The earth’s movement around the sun and other unresolved scientific controversies


Our inbox at TerraPass receives a fairly steady trickle of global warming denialism, with various arguments falling into or out of favor based on the inscrutable cycles of talk radio.

So, for example, we received a recent spate of blog comments pointing to rising temperatures on Mars and Pluto as definitive proof that global warming is hokum. I had never heard this particular line of attack before, and although I assume it was inspired by Fred Thompson’s recent radio smarm-fest, who knows by what tangled webs these stories spread.

Although the Martian warming critique was a novel one (to me), it elicits a familiar reaction: don’t denialists suppose that scientists have already considered and rejected these simple storylines? Over a hundred years of theory, empirical evidence, and (more recently) insanely complex computer simulations undergird the reality of anthropogenic warming. Can anyone suppose that this accumulated mountain of theory and evidence is really just a house of cards, waiting to be toppled by a single Martian temperature reading?

It isn’t just the general public that has trouble absorbing scientific arguments. The press is often inexcusably lax in its portrayal of the scientific process. A recent case in point is Emily Yoffe’s much-abused editorial in the Washington Post.

Ostensibly Yoffe is writing about the dangers of using scare tactics to hype global warming, and there is perhaps some merit to this point. Unfortunately, she cloaks the point in a too-clever contrarianism rooted in a deep misapprehension of actual climate science. Presumably we should take Yoffe’s claim that she isn’t a global warming skeptic at face value, but she ends up carrying water for skeptics by repeating numerous long-debunked denialist talking points.

Blogospheric reaction has been swift and fierce, and Chris Mooney offers by far the best general criticism of how journalists mishandle science:

If I’m being a bit hard on Emily Yoffe, it’s because there’s a larger point here. Yoffe’s piece strikes me as indicative of how some aspects of the Washington journalism culture treat scientific information. A lot of the time, what’s prized in that world is the ability to make a clever argument — to turn conventional wisdom on its head.

When you apply this approach to science, however, there’s an utter mismatch. In science, “conventional wisdom” is a consensus perspective that has withstood repeated expert attempts to unseat it. In this context, being “counterintuitive” — especially when one is doing so well outside of the traditional channels of scientific discourse — usually amounts to little more than being just plain wrong.

Unsurprisingly, this is also where the “warming on Mars” storyline ends up: just plain wrong.

It takes a long time for scientific arguments to become entrenched as common knowledge. Almost 1 in 5 Americans believes that the sun revolves around the Earth (and another 1 in 12 isn’t sure). Unfortunately, in the case of global warming, the clock is ticking.

Photo credit: image of Mars taken from USGS.

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  1. Erin - July 5, 2007

    I assume Adam has seen this resource since it is linked to in the end of the article, but I’d like to point it out to the other readers since it is such a comprehensive resource: Gristmill’s How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic

  2. Al - July 5, 2007

    Yoffe is right and wrong at the same time. Yes, global warming is real, at least for the next few hundred years. The ice caps will melt, and the seas will rise. Our present population size is unsustainable in the long run, so global warming is not the key issue. Elites throughout the world are preparing for the “Soylent Green” (“Make Room, Make Room”) world we are rapidly heading for. As Frederick Talor found out a Western Electric years a century ago, change is good. Change upsets the status quo that privileged elites love so much. We ordinary people are going to suffer no matter what. Privileged elites are threatened by change, since their less competent children would have to be smart and flexible to maintain their privileges. So climate change is good, almost as good as Chingis Khan who slaughtered the elites and rewarded the artisans, poets, and artists. Of course new elites will rise again, so it’s a never ending struggle. The end of global warming in a few hundred years and the advent of the next ice age will be a real change, however that we might not survive.

  3. Jim - July 5, 2007

    There will always be people who deny that global warming exists. Historically, science has always pushed through what we already “know” as fact. This is, by definition, the scientific process. Unfortunately, most people don’t understand the nature of scientific research or even the scientific process itself. 1 in 5 Americans think the sun revolves around the earth? Really? With the way we are reacting to global warming I would think it was more like 1 in 2.
    Yes, the “elites” will eventually suffer. And those people include just about everyone living within the U.S. borders. We are insulated by our wealth and are able to ward off (for at least a little longer than most) the adverse effects of climate change. The sad thing is that for the people who live in already marginal areas (like in parts of Mali, for example) under political systems that are already unable to govern effectively, global warming is going to result in the displacement of hundreds of millions of human beings. I am an archaeologist and make a living looking for the abandoned remains of past cultures. Here in the desert southwest (Tucson/Phoenix area) you cant walk anywhere without seeing evidence of 1000-year-old habitation sites. This area, like Mali, is and has been (at least for the past 10,000 years or so) a marginal environment. We will will be one of the first people in the U.S. to experience the real effects of climate change (think WATER). Just like the Hohokam who lived here before (and it is estimated that there were perhaps a million of them) this area will be largely abandoned within a couple hundred years.
    Thanks for my $0.02.

  4. Chad - July 5, 2007

    I have to disagree with Al one point: Our current population is not unsustainable, even with current technology. We have the knowledge, RIGHT NOW, to have all seven billion of us living in a manner that sustainable over the long term. It is a matter of implementation that is our fundamental problem. In the future, our technological prowess will grow much faster than our population (which will top out later this century at ~9 billion), making it even easier for us to live sustainable lives. Indeed, the demographic-political problem of TOO FEW children will start to become a major issue here in the US soon, as it has in other industrialized countries.

  5. John K. - July 5, 2007

    A problem for the global warming issue and others is the need for media to appear “balanced” by always presenting both sides of an issue. This gives the false impression of equal validity for both sides unless the writer is very careful (and often the unsophisticated reader is left with that false impression even if the writer does take that care.)

  6. Tom Arnold - July 5, 2007

    I agree John. Although it has been some time since a member of the Flat Earth Society has been quoted in the New York Times.
    Perhaps Peter Deusberg is a better example? Is he really getting quoted in HIV/AIDS pieces that much anymore?

  7. disdaniel - July 5, 2007

    “Now, does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?”
    The question is faulty. Both occur, so the answer depends on your frame of reference, which is unspecified.
    Now if you asked people, is the Earth or the Sun at the center of the solar system, I would agree that only “the Sun” is the right answer.

  8. Anonymous - July 6, 2007

    I don’t think anyone knows what the ‘scientific method’ actually is anymore.
    The scientific method is: I think something may be happening to the earth – find ALL the information you can – compare it ALL – make deductions IF POSSIBLE.
    The method currently being used: I beleive people are the cause of global warming – find only evedence that supports this idea – pass it off as a scientific conclusion.
    The latter is how a layer prepares for a court case, it is NOT SCIENCE.
    The climate was, is, and always will change, with us or without us. It was changing before we were here and it will continue long after we are gone.
    What makes anyone think we can now stop it. It just shows how self centered our society has become.
    [Ed. — actually we do know what the scientific method is, thanks! It’s regretful that the scientific method hasn’t yielded results that comport with your worldview, but we’re going to keep listening to the scientists on this one.]

  9. chris - July 9, 2007

    Does the earth really revolve around the Sun??? What does the Sun revolve around? What about earth Wobble? Does Earth wobble have an affect on climate?

  10. Adam Stein - July 9, 2007

    Yes, it does. The sun revolves around Gamera, the giant prehistoric flame-eating tortoise. The earth occasionally wobbles, but it won’t fall down.
    Hope this helps.

  11. Rob - July 10, 2007

    The scientific method is to propose a falsifiable hypothesis, and through repeated attempts to prove it wrong, build a case that it’s indeed correct. One way of doing that is asking questions like “If the CO2 was anthropogenic, it would be high in C14 isotopes from burnt coal. If it’s not, it won’t be.” So you’re seeking to test the hypothesis that the CO2 is human-generated, and you go out and get the data, and voila, turns out it *is* high in C14. Now, that in itself (that there’s no other explanation for the high C14 content but anthropogenicity) is a hypothesis to be tested, and I’m sure many people have tried to falsify it but failed. You’re welcome to, too!

  12. Penny - July 11, 2007

    If Yoffe cannot deal with her pets how could anyone believe anything she writes about global warming.

  13. sofia - August 22, 2009

    How fast does the Earth moves around the Sun?
    thanks. sofia