Denying Relativity

I suppose that it is no surprise that the modern climate denier shares a lot of political DNA with the various anti-scientific campaigns of the past: the relativity deniers, the evolution deniers, the ozone hole deniers, and the AIDS deniers. Joss Garman has a nice story on the parallels between the anti-relativists of the early twentieth century and the anti-AGW crowd today. I especially like this Einstein quote:

"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.”
So wrote Albert Einstein in a letter to his one time collaborator, the mathematician Marcel Grossmann in 1920.

More from Garman

Jeroen van Dongen of the Institute for History and Foundations of Science at Utrecht University in Holland, writing in a recent edition of the journal, ‘Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics,’ describes the effectiveness of the movement that grew up to oppose Einstein’s theory. There are some striking parallels with today’s climate debate.

At a time when The Guardian just reported another poll showing a drop in concern about climate change, and a New York Times front page this week described Britons’ growing doubts about the science, its worth taking a look at that anti-science campaign, which was waged by Einstein’s critics because like today’s climate denial movement, the anti-relativity movement had some success too.

Van Dongen highlights:

“Anti-relativists… built up networks to act against Einstein’s theory in concert. This led to some success. For instance, the clamor about the theory in Germany contributed to the Nobel Committee’s delay in awarding its 1921 prize to Einstein and to the particular choice of subject for which he finally did receive it: his account of the photo-electric effect, instead of the controversial theory of relativity.”

He continues:

“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.”

Van Dongen concludes:

“Conspiracies theories tend to do well in uncertain times: they create order in chaos….Just as there is no real point in debating conspiracy theorists, there was no point in explaining relativity to anti-relativists… Their strong opposition was not due to a lack of understanding, but rather the reaction to a perceived threat… Anti-relativists were convinced of their own ideas, and were really only interested in pushing through their own theories: any explanation of relativity would not likely have changed their minds.”

Despite the well-intentioned efforts of some climate scientists like Professor Rapley of the Science Museum, it’s not apparent that a repeated explanation of the basics of climate science is what will help in the face of the latest disinformation campaigns on global warming.

As I’ve documented elsewhere, prolific climate deniers such as Ian Plimer, James Delingpole and Christopher Booker who deliberately spread untruths on climate change can be wrong 99% of the time and right for less than 1% of the time and still ‘win the argument’ because the playing field simply isn’t level. Equally, the IPCC can be right 99% of the time and wrong less than 1% of the time, and they still ‘lose.’ As Dr. Robert J. Brulle of Drexel University, whom the NYT quoted last year as “an expert on environmental communications,” told Climate Progress:

The anti-AGW crowd has a big advantage though: the support of a powerful and vastly wealthy set of lobbies that care nothing about climate change and everything about their own short term profits.

(via Andrew Sullivan)


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