Why is Global Warming Alarmism of interest to the history of science?

Let me begin this blog by explaining why I think Global Warming Alarmism is of such importance to the history of science that it may even offer us new insights into the nature of modern science.

The illustration from the title page of Practica über die grossen und manigfaltigen Coniunctionen der Planeten die im jat MDXXiiii  by Leonhard Rynmann published in Nuremburg in 1523

The illustration from the title page of Practica über die grossen und manigfaltigen Coniunctionen der Planeten die im jat MDXXiiii by Leonhard Rynmann

Firstly, it is a powerful and pervasive movement in the natural sciences. In the past decade it has come to involve most of the grand old natural science institutions, from the journal Nature to the Royal Society and the Nobel Institute, and it has even generated its own specialist institutions such as CRU [*], Goddard (NASA) and the UN’s IPCC.  Global warming is linked to research funding, not just in climate science, but across the natural sciences, and human induced global warming has been linked to all sorts of (mostly judged degenerative) changes in the natural world.

Secondly, there is the problem of its dubious evidence-base. This is what marks it for special attention: at the height of its power, the scientific evidence gives no reason for alarm. The evidence suggests that the warming of the late 20th century was not outside the natural variation that has proved tolerable (if not advantageous) to civilisation. Nor is there evidence that the recommended program of CO2 emission reduction will significantly affect cooling.

Thirdly, there is the unusual landscape of vested interests that could be proposed to be causing this distortion of the science. While it does now seem that climate science funding policy is perpetuating the scare, and that governments have created vested interests to help prevent the supposed catastrophe – e.g., investment in renewable energy, energy conservation, and trade and tax on CO2 emissions – there was yet no obvious external vested interest in emission reductions in the first place. Instead, potential candidates for vest interest lobbying in the field of greenhouse emissions, like the mining, oil or energy lobby – who have an apparent interest on the side of the sceptics – are now often found overtly supporting the alarmism.

These are the broad reasons why, in my view, Global Warming Alarmism is of interest to the history of science. However, it is my experience that most folks interested in the history of science are not in the climate scepticism camp, and so they will find objection to my second reason, and therefore they will attach an entirely different significance to this movement. If you are firm in the view that the proposal that CO2 emissions is causing catastrophic global warming is well supported by the evidence, then this site will be of little interest to you. I can only recommend, if you have not already done so, that you review the evidence yourself, especially that presented on the blogs (yes blogs!) Climate Audit and Watts Up With That. Otherwise, I bid a polite good-bye.

For those that are left, I hope that you also find this topic as exciting and challenging as I do.  For the past year I have been intent on coming to an understanding of what is going on here, and yet I have made very little progress! The idea of this blog is to open up the discussion with others who might also be fascinated by this problem and see if we can make some progress together.

I am especially interest in finding similarities to previous movements in science, both modern and pre-modern. My interest in the history of science is especially in the relationship of modern science with what was called ‘enthusiasm’ at the time when the first state-sponsored scientific organisations were instituted.  In the 17th century, when the Royal Society gained its charter,  ‘enthusiasm’ referred to the panic and alarmism generated by the apocalypse predictions of doomsayers prophets prominent during the Interregnum. These various alarmist movements continued into the early Restoration when the Royal Society of London positioned itself to mitigate their destabilising influence. In fact, they successfully promoted empirical science as a sober and reasonable panacea for this enthusiasm. I am also fascinated by the importance of medieval astrology to the revival of mathematics, and to the early advance of modern empirical sciences from astronomy, to chemistry and medicine. In the current Global Warming alarmism there seem to be links to both this medieval astrology and to apocalyptic enthusiasm – but not those you might first expect. While I am still unclear of the nature and strength of these links, they do seem to challenge the conventional Enlightenment narrative of the triumph of modern empirical science.

The sorts of issues I would like to raise are as follows:

  1. In the first place, the explanations of this Alarmism given by others including Michael Crichton’s account.
  2. The politicisation of climate scientists and its historical precedents.
  3. Industrial military complex – how relevant Eisenhower’s warning
  4. The scientific institutions established with a Global Warming agenda and any precedents.
  5. ‘Reason is a slave to the passions’ – How relevant is David Hume’s Enlightenment scepticism today?
  6. The ‘consensus’ of scientists – is this a substitute for evidence?
  7. Fear campaigning and grant money, and any historical precedents
  8. Environmentalism as religion.
  9. The ‘peer review’ bastion and the barbarian bloggers. How significant is Climate Audit’s impact on the science of the Hockey (stick) Team?
  10. Professional/Amateur – the impact of this dispute on the modern assumption that  ‘professional’ meaning high standard and ‘amateur’ mean lower standard.
  11. Good and Evil: The use of the term ‘denier’ in the scientific literature including Nature journal
  12. Reason and Madness – scepticism understood as a form of madness
  13. Doomsayers, Enthusiasm in science – looking to the Royal Society foundation and lessons for viewing modern scientific doomsaying
  14. The bonfires of the scholarly – Savonarola and the collapse of the Florentine renaissance, and related to apocalypsism in modern science.
  15. Astrological enthusiasm in medieval science – any similarities with modern scientific alarmism.

This is not a program of postings but only a grab-bag of ideas – which I am hoping visitors might add to in the comments. Over the next few week I will fix up this site, take a holiday and return to start a weekly post [**] from late January.

– BernieL


* UPDATE: I am now of the understanding that, while CRU is now an institution of AGW Alarm, it has not always been so. But I have yet to confirm the rationale behind its establishment in 1971 in any primary document — and I am cautious about the secondary literature, as I know it contains distortions concerning the founding director of CRU, the sceptic Hubert Lamb.

** UPDATE: As can be seen in the blog roll, the idea of a weekly posts never eventuated. Instead, difficulties in finding time to research each topic around family and work commitments meant that I have been lucky to posting month.



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