Friday, February 21, 2014

Krauthammer knows everything, understands nothing

Charles Krauthammer opened a recent column in the Washington Post by saying he is neither a global warming believer nor denier. Right there he lost me. There are no global warming believers, in the sense of a religious believer. The concept of believing in a scientific theory is absurd.

People have religious beliefs because they belong to a certain religion. People accept scientific theories because they understand the great advances that science has made over the last few centuries. Anyone who can read can learn what the advances of science are.

There were plenty of theories around before scientists began applying reason to phenomena and invented tools to test their data. Around 500 B.C.E., some Greek philosophers decided that men can learn the truth using reason. Then they went ahead and started arguing about the truth. For example, Plato argued that, since God is perfect, he must be a sphere, the perfect geometric shape. There were many competing ideas, that God was fire, or a superhuman being who lives in the clouds, or the sun.

The Greeks, brainy as the were, were unable to settle such arguments through the use of pure reason, though they certainly tried. After the fall of the Roman Empire, reason fell out of fashion and religion was in control. People began making decisions based on religious teachings. The Christian church used reason to support their beliefs. When reason opposed their beliefs, they opposed reason and the people who used it. Church leaders made a habit of executing people who disagreed with church teaching. They called these people names like heretic, witch, and Antichrist. People became frightened to speak out against the revealed wisdom of the church. This went on for over a thousand years.

Time did not stand still, however. Technology advanced. New devices were invented. The Church did not invent anything. They were happy to believe in what they always believed. After all, revealed religion could never change. It was, like God, eternal. But people found new ways to improve their lives. One device they came up with was a lens. Looking through lenses in just the right way, people found they could see small things they couldn't see with their unaided sight.

The church didn't find anything wrong with that.

Then someone named Galileo decided to look at the moon and the planets with a different configuration of lenses. He discovered something strange. The Church preached that planets are flat projections on the sphere of the sky. But Galileo discovered that Venus had phases, just like the moon. He reasoned that Venus must be round. He looked at Mars and discovered that Mars had satellites, just like the earth. He then reasoned that the earth must revolve around the Sun, not the other way around.

Galileo was not the first to consider this theory. Ptolemy, an early astronomer, and others had theorized that the Earth went around the sun. But Galileo was the first to offer proof of this theory. This was one of the earliest incidents of a man using reason to choose between two competing theories.

Galileo published his observations and got a rude awakening. The Church hadn't cared about small things, but the Church had preached for centuries that Ptolemy was wrong. They had God on their side. They brought Galileo before a court and told him to stop telling people his ideas or they would treat him as they always treated heretics, with fire. They burned all the copies of his book that could be found and put him under house arrest for the rest of his life.

Galileo was not the last person to suffer attacks by organized religion when he was right and they were wrong. Each step away from sacred text came with attacks and threats of eternal damnation. Charles Darwin suffered those attacks during his lifetime and even today his theories are attacked, long after he died.

Climate change denial does not consist of holding opinions opposed to the vast majority of scientists who are considered experts in the field. Climate change denial consists of refusing to accept the advice of scientists because you believe you know better than they do. Krauthammer is a denier, no matter what he says. He is also a sophist because, as Socrates said, he makes the worse argument seem better. He does this, like his fellow deniers, by selecting one "expert" as correct even though hundreds of other experts disagree with him. He does it by picking some facts to the exclusion of all others.

Krauthammer will not be persuaded by me. Nor will the millions of other deniers, most of whom have no rational idea why they deny the findings of scientists. If these people refuse to change their minds about science, they should at least refuse to take advantage of scientific discoveries.

Deniers should not use airplanes, because airplanes cannot fly without using scientific principles. They should not take their children to doctors when they break a leg. Instead, they should take their children to priests and heal the bones by prayer. They should not use electricity, which was developed by scientists and would be impossible to use without the theories of scientists.

The deniers should turn off their tvs and refuse to listen to weather predictions. They should stop using credit cards and other products of the internet.

All that is nonsense of course. Most deniers would refuse to alter their daily lives in such inconvenient ways, just as those who do not believe scientists nevertheless continue to breathe oxygen, whose existence was unknown to Biblical scholars. They believe in science because it has proven itself true, over and over again, for hundreds of years.

Krauthammer should take a deep breath, look around, and smell the coffee.

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