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I came across this interesting article in Physics Today – Science controversies past and present. Interesting because it puts in context the current public controversy over the science of climate change.

The author, Steve Sherwood, compares this current controversy with  earlier controversies about scientific ideas. Specifically the Copernican theory of heliocentricism and Einstein’s relativity theories. He presents an interesting graphic comparing the controversies for the time taken to get scientific consensus with that for public consensus (click to enlarge).

Timelines for heliocentricism, relativity, and greenhouse warming, aligned by their dates of introduction. Coloured bars indicate the estimated times to consensus among experts and the public. Lightning symbols denote organized opposition from contrarian, religious, or political groups. The sequence of events is similar in all three cases except that relativity attained consensus more rapidly, especially among the public; it had emerged essentially fully formed, whereas the other two underwent refinements for many decades (Source Physics Today – http://www.physicstoday.org/resource/1/phtoad/v64/i10/p39_s1?bypassSSO=1#f3).

So I guess we shouldn’t be surprised at the current kerfuffle. Sherwood points out that “the progression of the global warming idea so far has been quite similar to that of Copernicanism.” But:

“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.”

Psychological resistance to new ideas

And this sort of scenario is probably inevitable with ideas that break down existing ways of thinking. “That kind of change can turn people away from reason and toward emotion, especially when the ideas are pressed on them with great force.”

“It is jarring to ponder the scene of a colleague from the 17th century refusing to look into a telescope–a level of aversion to inconvenient facts, admittedly not common, that seems incredible. Yet modern counterparts can perhaps be found in those who vilify the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change without apparently ever having examined its reports, or who repeat claims–such as global warming having stopped in 1998–that can be trivially falsified by looking at the data. “

Sherwood thinks that perhaps we should take this lesson from history and not be so surprised when there is an anti-science backlash.

“A first step toward better public communication of science, and the reason we need it, may lie in recognizing why the backlash happens: the frailty of human reason and supremacy of emotional concerns that we humans all share but do not always acknowledge. “

Do we have time to procrastinate?

Maybe so. But I think the concern this time also derives from the possible consequences of global warming. Consequences that threaten the lives and property of many people throughout the world.  Consequences which can be largely averted if humanity has the political will to act now.

As Sherwood puts it:

“history tells us that in the end, science will probably come out fine. Whether the planet will is another matter.”

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