Science Controversies Past and Present

FigureSteven Sherwood in Physics Today:

In the decades before Galileo began his fervent promotion of Copernicanism, the Catholic Church took an admirably philosophical view of the idea. As late as 1615, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine acknowledged that “we should . . . rather admit that we did not understand [Scripture] than declare an opinion to be false which is proved to be true.” But the very next year he officially declared Copernicanism to be false, stating that there was no evidence to support it, despite Galileo’s observations and Kepler’s calculations. Institutional imperatives had forced a full rejection of Copernicanism, which had become threatening precisely because of the mounting evidence.

Even Albert Einstein was not immune to political backlash. His theory of general relativity…undermined our most fundamental notions of absolute space and time, a revolution that Max Planck avowed “can only be compared with that brought about by the introduction of the Copernican world system.” Though the theory predicted the anomalous perihelion shift of Mercury’s orbit, it was still regarded as provisional in the years following its publication in 1916.

When observation, by Arthur Eddington and others, of a rare solar eclipse in 1919 confirmed the bending of light, it was widely hailed and turned Einstein into a celebrity. Elated, he was finally satisfied that his theory was verified. But the following year he wrote to his mathematician collaborator Marcel Grossmann:

This world is a strange madhouse. Currently, every coachman and every waiter is debating whether relativity theory is correct. Belief in this matter depends on political party affiliation.

Instead of quelling the debate, the confirmation of the theory and acclaim for its author had sparked an organized opposition dedicated to discrediting both theory and author. Part of the backlash came from a minority of scientists who apparently either felt sidelined or could not understand the theory. The driving force was probably professional jealousy,6but scientific opposition was greatly amplified by the anti-Semitism of the interwar period and was exploited by political and culture warriors. The same forces, together with status quo economic interests, have amplified the views of climate contrarians.

The historical backlashes shed some light on a paradox of the current climate debate: As evidence continues to accumulate confirming longstanding warming predictions and showing how sensitive climate has been throughout Earth’s history, why does climate skepticism seem to be growing rather than shrinking? All three provocative ideas—heliocentricity, relativity, and greenhouse warming—have been, in Kuhn’s words, “destructive of an entire fabric of thought,” and have shattered notions that make us feel safe. That kind of change can turn people away from reason and toward emotion, especially when the ideas are pressed on them with great force.