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Copernicus and Arrhenius: Physics Then and Physics Today

Filed under: — eric @ 21 December 2011

There was a really interesting article in Physics Today this past October on the parallels between the slow acceptance of the idea of anthropogenic climate change and of the idea that the earth circles the sun.

Author Steven Sherwood writes that:

“Many who are unwilling to accept the full brunt of greenhouse warming have embraced a more comforting compromise reminiscent of the Tychonic system*: that CO2 has some role in climate but its importance is being exaggerated. But accepting a nonzero warming effect puts one on a slippery slope: Once acknowledged, the effect must be quantified, and every legitimate method for doing so yields a significant magnitude. As the evidence sinks in, we can expect a continued, if slow, drift to full acceptance. It took both Copernicanism and greenhouse warming roughly a century to go from initial proposal to broad acceptance by the relevant scientific communities. It remains to be seen how long it will take greenhouse warming to achieve a clear public consensus; one hopes it will not take another century.”

A really important point is that what Sherwood is talking about here is not about acceptance of anthropogenic greenhouse warming within the scientific community — that acceptance has already happened — but amongst the general public. Of course, the analogy with Copernicus is still a good one, because it did take some time for understanding of the greenhouse idea to really take hold within the scientific community. Indeed, it has only been in the last year that the American Physical Society (APS) has considered climate change a central-enough topic to deem it worthy to start a climate change ‘topical group’. (The APS topical groups are formal, structured discussion groups that have to be approved by APS. Note for those that might think politics might have played a role in slowing things down: this most certainly isn’t the case. The APS leadership is simply very conservative about what is deemed central enough to Physics to approve a topical discussion group; for example, a colleague of mine spent several years trying to convince APS to support such a group on Quantum Information. That climate change is now an APS focus group topic makes a strong statement, but not a political one: it simply reflects the maturity of the field. Members of APS that are interested in climate should consider joining; there are bound to be some very interesting discussions in areas such as radiative transfer and atmospheric dynamics.)

Sherwood’s article deserves to be widely read. It is freely available on the Physics Today web site.

For more on the history of of the development of the greenhouse idea within the physics community, our own Ray Pierrehumbert’s article in Physics Today (pdf) is also a very worthwhile read.

*Tycho accepted the evidence that the other planets orbit the sun, but tried to come up with a way to still keep the sun orbiting the earth.

107 Responses to “Copernicus and Arrhenius: Physics Then and Physics Today

  1. 1
    Russell says:

    The third contingency is that it is important and that its importance is being exaggerated as well.

    As to eliding scientific and political conservatism, recall that some religious conservatives are too preoccupied with metaphysics to think about science ate all:

  2. 2
    Paul from VA says:

    On reading that article, I can’t help but notice the intriguing similarity between the Ptolemeic solar system and the obsession with finding “natural cycles” to explain the recent temperature history of the Earth such as those referenced 2 articles ago on this very site. The Ptolemeic system’s calculations were, essentially, the fitting of several different superimposed perfect cycles without a physical basis. While Ptolemy’s cycles produced some useful results (which is more than can be said for the most recent contrarian forays into climastrology), in the end they were of poor accuracy. Similarly, modern fourier analysis will happily model any given system (including global temperature) as a series of perfect cycles. However, both Ptolemeic astronomical predictions and cyclical fits to the climate inherently fail because their predictions are not based on physical sources of the cycles, but on the siren call of the beauty of cycles for cycles sake.

    [Response: Very interesting and correct point. I’ve been meaning to do a post on this, and will, at some point -eric]

  3. 3
    Ray Ladbury says:

    I remember well doing battle with the stupid in the comments on that article. Steve’s article was pretty good. Some of the comments were weapons-grade stupid. How the numbskulls could find Physics Today’s site and still be that ignorant of physics remains one of the great unsolved mysteries.

  4. 4
    Steve says:

    The history behind the APS Topical Group on the Physics of Climate is a bit more complicated than one might imagine. In 2007 the APS Council adopted an official policy statement on climate:

    Emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities are changing the atmosphere in ways that affect the Earth’s climate. Greenhouse gases include carbon dioxide as well as methane, nitrous oxide and other gases. They are emitted from fossil fuel combustion and a range of industrial and agricultural processes.
    The evidence is incontrovertible: Global warming is occurring.
    If no mitigating actions are taken, significant disruptions in the Earth’s physical and ecological systems, social systems, security and human health are likely to occur. We must reduce emissions of greenhouse gases beginning now.
    Because the complexity of the climate makes accurate prediction difficult, the APS urges an enhanced effort to understand the effects of human activity on the Earth’s climate, and to provide the technological options for meeting the climate challenge in the near and longer terms. The APS also urges governments, universities, national laboratories and its membership to support policies and actions that will reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.

    Although this was very similar to other professional society statements (such as the AGU statement) a small group of skeptics within the Council and the Society started an effort to modify/soften/revoke the statement. After much input from members, a “commentary” was added in 2010 (see, which effectively reaffirmed the statement although it back-handedly impugned the use of the word “incontrovertible” (even though this referred to warming, not cause attribution).

    Given the significant interest shown by members in this issue, the idea of the topical group was spawned. APS topical groups can always be formed when there is enough interest from members – this process just confirmed that fact.

  5. 5
    observer says:

    It looks like some research is needed. That article states “Copernicus’s calculations surpassed all others in their ability to describe the observed courses of the planets, and they were based on a far simpler conception. ”

    That’s not what I recall. Wikipedia (that “highly reliable font of wisdom”) says “The Copernican system was no more accurate than Ptolemy’s system, because it still used circular orbits. This was not altered until Johannes Kepler postulated that they were elliptical (Kepler’s first law of planetary motion).”

    That fits my recollection of the history. Again, according to Wikipedia, Copernicus published in about 1543. Keppler published his most influential work in about 1620. So, it took awhile to get from the idea of a non-geocentric universe to the more modern heliocentric solar system and to get a theory that gave more accurate answers than the Ptolemy’s models.

    The author of this piece also seems to be a little weak on his physics. He writes “It was easy for those not wishing to accept Copernicus’s insight to devise persuasive counterarguments against it. For example, in 1597 one prominent commentator declared that a moving Earth would “see cities and fortresses, towns and mountains thrown down,” and that “neither an arrow shot straight up, nor a stone dropped . . . would fall perpendicularly.”2 Those arguments would not fly today because nearly everyone has experiential knowledge, from riding in cars and airplanes, of what are now called the Galilean principles of invariance. ”

    Well, rather than not flying,those arguments provide confirmation of the theory today—as they match empirical observation. The Paris Gun of WWI fired projectiles as far as about 80 miles and they were in flight for about 3 minutes. The Germans adjusted the aim point to account for the rotation of the earth during those three minutes. Calculating quickly and probably inaccurately, I think Paris would move about 30 km during those 3 minutes although the aim point would not shift that much. The problem for defenders of the Copernican theory was that they could not shoot an arrow high enough to see the effect. But, the Germans could. Now, if the defenders of the Copernican theory had known to build a Foucault pendulum they could have seen the effect of rotation in a relatively small system.

    Galilean relativity does not apply to accelerating systems—like the rotating earth. The earths rotation is slow (2 Pi radians/day) so it’s hard to see the effects. But, they are there.

    [Response: All fair points (but they don’t detract from the thesis)–eric]

  6. 6
    Romain says:

    Interesting article, I remember discussing this on Realclimate some 2 years ago.

    About relativity, the article suggests there was no scientific concensus before 1970…(see the timeline figure 4)
    I understand the theory was not really used/assimilated before the 60s and the “Golden age of general relativity”, but does that mean there still were some strong debate about it until then?
    I thought the eclipse of 1919 (plus the Mercury orbit before that) kind of ended the debates.

    [Response: I’m not an expert in this but my strong impression is that general relativity was very well accepted by anyone that understood it very quickly, and certainly by 1919. That it took most other scientists some decades is quite believable — and simply reflects the very conservative nature of science.–eric]

  7. 7
    Karen Street says:

    It’s not because the science is so revolutionary, a la the heliocentrists and Einstein:

    From Physics Today:
    “The current theory of global climate change is hardly elegant or scientifically revolutionary, and in that respect it seems like no bedfellow to the others. Its prominence comes from its implications for the sustainability of current Western consumption patterns, not from reshaping physics; its many contributors would not claim to be Einsteins. What it shares with the others, however, is its origin in the worked-out consequences of evident physical principles rather than direct observation. That sort of bottom-up deduction is valued by physics perhaps more than by any other science.”

  8. 8
    Lynn Vincentnathan says:

    The ancients’s “science” was based on best observations and theories to date – the earth is not perceptibly moving (except during earthquakes), and the sun comes up in the east & sets in the west, and brings heat. What else moves across the sky. Birds. The sun is a firebird (Chinese myth). Pretty good.

    Millennia later when the heliocentric model became more apparent, I think there was fear that because all the ancient books & bibles were written from a geocentric world view, people might throw out religion and its morality along with this old ancient geocentric “science.” Also heliocentrism displaces our symbolic self, earth, and threatens our ego.

    Same with evolution.

    The problem with anthropogenic climate change is that it not only threatens our ego and self-righteous image, but (according to many denialists and their great fear) our way of life, our world view of an ever increasing pie, and progress being our most important product. It means we have to conscientiously think about what we do, and reduce our GHGs, when we’d rather be getting on with our regularly scheduled lives and fun.

    That’s much more serious than being decentered or having apes and slime as our relatives & stardust cruising our veins.

    Just read an article about how events that stir up thoughts of distal death threats (as with climate change) make people who have self-esteem issues go into denial, when logically these events should prompt people to address and mitigate the threats: Dickinson, J.L., 2009. “The People Paradox: Self-Esteem Striving, Immortality Ideologies, and Human Response to Climate Change.” Ecology and Society 14.1:34-50.

  9. 9
    Elbereth says:

    I’d say I’m one of those Tyconic AGW supporters. I’m against coal power for CO2 and other reasons, but I don’t see any practical alternatives to gas powered cars in the next decade.

    It all comes down to cost/benefit ratios, really. We can replace coal with nuclear without raising electric rates significantly, and cut CO2 emissions in America by 40% without significant disruption to our society, but there’s simply no easy way to replace gas in cars yet.

  10. 10
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Isotopious, well given that the Ptolemaic model was sustained by fraud and falsification of data, I’d say it’s an excellent analogy.

  11. 11
    Jack says:

    Arrhenius would have loved to see this, as a projection of his work.

  12. 12
    Hank Roberts says:

    > does that mean there still were some strong debate

    Debates keep happening long after the science quiets down.
    Check any blog for current examples.

    “It’s arguable” doesn’t mean it’s an interesting scientific question.
    Likely quite not.

  13. 13
    Kooiti Masuda says:

    In 1932, a Japanese novelist took the motif of Arrhenius:
    – Higher concentration of CO2 will make the climate warmer.
    He combined it with two other facts.
    – Volcanoes emit CO2.
    – In northern Japan, rice yield is better in warmer years (among interannual variability in the 20th century).
    So, the story went into geo-engineering, to induce a volcanic eruption, in order to achieve global warming.
    My more specific description of the story is here.

  14. 14
    Knut Witberg says:

    Paul from VA writes: “…the obsession with finding “natural cycles” to explain the recent temperature history of the Earth”

    It should be noted that we are in fact using “natural cycles” in several cases without noticeable opposition, notably in the computation of ocean tides. Computations of the tide based directly on our knowledge of physics are since long seen as impossible to do in practice. Yet we have excellent tide tables based on natural cycles.

    I believe that it would be wrong to condemn natural cycles as unacceptable because it is not based directly on physics. After all climate science is not a religion, and it’s importance is heavily dependent on its ability to produce reliable predictions.

    Statistical methods can be used to test hypotheses involving natural cycles. I agree that in the case of climate science with all its complexity, natural cycles that are not based on solid science is a risky business, but such methods may still prove useful.

    If an approach involving natural cycles is to be abandoned, the reason should be that it is proven to be useless and not because it is not directly based on our physical science.

    [Response: Yes, of course. Using periodic functions to gain understanding about the underlying structure of a time series is obviously useful, and has often led to important discoveries. But all time series can be expressed as a sum of periodic functions; that’s the . What’s being objected to here is the misplaced use of that theorem to make claims about physical mechanisms driving climate that are either very weak (e.g. the Gleissberg cycle), irrelevant (the orbit of pluto, say), or non-existent.–eric]

  15. 15
    William Tarver says:

    Elbereth, try googling “oil from algae” and you’ll find several promising avenues of research. The US Navy is, apparently, very interested.

  16. 16
    wili says:

    William, yes, lot’s of promising avenues of research, but nothing remotely scalable to produce anything more than a small percentage of a small percentage of current demand.

    What we need is far less demand. Most gasoline is wasted on discretionary driving, trips that could be made by other means, or trips that could fairly easily be carpooled. And, of course, our current auto/truck fleet is still enormously inefficient.

    What we really need to do, of course, is stop un-sequestering any more carbon, and use the best techniques of extracting oil from algae to re-insert this high-carbon stuff back into the ground. That is still not what anyone is talking about at this point, as far as I can see.

  17. 17
    James Albinson says:

    In Re 14: The point about using Fourier series analysis for ocean tides is that we have many, many cycles of data; indeed multiples of the 18.6 year Saros cycle (and others) on which to base the calculations. It is a fair use of the method to predict a year or so ahead, say 1% or so of the dataset available. Even then, weather fluctuations muddy the waters, to coin a pun. The same is NOT true of climate change to anything like the same extent.

  18. 18
    James Albinson says:

    In re 14: The point about tidal predictions is that we have many, many cycles of data on which to base the calculations. We do NOT have that for *climate*. Even then, weather can disrupt the tide predictions.
    The Recapcha crap is making it really difficult to post replies. This will by my last comment, if it succeeds.

  19. 19
    muoncounter says:

    Knut Wilberg: “we are in fact using “natural cycles” in several cases without noticeable opposition”

    There’s a huge difference between fitting ‘natural cycles’ to phenomena that are physically known to be cyclic and imposing ‘natural cycles’ on every variation. There’s good reason the tides are cyclic; there’s nothing but wishful thinking to ‘ramp and sine’ or whatever the curve-fitting meme du jour is this week. To say ‘it’s a natural cycle’ without any basis other than a couple of sine curve fits is Climastrology pure and simple.

  20. 20
    Jay Mulberry says:

    It seems kind of odd that he omits to mention that in the United States, Australia and probably other places the theory of evolution is not accepted by a majority of citizens.

  21. 21
    Jay Mulberry says:

    The article has a number of unexpected flaws.
    First, he does not note the huge difference in the kind of opposition that faced the theorists he mentions. Galileo and Copernicus faced strong theological opposition. Religious people were absolutely right that the Copernican Revolution was an (unintended) sword in the side of their core ideas about God’s place in the universe. Einstein faced a little of that, but mainly scientific opposition and the attacks on him were far, far less fierce than those against followers of Galileo and Copernicus.
    Opposition to climate change is neither neither mainly theological nor scientific. It is business/economic oriented. To respond properly to climate change does not threaten most people’s world view, but it does suggest a possibly-chaotic overthrow of the world economic system that is built on fossil fuels. The threat is to lifeways developed on fossil fuel, and it is very, very real.

    Second — The author omits to mention what might be the greatest revolution of them all, the Darwinian revolution. I can hardly believe he left this out without knowing that mentioning it would force him to admit a very serious contradiction to his position.
    Namely – The Darwinian Revolution is still “unsettled.” Most Americans and Australians and many, many people around the rest of the world are still firm believers in some form of creationism. All you have to do is listen to religious radio while driving across the mid-west Darwinism, 100% accepted in the scientific community still has only a very weak hold among the public.
    Public acceptance of Darwinism was not nearly as important to its progress as scientific acceptance. But that is not the case with climate change. Public acceptance, including the acceptance by the corporate interests that no oppose it, is crucial to making the changes necessary to face climate change and it is very, very unlikely that such acceptance will come before it is too late.

    [Response: Well, one might argue belief in the current status quo is a religious belief, but that’s an argument I don’t want to actually get into. On the other point, I’m not sure you are right about Darwinism. People may say they don’t believe it, but I think most people actually do understand that bacteria evolve (for example), and if put in a situation where that belief was severely tested (say, some evolving pathogen crisis…) they might behave as if they believe it. It has been said that we are all Darwinists now, in the sense that the ideas have fully become incorporated into the way our societies function. We are certainly not there yet with climate.–eric]

  22. 22
    Jon Flatley says:

    I read the article when it came out in October. One of the most interesting things with “global warming” as compared to relativity or plate tectonics is the “money issue” this time around.

    Global warming is special in that it goes beyond trying to get scientific sense of a phenomenon…the answer is yielding the inconvient truth (not specificially referencing Al Gore’s book) that the solution interfers with the most basic part of the engine that drives the economies and markets of the world. This is the world’s thirst for fossil fuels for nearly everything we do and the sacrifice and $$ lost (at least in the short-term) for really doing something about the problem.

    It can all be summed up with the fact: “The belief in global warming for a country’s population is inversely proportional to that country’s emissions of CO2”. That speaks volumes to me.

  23. 23
    Bob says:

    As an example of just how far climate change is from the minds of the “general public” I noticed today that the Fidelity Investing guidance for the Energy Sector — — doesn’t even mention climate change or global warming as a factor in the outlook for the sector. The entire focus of the guidance is on how new technologies are allowing for previously trapped greenhouse fuels to be extracted. What I find most telling is not that climate change is being rejected, but that it isn’t even acknowledged. The Physics Today article focuses on the backlash against the scientific opinion by non-scientists, but I think that the common response is more of a yawn than a backlash. Whether the Earth circles the sun is largely an academic question in comparison to climate change that will likely affect the lives of people very directly–so it intuitively seems that people would be more engaged one way or the other with the issue. Among my co-workers (admittedly a small sample size) there are a couple of people who have very strong feelings about climate change being a hoax of the liberal media and scientific community (somebody leaves Watts propaganda in the men’s’ room on occasion.), and a couple others like myself who are “believers,” but for the most part it’s just not something that people care about or think about at all. They don’t seem to have opinions one way or the other.

  24. 24
    Jim Harrison says:

    There’s more symmetry than parallel between the Copernican revolution and the acceptance of anthropogenic climate change. In the astronomical case, the assertion of fact came first, the explanation later. The observational data were equivocal and could be used to support the schemes of Ptolemy, Tycho, or Copernicus. Which is why the question wasn’t settled until Newton provided a physical theory that accounted for the structure of the solar system. With global warming, the situation was almost exactly the reverse. Arrhenius provided the explanation before the phenomenon had even occurred.

  25. 25
    John E. Pearson says:

    21 Bob on Fidelity Investing:

    But here’s what Swiss Reinsurance says about it:

  26. 26
    Ray Ladbury says:

    Jon Flatley and Bob,
    I had an interesting insight when I attended the Washington conference of the International Electronic Device Manufacturers (IEDM). IEDM is where folks present research on the bleeding edge of electronics technology. Frankly, I was blown away by the amazing diversity of technologies being developed–probably an order of magnitude more innovation than we saw back when electronics was driven by the physics of CMOS scaling.

    It occurred to me that maybe CMOS scaling provided an easy path forward. We didn’t have to get too creative–we had a recipe to follow. Then when CMOS scaling failed in ~2004-2006, suddenly the only way to stay on course with Moore’s Law was to innovate–so you innovated or you died.

    Could it be that our reliance on fossil fuels has similarly limited innovation in energy development? Might it have made us lazy by providing an easy and reliable path forward? Could it be that far from bringing prosperity to an end, decreasing dependence on fossil fuels could usher in a new era of innovation and prosperity?

    The true alarmists are those who prophecy disaster in every carbon tax or cap and trade bill. The end of fossil fuels is the way forward.

  27. 27
    Anonymous Coward says:

    #21 #25
    The Fidelity and Swiss Re documents linked to above have completely different goals.

    How is climate change relevant to investing in the energy sector in 2012?
    Should investors be concerned about occupiers, saboteurs or terrorists? I don’t think so.
    Mitigation policies might be relevant if something was happening there. No policy means BAU for capitalists. That document illustrates why the type of policies they oppose are needed for mitigation.

  28. 28
    dhogaza says:


    As an example of just how far climate change is from the minds of the “general public” I noticed today that the Fidelity Investing guidance for the Energy Sector — — doesn’t even mention climate change or global warming as a factor in the outlook for the sector. The entire focus of the guidance is on how new technologies are allowing for previously trapped greenhouse fuels to be extracted.

    I’ve been noticing this too, in a variety of financial outlook articles on the energy sector. I’ve not seen a single one mention concerns about climate change as being relevant to the future of fracking, oil sands, etc – it’s not just Fidelity.

  29. 29
    John Parejko says:

    To the last few comments about the complete lack of consideration of climate change in the markets, Dave Roberts has a great post about this. Neither climate change effects and adaptation, nor changes in energy resulting from mitigation have been priced into markets at all.

  30. 30
    Bill says:

    Re: Bob #23:

    Two groups of the “general public” that have not failed to be interested in a changing climate are the insurance industry and lawyers. On at least four occasions in the last two years my advisor has been asked to address both groups. In coastal areas, state and municipal risk managers and civil engineering types are seeking advice.

  31. 31
    Geoff Beacon says:

    I’m not a fan of Thomas Kuhn’s scientific revolution stuff (Anyone read Heinz Post’s General Correspondence Principle?) but I suppose he did rightly emphasise how difficult it is to shift entrenched opinions. Eric says

    That it took most other scientists some decades is quite believable — and simply reflects the very conservative nature of science.

    One empirical climate scientist said this to me recently:

    When conflicts between climate models and the real world occur the climate modellers will believe their models.

    Are the modellers to conservative? Do they dismiss the real world to easily? As John F. Harkness pointed out in the comments section of a recent NY Times Green Blog (Justin Gillis was mustering scientific research to downplay the recently reported emissions of methane from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf):

    –Readings from the monitoring stations at Barrow do in fact show huge increases in atmospheric methane levels… (switch parameter to ‘methane’)

    I didn’t notice the increases at first – until I set the timespan to 2010-2011. Provisional data show there is a substantial increase in methane levels in the past few months. Looks worrying to me – Barrow seems to be the nearest station to the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, from where seabed methane may be being released.

    This may be an interesting test of “scientific conservatism”. The conservative attitude would be to wait until some paper with a theoretical framework (or computer model) has been peer reviewed and published. The liberal(?) attitude would look at the few dots on the graph and panic.

    OK, I’m quietly panicking. I’m liberal but to a degree…

    Can someone look for me and tell me if panic is rational?

    Waiting decades is too late. Right?

    P.S. I know about methanotrophs and stuff like that. Not a climate scientist but pretty well informed.

  32. 32
    John W says:

    Steve says:
    “In 2007 the APS Council adopted an official policy statement on climate: … We must reduce emissions of greenhouse gases beginning now.

    There is where I have to object. That’s not a science or physics statement. The science/physics facts, figures, projections, and predictions are merely inputs into the risk assessment and cost/benefit analysis required to even begin to make such a decision.

  33. 33
    Thomas says:

    Yes, I’d say fossil fuels, having been cheap an easy have delayed research and development of alternative sources. There just hasn’t sufficient potential for decadal scale or shorter profits to drive them. At least until recently. The past year, capital expenses for new power generation is nearly evenly split, between renewable and fossil fuel consuming plants, for new electrical generation. The fact that production costs of solar panels have only recently been dropping like a rock, may be an indicator that a tipping point has been crossed.

    Unfortunately I have to agree with the decision of investment advisors to ignore climate change. Their narrowly defined fiduciary duty requires them to ignore factors which are orthogonal to the profit potential of individual projects. And as the prospects of carbon taxes, or some other form of carbon limitations have faded, the relevance of carbon emissions to the probable profit making potential of an investment is now nearly zero. This is unfortunate, but it is a direct result of the fact that negative externalities that are not likely to be charged to an individual project, have no effect on its proftability.

  34. 34
    Hank Roberts says:

    re methane at Point Barrow:

    “Data shown in ORANGE
    are preliminary. All other data have undergone rigorous quality assurance ….”

  35. 35
    John E. Pearson says:

    24 Jim said the question of the Copernican revolution wasn’t settled until Newton.

    Maybe. But maybe not. It depends on what you mean by “settled” doesn’t it? I would’ve said that Kepler settled the question. There are sort of two issues. (1)What are the planets doing? (2)What physical principles require the planets to do what they do?

    I would argue that Kepler nailed down the answer to (1) and that Newton nailed down the answer to (2).

    After Kepler (who died in 1630) there was little doubt that the planets were orbiting the sun. It was understood that if the planets were seen from the sun their motions were simple and that complexity of planetary motion as viewed from earth was simple. The angel in Milton’s “Paradise Lost” (which was finished in 1664) said:

    “What if the Sun Be centre to the World, and other stars By his attractive virtue and their own Incited, dance about him various rounds? Their wandering course, now high, now low, then hid, Progressive, retrograde, or standing still, In six thou seest; and what if, seventh to these The planet Earth, so steadfast though she seem, Insensibly three different motions move?”

    (Orchard, Thomas Nathaniel (2009-10-04). The Astronomy of Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ (p. 106). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition. )

    Kepler’s curve fitting was a work of genius. Before he figured out that planets moved in ellipses he tried to describe the positions of the planets in terms of nested regular solids which strikes me as a bit loony but probably no loonier than stuff that people try in theoretical physics every day.

    All this was well before Newton wrote the Principia in 1687. There was a 57 year gap between the time when Kepler “settled” the question of the Sun centered universe to the satisfaction of educated people and the time when Newton provided a physical principle which produced Kepler’s laws. I’m not knocking the clarity that Newton’s succinct laws of motion brought but those laws didn’t clarify the fact that the planets orbited the sun and not the earth.

  36. 36
    mulp says:

    Clive Hamilton’s paper “Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change” is much better at explaining the current situation. Centuries ago, both “science” and “mythology” were the province of the elite. With democracy, the people decide the truth and the elites have been thrown from authority.

    The popular opinion of the truth of AGW is now the determining factor, not some elitist group of scientists, even if the number of scientists is in the million. The non-elites number in the billions, and they aren’t going to allow a mere few million scientists dictate how they live their lives.

    Periods of time, the populists saw scientists like the populists now see Lady Gaga or for old people, Elvis or the Beatles. Science and technology were popularly credited with creating the middle class post WWII. And that included management science (giving us the MBA) and political science.

    Conservatives objected to these new elites, attacking them as not being legitimately elected to their exalted positions of power. But most important, they created populist movements attacking the elite scientists.

    The elites have said life doesn’t come from a sacred act and through god, but from DNA. The elites have said you are not responsible for your illness (genetics). The elites have said you are responsible for your illness (smoking). The elites have said you must be fired. The elites have said you must wear seat belts. The elites have said you must stop driving your car.

    Who gave the elites their power in this democracy?

    The elites never answer “god”, which even Einstein spoke of “I won’t accept god plays dice with the universe.” But “god” and “nature” are in large part one and the same. Even the atheist scientist believes in something created from nothing spontaneously which is a miracle leading to our existence. You can’t be a scientist without believing in a higher power – nature – and it is that higher power that gives scientists their authority as seers for no democracy is going to change the face of god or the laws of nature.

    Conservatives dislike elites, and together with the elites of the fossil fuel industry, they have defined the scientists as out of control elites who need to be brought under control of the people and their work subject to the democratic process. Scientists have tried to grab power and dictate instead of deflecting the attack onto god or nature. “In politics, you campaign in prose” so scientists need to campaign for the authority of the facts by attributing them to the will or laws of the creator. Thus questioning the science is to question god. Defying the science is to defy the gods.

    [Response: Hmm. I’m not convinced this approach will work very well! –eric]

  37. 37

    I think a better comparison would be with the acceptance of Darwinism and evolution. As with global warming, the message is pretty simple, yet the underlying mechanisms are parts of a very complex system. And while few doubt that global warming (or climate change) is happening, the debate is more how and what does it matter, evolution is likewise not completely rejected, just the scale, the evidence, and importance of it. That is, even devote creationists will accept microevolution and the basic principles of evolution. But there are fewer religious connotations in global warming than in evolution (though both sides in the warming debate will readily accuse the other of religious beliefs). Global warming has political connotations instead, which might be just as powerful. That is, one can argue that mixing science and politics is no better than mixing science and religion.

    Still, I don’t think such comparisons are very useful. While I have no problems whatsoever with evolution, I think we shall be much less sure about climate science. For one thing, the science of evolution has matured more than a century longer than the science of anthropogenic climate change. The ideas in today’s climate science are relatively new, and I don’t think it would be fair to make such comparisons in a long time. What I’m saying is that even if most climate scientists today are basically correct about their conclusions, I think we need the test of time to find out if they were right for the right reasons.

    (By the way, I had problems posting this. I got the recaptcha wrong, and when I tried again, my text got refused because of a duplicate checker – I wasn’t allowed to post the same text. Hopefully, adding this paragraph will get me past that).

    [Response: Sorry about the recaptha hassle. Darwin died in 1882 and Arhennius in 1927, so they weren’t quite contemporaries, but climate science has been around for a while. But your are certainly right serious consideration of climate is relatively new.-eric]

    [Response: At least some of that difference is very understandable, given the nature of the empirical evidence. Evidence for evolution was readily observable at a wide range of spatial scales early on, specifically, fossil evidence at one end, and the products of animal breeders and other short-term selections at the other. The latter were particularly important w.r.t coming up with a mechanism, at least for Darwin. Long time scale climate change evidence was there too (though arguably murkier) but without a single, clear, over-arching mechanism that could explain all the observed changes across scales of space and time. It is interesting that biology has, in the case, provided a universal theory based on a single simple mechanism (if we include genetic drift and neutral theory, though admittedly not part of Darwin’s formally stated understanding), whereas physics has not done so for climate change, given that it is potentially caused by many different mechanisms. This is the opposite of the usual situation, in which physical science provides a robust and universal explanation, while biology is caught up describing a million and one variations.–Jim]

  38. 38
    Craig Nazor says:

    There appears to me to be a real confusion in this discussion between actual science and the past and future history of human civilization. Science is the logical and reproducible explanation of observed phenomena. What humanity does or does not do with that information is not science. The scientific consensus is not the general consensus of all humanity. It is a consensus among those that understand what science is and know enough about the subject at hand to have a knowledgeable opinion.

    What defines this group of people has changed over the years. In recent times, as areas of expertise have gotten more and more complex, fewer and fewer world leaders can correctly claim to understand the intricacies involved in complex scientific specialties – they must rely upon (and actually listen to) scientific advisors, rather rely solely upon their own personal opinions. The destructive potential of such decisions have increased dramatically as human technology has expanded.

    To claim that one is skeptical about the science because one doesn’t know what the reaction of humanity to the science will be makes no sense, because they are two completely separate topics. Science tells us what is actually happening. How we use that information is affected by religious beliefs, politics, economic paradigms, and the distribution of human wealth and power.

    This article is about certain examples of the historic interface between scientific discovery and the human reaction to it. While there are interesting and informative parallels between then and now (I enjoyed the article), there are also considerable differences. While many Americans will claim that they do not “believe in” evolution, the scientific consensus on evolution and how it operates (DNA) is respected enough to condemn a man to death beyond any reasonable doubt. NO ONE argues with that proof of innocence or guilt, not even the most ardent creationist. What does that tell you?

    To claim that somehow humans are unable to reduce their output of CO2 in the atmosphere in time to stop the worst effects of AGW makes no sense to me. Of course we can do it – we just need to collectively see the need to do it. Human necessity has ALWAYS been the mother of human invention. The thing holding us back is the blindness that power and greed (and the ensuing fear and distrust which always follows these two) creates in human civilization.

  39. 39
    Geoff Beacon says:

    Hank (#34)

    I noticed that.

    But what weight do you put on preliminary figures? None?

    OK, at 75% on the conservative/liberal scale, I might panic a bit too much.

    But I never believed the “Arctic sea ice has recovered” stories that were bandied about in 2010 – the minimum yearly volume seems to have gone down each year – but the actuality made me a notch more liberal.

    Can you place yourself on the C/L scale?

    If so, where?

    P.S. I even panicked a bit when I read this in September:

    A group of Russian and U.S. scientists will leave the port of Vladivostok on Friday on board a Russian research ship to study methane emissions in the eastern part of the Arctic.

    “This expedition was organized on a short notice by the Russian Fund of Fundamental Research and the U.S. National Science Foundation following the discovery of a dramatic increase in the leakage of methane gas from the seabed in the eastern part of the Arctic”, said Professor Igor Semiletov, the head of the expedition.

    Since their return I’m panicking a bit more.

  40. 40
    Ron Manley says:

    The example of the fight to replace an earth-centred view with a heliocentric view has been used many times as an analogy for climate change. It is comforting to have an example of a successful ‘fight’ but there have been cases of scientific views which became widely held and later faded.

    In the novel ‘Heart of Darkness’, published in 1899, a young ship’s engineer goes for a medical examination. The doctor, an adherent of phrenology, gets out a set of callipers and starts measuring his skull. Phrenologists believed that a person character could be deduced from the shape of the skull.

    Around that time, eugenics was seen as solution for the world’s problems. It had many prominent supporters, including Winston Churchill, Margaret Sanger, Marie Stopes, H. G. Wells, Theodore Roosevelt, George Bernard Shaw, John Maynard Keynes, John Harvey Kellogg and Sidney Webb; a group very similar to today’s ‘great and good’ who support moves to combat anthropogenic climate change even if they don’t understand the science.

    It might be instructive to study ‘failures’ as well as ‘successes’.

  41. 41
    Edward Greisch says:

    35, 36, 37, 38: “FOOL ME TWICE; Fighting the Assault on Science in America” by Shawn Lawrence Otto; Rodale Books

    Cherished American belief that gets in the way of both climate science and evolution: The belief in a just universe and a just America. GW is very unjust. The innocent get a raw deal. Evolution is downright bloody. In evolution, the criminals win [not really, but it looks that way.] Since the Americans are “Guilty” of GW, some people have to buy a bigger SUV to deny the guilt.

    How to turn this around: We were ignorant of the “Law” of GW until recently. The inertia of built infrastructure gives us a pass until 2015. We are not saying “Use less energy or change your lifestyle.” We are saying “Change the source of the energy. Engineering will find a way to avoid a lifestyle change for most Americans.”

    39 Geoff Beacon: Another problem: the conservative/liberal scale. Science is neither conservative nor liberal, but science is pro freedom. Science gives us the power to do things we couldn’t do before, and science gives that power to everybody. Science is anti-feudal. Al Gore is a problem, but Al Gore did not start GW.

    A third problem: Most people think that we are generating rhetoric to get our way on something. Teaching the facts doesn’t help because it isn’t a facts gap. Teach the process. K-12 education and college education for non-science majors should be laboratory rather than textbook science. Science from a textbook comes across as doctrine. Emphasize that scientists do not vote on the truth because only Nature has a vote. Tyndall’s 1859 experiment should be demonstrated as often as possible and done by the student whenever posible.

  42. 42
    Hank Roberts says:

    Ron Manley links to a very professional-looking site I’ve never heard of before.

    The first page promises

    “We provide a model to quantify the effects of climate change. With the model you can:
    … Analyse changes to river flow, runoff, soil moisture, groundwater recharge, snow melt, frost days and irrigation demand
    Simulate the impacts anywhere in the world
    Output the results in a range of graphic formats ….”

    Sounds like they’re far ahead of anyone else, nobody else claims such omniscience

    “We provide a comprehensive search to examine the current and archived information from over 80 climate blogs including the popular blogs, and….”

    Looks like he’s in the business of providing … something.

    Anyone know more about this “” website?

    Be careful. I didn’t go past clicking on the disclaimer, which pops up a clickwrap license that claims you agreed by reading their page that much of what’s provided is their intellectual property.

    Looks like a slick tool for generating convincing graphs and charts to me.

    One of its creators was promoting it over at Greenfyre’s a few years ago:

    No clue on the first page who’s funding this rather impressive effort.

  43. 43
  44. 44
    flxible says:

    Good to wonder about someone who equates Climatology with Eugenics Hank, ;)

    [Response: He wasn’t equating them. It wasn’t a very good choice of example for the point though.–Jim]

  45. 45
    Hank Roberts says:

    > Geoff
    > I even panicked a bit when I read this in September (2011)

    Same story has been reprinted for several years, each time as though it’s new.

    You can find earlier versions of the story asked about over and over at RC, for example, by searching on the author name:

    There’s a real story there somewhere, but the sites reposting the same old story year after year as though it’s news aren’t helping much.

    Supposedly something new is coming out. It may be a change activity in shallow water or surface sediment organisms producing more methane, rather than increased melting in deep sediments — isotope ratios ought to help clarify that.

  46. 46
    Hank Roberts says:

    Geoff, you might check the Mauna Loa site — no extreme outliers showing there. and choose ‘methane’ — compare this year and last year and look at the scatter of the provisional (orange) and how that goes away with analysis.

  47. 47
    Geoff Beacon says:

    Hank #45

    It might look like the same story but it’s definitely a new chapter.

    I did look at the Real Climate AGU 2011: Day 5 and wrap-up and was surprised Semliatof wasn’t mentioned – I now see the discussion was in comments after I had looked.
    There you said

    wili, you’re looking at the orange dots on the Barrow Alaska methane chart, right? Those are preliminary and very often far higher than the corrected data. Check again later; look at the monthly and daily charts. The outlier values don’t generally hold up and there’s no “big jump” or trend there yet.

    Yes the concern is real. No, the data aren’t there yet to support this.

    To me that implies a dangerous conservatism.

    The provisional data that are in the Barrow record do support methane emissions from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf. Obviously it’s a matter of judgement how much. If you have a hard an fast rule to judge what “support” means that’s up to you. Don’t expect everybody else to fall in line with your meaning. Especially someone who is a fan of Paul Feyerabend. Have you read Against Method?

    I hope you are right about the outliers being reigned in. But this feedback is just one the conservative scientists don’t seem to cope with.

    There are feedbacks that are hard to model and measure. That doesn’t mean we should ignore them.

  48. 48
    Geoff Beacon says:

    Hank #46

    I don’t understand. Has there been some comparison of provisional and corrected figures?

  49. 49
    Ron Manley says:

    #42 Hank Roberts
    “No clue on the first page who’s funding this rather impressive effort.”
    No one funded it. I’m a freelance and work on the web site when I’m ‘resting’. One of my main areas of work, and the area where I have published peer reviewed papers is hydrological modelling; hence the climate impact model which I’ve tested now in several countries and am just waiting to get time to write the User Manual.

    #44 flxible
    “Good to wonder about someone who equates Climatology with Eugenics” (Thank you Jim for your comment.)
    I actually chose the examples carefully. Phrenology because some sceptics think that climate science is at the same level. Eugenics because it could be argued (note carefully, I do not so argue) that it failed for political reasons not scientific; if you can breed pigeons (an example used by Darwin) and beef cattle, why not breed humans? Combating climate change could also ‘fail’ for political reasons; why, in a global economic crisis, should we spend money to help out as yet unborn descendents?

    [Response: Because we have an ethical imperative to do so. That you apparently lack this should concern you, but should also be a signal to others that they are unlikely to find any common ground with you on any policy issue whatsoever. – gavin]

  50. 50
    Ron Manley says:

    Gavin’s response to my #44
    Gavin, I feel you may have misunderstood my point. I was arguing that whilst in the case of planetary orbits science won in the end, there could be circumstances where sound science was defeated by political considerations. I made it clear, by including the phrase “note carefully, that I do not so argue” that I disassociated myself from the sort of political arguments which could still ‘win’.

    [Response: (previous inline removed since I wasn’t paying enough attention to the thread – apologies) – gavin]