later, in 1859, when he finally got around to publishing “On the Origin of the Species.” Why did he delay publication for so long? Like Copernicus, he probably feared the anger and ridicule he would have to endure. By that time, persecution and torture of individuals with heretical ideas had passed, but there were still plenty of critics. Some argued with the details of evolutionary theory, but the devoutly religious rejected it outright, as a contradiction of Genesis. Some even claimed that Darwin was insane. After his death, the attacks continued, as they do to this day. Nevertheless, Darwin has been vindicated as scientists have gradually accumulated a formidable mass of evidence, filling in the “gaps” in the evolutionary process with the discovery of transitional fossils and forms, and correcting some of Darwin’s errors. Today, Darwin is revered as a visionary by all but the most fanatically devout. But it wasn’t that way during his lifetime. One of Darwin’s early opponents was the Harvard naturalist Louis Agassiz who dismissed his theory as “a scientific mistake, untrue in its facts, unscientific in its method, and mischievous in its tendency”. An article in the Quarterly Review of July 1860 called Darwin a flighty man who had written an “utterly rotten fabric of guess and speculation.”

Rachel Carson (1907-1964)
Rachel Carson also had a revolutionary idea. Her nature studies had convinced her that growing pesticide use was threatening the entire web of life…including humans. When her book, “Silent Spring” was published in 1960, the author was well aware that it would unleash a massive attack from giant chemical corporations. Her fears were well-founded.

From a Web bio: “Industry’s attack on Rachel Carson was swift and vicious. The chemical companies banded together and hired a public relations firm to malign the book and attack Carson’s credibility. The pesticide industry trade group, the National Agricultural Chemicals Association, spent over $250,000 (equivalent to $1.4 million today) to denigrate the book and its author. The company that manufactured and sold the pesticides chlordane and heptachlor, the Velsicol Chemical Company of Chicago, threatened to sue Houghton Mifflin, the publisher of the book.”

Both New Yorker and Audubon magazines were threatened with lawsuits if they didn’t stop publishing excerpts from the book. To their credit, they refused to do so.

In the end, Carson was vindicated because her conclusions proved to be correct…as did the findings of Copernicus, Galileo and Darwin.

James Hansen (1941 – )
James Hansen heads the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City, a part of the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, Earth Sciences Division. He has held this position since 1981. He is also an adjunct professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University. An impressive portfolio. Yet many people, some of them scientists, call him a “scam artist” and a “fraud.”

Hansen was the first prominent climate scientist to identify the threat of global warming back in 1988. Since then, the attacks on him have been virulent and unrelenting. They come from politicians, bloggers, TV personalities (like Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh) and from other scientists, some of whom have been shown to be receiving funding from the fossil fuel energy industry. The attacks in the mainstream media (MSM) on global warming, on Hansen personally, and on any other scientists who support his views have been devastatingly effective. National polls have shown that the public is gradually becoming more skeptical of the threat of global warming. Rachel Carson had it easy compared to what Hansen is going through. Here are a few examples of the many attacks on Hansen:

“I’ll Say It Again: James Hansen Is a Fraud and a Liar.” – Bill Hennessy
“Global Warming: Survival of a Junk Scientist (James Hansen)” – Roger F. Gay
Rush Limbaugh called the science of climate change “fraudulent.” Limbaugh went on to accuse Hansen of being “dishonest,” compared him to a “CIA double agent,” and said he should be “drummed out of NASA.”

I will not argue the issue of global warming here. It’s the rancor of this debate that I find interesting…and appalling. Scientific research is often a contentious process, with competing theories slugging it out in scientific journals and on the lecture circuit. That’s just healthy discourse…the Scientific Method in action. That is not what is happening in the global warming “debate.” Rather than a debate, it seems to be a contest to see who can come up with the most outrageous insults for proponents of global warming and who can grab the most headlines to broadcast their insults.

Maybe it’s because the stakes are so high. A lot of huge companies have billions of dollars at stake. Government actions could affect their earnings, even the survival of their business. The resulting fear and rage have moved the whole issue from one of scientific research to the political arena (obviously, or the likes of Limbaugh and Beck would not be involved).

By now the point of this should be obvious: Revolutionary ideas are opposed by people in power who have a vested interest in the status quo. Persecution, ridicule, character assassination, distortion and lies…anything that demeans or discredits the idea and/or its proponent(s) is employed. The first three of my heroes were opposed mostly by religious authorities. In those early times, the Church was the primary arbiter of power, and even of life and death, so their opposition to ideas that threatened their position is not surprising. The last two were opposed by business and commercial interests, but the results were the same, and the tactics used against them (other than threats of torture and imprisonment) were similar. In every case, the facts backing up the revolutionary ideas were scant initially, and this was used to disparage them and ridicule their backers. For the first four of my subjects, history has proven them right.

In comparing Carson and Hansen, it’s clear that Rachel had an easier task. Widespread pesticide use was a recent phenomenon, and the resultant accumulations of poisons in the food chain were easily measured. Controlled experiments comparing the use and non-use of pesticides could be conducted. Hansen, on the other hand, is dealing with a complex and chaotic climate/weather system that is not well understood. Attempting to measure global average temperature is a huge and expensive task, fraught with errors. And of course, Hansen could hardly conduct controlled experiments. He only has one planet to work with.

Another interesting comparison: Darwin and Hansen. Both scientists had to deal with insufficient initial data with many “gaps” for critics to attack. There was widespread skepticism, even in scientific circles initially. For Darwin, the slow but steady accumulation of additional supporting evidence has resulted in the nearly universal acceptance of his theories today. Only the most fanatical “young earth” creationists deny the reality of evolution. Even the Catholic Church has acknowledged it.

Hansen’s theories are still in their infancy compared to Darwin’s. His theory is only about thirty years old. The judgment of history will have to wait awhile. As more evidence is collected, and we gain a better understanding of the immensely complex heat engine we call Earth, he will either be vindicated, or his theory will be dismissed along with all the other discarded scientific ideas.

There is one final point that needs to be made in comparing Darwin and Hansen. There was no urgency in the examination of Darwin’s theories. The world was not going to end tomorrow if Darwin was right or wrong. But if Hansen is correct, time is critical. The nonlinearities and “tipping points” that may be approaching could cause catastrophically large and rapid temperature changes that would threaten human populations, and possibly most other life on the planet. We need to resolve this issue quickly so that appropriate actions can be taken, if necessary, before it is too late.

In conclusion, I will offer this bit of advice to those who are observing the global warming slugfest: Think about the historical examples above when judging the criticisms of Hansen’s ideas. Ask yourself, “Is this normal scientific skepticism of a new and revolutionary idea?” The tone of the criticism should give you a clue. Does it contest facts and conclusions by offering contradictory data or different hypotheses, or does it seek to distract the discussion by resorting to insults and personal attacks? Another clue: Who is funding the broadcasting of the attacks?

And finally, don’t be distracted by emotional rhetoric, like the hysterical “climategate” claims. James Hansen and all the other scientists who are sounding the alarms may be wrong, or they may be right about the dangers of global warming, but there is no doubt that glaciers and icecaps are melting. That is a fact. I have seen it with my own eyes on repeated visits to Alaska, and in pictures of Glacier National Park in Montana, Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa and numerous other sites. Attacking the character of the scientists doing the research does not change those facts.

It goes without saying that the stakes are pretty high. The survival of the human race may depend on getting this right.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Bert Bigelow graduated from the University of Michigan engineering school, and then pursued a career in software design. He has always enjoyed writing, and since retirement, has produced short essays on many subjects. His main interests are in the areas of politics and religion, and the intersection of the two. Many of his writings are posted on his web site, bigelowbert.com. You can contact him at bigelowbert@aol.com.

2 thoughts on “Revolutionary Ideas

  1. This is an extension of the history of science into the 21st century. If our culture lasts long enough to look back on these times, Bert’s characterization of these events will prove to be accurate. Perhaps other scientists will come along to anticipate thresholds in transformation of the biosphere which, when reached, will bear out Hansen’s predictions.

    1. Who knows what the future holds for us. Maybe Hansen’s predictions will fail to materialize for completely unrelated reasons…like an asteroid impact or (shudder) a global nuclear war that renders the planet uninhabitable.

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