For some years, now, we have been hearing that global warming is a settled scientific fact. It has reached the point where there are calls for ejecting scientists who express doubts about this revealed truth from their positions within the scientific community. At the same time, various stories have leaked to the press (or rather leaked out through alternative media despite the determined efforts of the mainstream media) that show attempts at exaggeration and even fabrication of evidence to bolster the environmentalist ideology. From the “climategate” emails to congressional charges that NOAA, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, has been engaging in biased “corrections” of data in order to gloss over a fifteen-year hiatus in the supposed trend of global warming, the reputation of the official scientific “community” has been coming under attack.
Being no scientist myself, I hazard no definitive statement, here, regarding the specifics involved in proving global warming or, more importantly, the role of human industry in producing it. My concern, rather, is the militancy with which proponents of the climate change thesis propound their views and the consequences of yet another “moral equivalent of war” on our economy, our freedom of speech, and our ability to distinguish truth from propaganda. The War on Climate Change has produced an intolerance of dissent that is both frightening and all too convenient. It is frightening for those who value the pursuit of truth in a civil society. It is all too convenient that the narrative propounded by the rich and powerful concerning the need for action on global warming feeds into a burgeoning set of industries funded by taxpayer dollars and increasing the already frightening power of government.
Sadly, the current science bullying is part and parcel of the ideology of rationalism so prevalent in contemporary society. The dangers of this ideology were clearly shown at its inception in the French Revolution, though they have been minimized and ignored ever since. Soon after the French National Assembly declared an end to feudalism and launched its attacks on the Catholic Church, the nobility, and the inheritance of Christendom, the French government took it upon itself to “reform” and “rationalize” all of life. Local borders were redrawn with geometric precision (and contempt for geographical and historical ties); the calendar was redrafted along with the week and even the day, into “rational” increments in defiance of the sun, the seasons, and common sense. And a new unit of measure—the meter—was created to replace myriad localized measures.
This last project surely was the most successful, for unlike the ten-month calendar it remains with us to this day, has become standard in much of the world, and was briefly an object of imposition on Americans during the Carter administration. But even here the reach of scientific hubris exceeded its grasp and the power of the state combined with simple dishonesty to cover up the errors intrinsic to human conduct and measurement. In deciding that it had the duty to “rationalize” human measurement, the French state determined to set the basic unit, the meter, as 1/10,000,000 the distance from the North Pole to the equator. Apparently a miniscule percentage of a distance never seen or used but indicative of a familiar physical entity (the planet) was considered more rational than the size of the king’s foot, on account of its being more abstract and involving a good deal of measurement. The thought of simply taking one, historically derived measurement of some king and making it standard, or even of averaging out a few kings’ feet apparently was too rooted in history to be sufficiently “rational” for the philosophes.
The “rational” calculations would not be easy, however. So, between 1792 and 1799 two astronomers were sent out to make measurements of the distance from Barcelona to Dunkirk. The astronomers were Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre and Pierre-François-André Méchain. These gentlemen faced difficulties and even hardships as they sought to use instruments less precise than their employers seem to have thought, and they had to conduct their measurements in the midst of the international chaos occasioned by those employers’ murderous international ambitions. In the event, Méchain made a number of irreconcilable errors, which he promptly covered up. Méchain was guilt-ridden over his dishonesty but did nothing to correct it. Indeed, his colleague, Delambre, discovered the cover-up only much later and refused to acknowledge it for years, preferring to foist upon the world an inaccurate measure of distance rather than, as he saw it, undermine the confidence of the people in science.
The meter cover-up hardly matters. It resulted in acceptance of a tiny difference between the actual unit of measure and its claimed “rational” source in the distance between the North Pole and the equator. Because the unit was based on an arbitrary distance in any event, it hardly matters in practical terms that the scientists got that distance wrong. Why, then, lie about it? For ideological reasons. Because Delambre thought the myth of scientific precision more important than the truth. And, while the truth involved was a small, indeed, meaningless one, the determination to lie to the public to protect the reputations of scientists and the myth that science holds the keys to truth with a capital “T” was part of an attitude that cost tens of thousands of people their lives during the French Revolution and has empowered charlatans and dishonest, grasping politicians ever since.
The stakes were very low with the meter, except for those with power and reputation invested in a false aura of infallibility. Today we claim to know that science is less about exactitude than knowledge of probabilities. This, after all, is the essence of quantum mechanics. Still, the very real benefits of scientific inquiry are used as an excuse to eject religious believers from “serious” conversations concerning the bases of social well-being and to empower entrenched groups to engage in Delambre-style cover-ups to protect their own power and prestige.
The stakes are quite high in the debate over global warming. “Green” regulations already cost our economy billions of dollars and thousands of jobs. Meanwhile, fortunes are made in “green” energy by those able to manipulate the bureaucratic system to obtain taxpayer-funded subsidies. All this so that Bill Gates, Barack Obama (His Petulancy, our Social Justice Warrior in Chief), and others get to fly to Paris and hobnob with other rich and powerful people, all the while pretending that they are “helping the planet” by inflating their own egos and planning how to spend other people’s money.
The value of scientific inquiry is beyond reasonable doubt. The question is whether we serve science or the public good by bowing to official bodies that seek to bully into silence anyone who expresses skepticism about supposedly received wisdom. This question is especially important where the topic in question concerns something as important as the environment, and where the response to contested “facts” already involves reconfiguration of our economy and even our industrial base through government action. We are asked to accept out of faith in our scientific betters that global warming is real. We are expected to accept from parties with a vested interest in the outcome of scientific investigations that their pronouncements are beyond question as they tell us that global warming is caused by human activity and that it can be reversed or slowed through the kinds of draconian measures currently bandied about. It would seem that the stakes and the possibility of self-interested conduct make the checks and balances of scientific debate more rather than less necessary in the global warming debate. Under such conditions, it is highly convenient for the story to be handed out that only knuckle-dragging Neanderthals who want to kill the planet so that they can drive their pickup trucks to go out and kill Bambi doubt the “truth” of global warming.
Even if the government/scientific establishment is correct in all its measurements, it remains open to serious question whether the best response to current conditions is a massive imposition of regulations and taxpayer subsidization of the kind of crony capitalism only dreamed of by the much maligned “robber barons.” This is why constitutional governments intentionally stand in the way of quick, decisive action before genuine consensus has been reached regarding drastic changes of basic policies. This is why scientists and the general public are, in our tradition, supposed to be free to question received wisdom. Opposition to moral equivalents of war is necessary if freedom and common sense are to be maintained in the face of mass hysteria, simple self-interest, or both. The claim to scientific infallibility, then, is a burden on, not a benefit to, any free society.
Bruce P. Frohnen is Professor of Law at The Ohio Northern University Pettit College of Law.