Guest column: Of faith, science and politics
November 19, 2014
My mother said much I will never forget. I recall the judgment she rendered one sunny afternoon as we raked the barren earth that constituted our "lawn." Over years of drought, our grass just would not grow.
Mom trusted science to explain our predicament. This was, after all, 1965, and science was the rage. The space race had everyone's attention. However full of Cold War angst, America was in love with progress. Our collective faith defied even the nuclear threat. While astronauts and cosmonauts zoomed overhead, small miracles like color TV and instant coffee were proving daily before our eyes. Optimists foretold a brotherhood of man, soon to be jetting about in glass-domed hovercraft. We'd vacation at pod motels on Mars, which would be colonized in harmony and peace under the U.N. flag.
Just down the river, under the Unisphere at the New York World's Fair, the party was going Pentecostal over science and progress. "There's a great big beautiful tomorrow," went the sing-along at the GE Pavilion, "and tomorrow is just a dream away."
Yet back home, our family longed for rain. Oh why wouldn't it rain?
"It's the Russians," Mother opined. "Their atomic tests have been messing with the climate."
OK, so Mom was no physicist. Nevertheless, her dubious formulation foretold the epochal somersault our culture was about to make, when our zeal for applied science and industrial progress ran up against mounting evidence of their betrayal. Once made aware of rampant pollution, America forgot Alger Hiss. It was no longer the reds but environmental degradation that stoked our national fear.
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But considering the roll we'd been on, how not? However smug man's scientific faith, we haven't lost our ancient dread of cosmic turnabout and retribution. The modern world might scoff at Scripture, but we still believe in brimstone raining hard on reckless confidence, hubris and indulgence. Though too enlightened to worry about hell, we still fear its perennial earthly permutations.
Thus, by 1970, the sing-along got scary. Our prophets warned of imminent planetary death: "between 75 and 80 percent" of animal species extinct by 1995; the human population explosion certain to converge, this century, with "famines of unbelievable proportions." By 1985, Life magazine said, "solid" evidence foretold pollution blocking half our sunlight and city folks commuting in gas masks.
Then don't forget sweaters. For 20 years the climate had been "chilling sharply."
"If present trends continue," a leading ecologist declared, the world would be "11 degrees colder in the year 2000."
A deadly nitrogen disaster was "only a matter of time." And then the sucking dry of all Earth's fossil fuel by the year 2000: I can still see my housemate, the geology major, nodding. The models didn't lie.
"It is already too late," we heard. Experts agreed "almost unanimously" on the timetables. Of course if they'd been right, who would have been left to fret about the crises yet to come — over whales, the ozone, acid rain, chemtrails and the rain forest?
I recite this ridiculous roster with all respect for the true science employed in saving the planet. We also owe a lot to faithful advocacy from non-scientists.
Still it helps to recall that, at its core, good science has always relied on doubt. Today the Science Channel has a motto: "Question everything." Or as Mom put it, "Believe half of what you see and none of what you hear."
So too for public policy. Ironically, to keep the faith, both science and democracy need to hear the skeptics. Not just the prophets. Not just the choir.
Blind faith, by contrast, is the tool of politicians, like Al Gore, and self-promoters — like Al Gore. When I hear it said that "we've already lost 28 days of winter," I'm sorry. This clearly isn't science. It is faith with both eyes closed. It is zeal that surpasses understanding. Likewise, those dabblers and activists who declare the question settled when they disparage qualified scientists who disagree, that's hubris.
Finally, when the climate faithful try to strangle dissent, that's not climatology. That's politics. As I recall, not even Joe McCarthy went that far. Right now a little "denial" seems more intelligent and more than ever needed.
Chris King is filling in for regular Thursday columnist Melanie Sturm, who is on vacation.
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