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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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