On Heresies, Scientific

I had a conversation a few days ago, with my father. He contended that a particular public figure, whose name I won’t mention because it really isn’t particularly important to this essay, suggested that people who contend that climate change is not happening or that climate change is not caused by human activities, ought to be subject to criminal charges. My father is prone to exaggeration and even more prone to believe whatever drivel the media moguls are spewing this week, so I investigated the matter myself. Did the media exaggerate? Yes, they did, because that’s what they always do. Media are in the business of getting people’s attention. They stretch the truth as far as they do for the sake of viewers, readers, and ultimately dollars, but in this case, there was more than a grain of truth to my father’s contention. Said public figure did not outright call for climate change skeptics to be jailed, but he did compare climate change skeptics to enron executives, who are in jail for actually breaking the law, and tobacco executives, who are not in jail and may or may not have broken any laws, but who paid the government billions to settle a lawsuit. This is not the same as advocating people being jailed for espousing a particular belief, but it comes dangerously close, and when any person advocates anything remotely like thought crime, or questions the freedom of humans to say and think whatever they wish, I consider it repugnant, and alarming. That said, I will continue to refrain from naming said public figure, at this point because I believe him unworthy of any serious person’s attention.

The whole business got me thinking about a concept we don’t usually give much thought to, the concept of heresy. When one ponders the word ‘heresy’, one no doubt pictures red robed inquisitors standing over medieval torture devices, or perhaps black robed puritans burning witches at the stake. When considering the term heresy as it relates to science, the understandable first instinct is to think of the various scientific figures throughout history who have been accused of heresy. Galileo, Copernicus, Darwin, and countless others have been subjected to hatred, ridicule, and worse, simply for the crime of disagreeing with, and challenging, the established dogmas of the dominant religion of that era. We think of heresy as something old, archaic, something long gone like the steamboat or the horse drawn carriage. We like to think we’ve progressed since then. We like to think we’re better than that. Whether we condemn our ancestors for their short sightedness or pity them for their woeful ignorance, we believe that words like heresy are buried with our past, that we no longer need the word but as a reference to a sad chapter or our history.

People like to believe in progress. It’s one of those concepts I occasionally come across that are rarely, if ever, defined or debated, but nevertheless everyone seems to behave as if the concept is unquestionably, unconditionally true. Perhaps the confusion is because the concept of progress is quite obvious in related areas. Technological progress, for example, is plain enough to any observer. We have electricity, nuclear weapons, automobiles, smart phones, and talking computers. All these seemed unimaginable just a few generations ago. That seems like progress, but let’s remember, we’re talking about machines, things we’ve built figuratively, and sometimes literally, on top of the machines and concepts of previous generations, machines and concepts which seemed just as astounding in their time.

Human beings, themselves, however, have not changed much. Any geneticist will tell you a human being born in the year 2018 is not markedly different from one born a hundred, a thousand, or ten thousand years ago. Yet, somehow, there exists a peculiar notion that modern humans are wiser, smarter, more compassionate, more tolerant, and otherwise ‘better’ than our ancestors. Such notions rest on the idea that the collected wisdom that has been acquired, written down, and passed down from generation to generation, somehow automatically produces a better kind of human than that of past generations.

It is, for some perhaps, a tenet of faith that humans progress along with their technology through some magical, mysterious, and unobservable force. If that is the case, then there is little more to be said in the matter. I am not qualified to judge and do not care to debate the truth or falsehood of what another person takes on faith. Whether a person believes in God, or gods, or human progress, or spaghetti monsters, the road to truth begins with the assumptions one makes without asking for proof. Even if one accepts our own reality, the things we see and hear, at face value, one must assume the reality we see is complete, accurate, and not some sort of elaborate deception. For most ordinary folk, that’s no great leap of faith, but it is, nevertheless, a nontrivial question for serious philosophers (If you were in the Matrix, how would you know?) and more than a few theoretical physicists (google holographic universe theory sometime).

None of this is particularly noteworthy or disturbing. There’s little to be gained and much to be lost by shouting at one another about who possesses the one true faith encompassing life, the universe, and everything. What is disturbing and noteworthy is when one group of people decides that their one true faith is so important, and the consequences of dissension so dire, that men and women are justified in enforcing one dogma upon all of humanity, hence the existence of words like heresy.

Humans, as I’ve said, don’t change much. Our tendency to enforce particular dogmas for the sake of social order and collective harmony is hard wired into our species. The only thing that changes over the course of our history is the dogma of the day, the doctrine of the moment. Whether we’re defending Christendom from the Muslim hordes or our species from a warming planet, it’s the same old story. We have to unite in the face of this existential threat. The future of our people is at stake. Failure means our ultimate destruction. We can’t afford dissent in the face of such an implacable foe. We must enforce orthodoxy for the sake of our survival. Fear is always the justification. There’s something horrible on the other side of the wall, and if you do what we say, we’ll keep it there. That’s what the authoritarian always says. Sometimes they’re not entirely wrong. Sometimes the boogeyman is real, but it’s never as bad as they say, and no matter what it is, it’s not worth surrendering our freedom of speech to the thought police, however pure and righteous their intentions may be.

Let’s have some perspective here. If the earth warms three degrees or thirty three, it won’t mean the end of life on this planet. Life has survived climate changes, asteroid impacts, supervolcanoes, and God only knows what else. There are things living at the bottom of the ocean where the pressure would crush a person’s skull and there is no sunlight. I fail to see how global warming will eradicate these things. If we’re really trying, we could do far more damage with a global thermonuclear conflict than we would by burning all the fossil fuels that are in the ground now or ever will be, but even that would not destroy all life on this planet. It would destroy some of the life, and other life forms would evolve to replace what was there before, life forms that would be different than those from before. Not better, not worse, just different. I’m not sure where human beings got the idea that they could or should preserve nature as it currently exists, but I’m pretty sure it started with some particular human’s opinion, and I’m sure it isn’t testable using the scientific method.

No, we won’t wipe out life on planet earth. We probably won’t even have be able to destroy ourselves, even if we make an earnest effort. After all, homo sapiens as a species had colonized nearly the entirety of this planet, excepting the coldest, most frozen parts, well before we had airplanes, automobiles, nuclear power, or smart phones. Make no mistake, we can do a lot of damage, to ourselves and to the other species that live on this planet, and yes, that is something we should devote resources to addressing, but as in all things, we should refrain from allowing our decisions to be driven by irrational fear of the unknown. If we want to solve the problem of climate change, I think the best way is to devote the resources to building better machines so that we use less energy, finding better, cheaper sources of energy, and failing that, finding ways to adapt to a changing environment. Personally, I have a lot more faith in humanity’s ability to adapt to a hotter planet than I do in humanity’s ability to enforce the dogma of anthropogenic climate change, or any other dogma. If stamping out heresy is the answer, then the cure is far worse than the disease.

I’ll go a step further yet. In this writer’s opinion, addressing the issue of climate change is more important than building planes to bomb nations that aren’t really a threat to us or building a wall on the southern border that will have zero effect on illegal immigration, but that’s my opinion, whether orthodox or heretical. At the end of the day, I believe in freedom and democracy, not authoritarianism. Part of that means accepting that my ideas are not more important than anyone else’s, and I do not get to decide what is truth and what is unacceptable heresy, no matter how convinced I am of the absolute truth of my own dogma, no matter how much evidence I stack up in favor of my position. Whether we swear on a Holy Bible or Scientific American, let’s make sure we uphold at least the illusion of human progress, and leave heresy in the past.


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