Remember when truth was more than inconvenient?


I found myself surprisingly touched by this story of a 71-year-old MIT physics professor whose online lectures have become an internet sensation. The article includes the story of a florist whose interest in rainbows led him to Google, which led him to Professor Lewin’s videos, which eventually led him to take courses in physics, calculus, and differential equations just so he could better know the beauty he had appreciated but never fully understood.

“Professor Lewin was correct,” writes the florist. “He made me SEE…and it has changed my life for the better!”

High school provided my first taste of physics. I was an argumentative student. If something didn’t make sense to me, I pushed on it, hard. Of course, the laws of physics don’t bend, certainly not for a high school student, and when eventually I was able to move past my misunderstanding, I fell through to a world both more ordered and more profound than I had previously known. recently devoted over 4,000 words to unpacking the latest strange attempt to debunk global warming. The article, as always, is interesting and lucid, but basically it boils down to a single argument: you can’t wish away over 100 years of accumulated scientific theory and evidence with a single (apparently cooked) set of data. You just can’t.

This would seem to be a simple enough thing to grasp, but experience suggests otherwise. My line of work brings me into contact with a fair number of climate change “skeptics,” and what stands out most is the transparent badness of their arguments. Bad science and bad faith, congealed into a freefloating worldview unmoored from any unruly facts.

Which is just a damned shame. Obviously it’s a shame from a political and environmental standpoint, but it’s also a loss for the people themselves who cling to false but apparently comforting views. Environmentalists are sometimes accused of “worshipping science.” It’s an incoherent accusation, one that could only be made by someone who doesn’t understand science or environmentalism. But I will own up to loving science, both for the understanding and the wonderment it conveys.

“I walk with a new spring in my step and I look at life through physics-colored eyes,” writes the 62-year-old florist. “Thank you with all my heart.”

Photo available under Creative Commons license from Flickr user Nicholas T.

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  1. pradwastes - December 26, 2007

    Conservative website is now selling a book called “The Politically incorrect Guide to GLOBAL WARMING and Environmentalism. It claims “Global Warming” is the Ideal scare campaign for leftist demagogues like Gore who doing all they can to secure strict control over the economy and the minutest details of individual life” The book claims “the earth has often been hotter than it is now.” It also says to lay out inconcontreble evidence for the fact that global warming is Chicken-Little hysteria, not actual science” One of the claims is that data of melting of glaciers ignores the fact that new snow more than replaces what glaciers are calving.
    They say the Medieval warm period was sigificantly warmer than now and was a golden age for agriculture, innovation, and life span.

    Don’t let anyone say science is not poitical.

  2. Patrick - December 26, 2007

    It’s appropriate that you’re discussing physics in this article. One of the things I remember most clearly from my high school physics class was the concept of inertia and the difference between potential energy (MGH) and kinetic energy (MC2). It feels like we as a society are finally starting to gain some momentum by joining the rest of the world in tackling this problem.
    Science is not political. Unfortunately, how science is presented to the scientifically unsophisticated world and how it receives funding can be VERY political. It’s no surprise to hear that a book like this has come out. I am sure there are many more publications like it, most of which can be easily traced back to conservative “thinktanks” like the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the like.
    What it boils down to is this: those who have generally been successful with the status quo seek to preserve it by any means possible. Conservatives oppose doing anything about global warming, in the same way that they opposed desegregation, voting rights for women and minorities, and establishing national parks. People who want an excuse not to change will listen to these folks and subsequently become anacrhonisms in their own time, while those who are willing to study the original science will more forward and accomplish something truly great for the world. The good news is that the “contributions” made by those who get left behind by history in this way aren’t missed much.

  3. Carolyn - December 28, 2007

    I found the most important message in your article to be the willingness of people to accept science as something they can (and should) comprehend. At work, I was laying out a plan to create education around environmentally-friendly business practices, and I was told by one of our executives that they didn’t think we could really get people to care enough to change their habits by simply laying out the “science” of our environmental impacts:
    “I don’t feel compelled by understanding what is happening at a molecular level,” he said. “I feel compelled to do something when I see baby polar bears dying because their mother swam too far away to find food.”

    This is evidence of both HOW and WHY these issues become politicized. We find ourselves communicating not about what the science is, but about how it will effect peoples’ lives. And once you start dealing in how people live their lives, you cross over into cultural and moral decisions that require political and religious debate. So, no, you can’t separate science and political issues, at least not once the science leaves the lab and you ask people to DO something with it!

    For all of us trying to educate the public on the impacts of environmentally unsafe practices, this is our biggest hurdle. And unfortunately, also the thing that makes it impossible to explore in a public forum without manipulation by political groups, which exist (in theory) only to help people build their communities in the vision of how they’d like to live.