Are climate deniers visionaries like Galileo – or just anti-science cranks?

  • Published on November 1st, 2018

One of the rhetorical points deniers love to overuse is to compare modern day consensus climate science to the medieval witch hunts. For example, deniers claimed reports on and calls for transparency around Willie Soon’s fossil fuel funding was a witch hunt, and made the same accusation about investigations into ExxonMobil.

climate deniers aren't Galilio. They're just cranks.

By Climate Denier Roundup

Then there’s the more literal invocation of the term, as seen in petroleum geologist and Heartland hack Gregory Wrigtstone’s recent Heartland’s blog, where he suggests modern day climate alarmists are falsely blaming carbon dioxide in the same way villagers falsely blamed witches for their weather woes.

This is the claim made by Gregory Wrightstone, a petroleum geologist and. His latest piece for the fossil fuel-funded front group begins by setting the reader in 15th century Europe, describing how cooler temperatures ruined crops and how authorities of the time blamed witches.

Then things got better in the end of the 17th century, because it got warmer again. We now know that of course witches had nothing to do with the weather and crop loss. Perhaps, Wrightstone posits, we will soon realize that people like Al Gore and Dr. Michael Mann are the real witch hunters who assign blame to humans for natural cycles.

Although this argument is pretty transparently dumb, it’s Halloween, and we want to talk about witches–so we’ll give Wrightstone’s ideas more respect than they deserve and explain why he’s so dumb.

First off, the conflation of pre-enlightenment thinking with current scientific practice is fundamentally dishonest. Yes, the experts of the time all agreed that witches were responsible for changing the weather, and yes, scientific experts today pretty much all agree that greenhouse gasses are causing warming. But you can’t really compare conclusions based on the scientific method, evidence and peer review with conclusions based on deduction, inference and religious decree.

To get more specific, the “witches changed the climate and killed my crops” theory is a post-hoc rationalization. Something bad happened, and leaders of the time searched for an excuse.

With climate change, it’s the opposite. Scientists discovered the greenhouse effect in theory and the lab, and began predicting the climate’s response to increased CO2 concentrations a hundred years ago. Instead of scrambling to find a scapegoat to explain the changes, the warming is instead a predicted result of carbon pollution emitted by human activity. The global warming theory was that increased CO2 emissions would cause the atmosphere to warm. And sure enough, as we’ve burned fossil fuels and increased CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, scientists have documented increased warming.

And then there’s the larger socio-political angle. Witch hunts can be seen as an exercise in enforcing patriarchal hegemony: using witchcraft as a guise to rid the town of inconvenient women otherwise uncontrolled by men. Wrightstone makes but a passing allusion to the gendered aspect of the hunts, noting that many of the murder victims were “old women living without husbands on the margins of society.”

On a metaphorical level, then, as we all learned reading The Crucible in school, a witch hunt is an attack on the marginalized by those in power.

So when, for example, a state attorney general targets a single climate scientist for harassment, like Virginia’s Ken Cuccinelli did to Dr. Mann, that’s a witch hunt. But when a state attorney general targets one of the richest corporations in human history, that’s not a witch hunt, it’s just law enforcement.

And when scientists spend a century and a half developing both the theory and evidence explaining how burning things makes the world hotter, that’s not religious zealotry, that’s science.

Which, for deniers, is the spookiest word of all.

Happy Halloween!

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