Once they denied relativity; now they deny climate change

The "crackpots," that is.

That's according to physicist Joergen van Dongen, in a fascinating paper for the Institute for History and the Foundation of Science, published last fall, available through ScienceDirect. It's  called "On Einstein's opponents, and other crackpots."

The paper begins with a quote from Einstein that sounds almost as if he could be talking about the issue today — just substitute "climate change" for "relativity theory."

Einstein said:

This world is a strange madhouse. Currently every coachman and every waiter is debating whether relativity theory is correct. Belief in this matter depends on political party affiliation.

The quote comes from a letter Einstein wrote three weeks after a huge rally in Berlin against relativity, in which "Einstein was denounced as a fraud and scientific philistine." Despite experiments showing that light was bent by the gravitational pull of the sun, exactly as his revolutionary theory had predicted ten years earlier, "a right-wing rabble-rouser" named Paul Weyland attacked him and his theory of relativity,  and won widespread support.

Summarizing a German book on this phenomenon, van Dongen writes:

…anti-relativists were convinced that their opinions were being suppressed. Indeed, many believed that conspiracies were at work that thwarted the promotion of their ideas. The fact that for them relativity was obviously wrong, yet still so very successful, strengthened the contention that a plot was at play…

Sounds familiar? A new theory by a scientist overturns conventional thinking, and rightly predicts what never would have been guessed before. In Einstein's time, that was the concept that gravity could bend light; in our time, this is the concept that invisible amounts of trace gases will force climate change.

And further, van Dongen notes:

Conspiracy theories tend to do well in uncertain times: they create order in chaos.

True, but as Janis Dickinson predicted in her paper last year on climate change denial, it's also true that as fear rises — in "uncertain times" — so too do people cling more tightly to their existing beliefs, defend them more fiercely, and attack those they see as enemies more bitterly.

In his time, Einstein canceled an opportunity to address a scientific congress in l922, fearing he might be assassinated (as was his friend Walther Rathenau, another prominent Jewish liberal). In our times, the leading proponent of climate change science, James Hansen, has been repeatedly threatened with violence, albeit mostly by, yes, crackpots.

There's nothing new under the sun except, perhaps, increasing amounts of greenhouse gases.

h/t: Andrew Sullivan, Joss Garman


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