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Cherry-Picking Beliefs

February 16, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 7

Jan. 12, page 4: The image caption in the graphene oxide article incorrectly states that the top row of photos shows stable graphene oxide films. The bottom row actually depicts the stable films, and the top row depicts films degraded by water.

Feb. 2, page 20: The number of recharge cycles for supercapacitors is misstated in the table. They offer up to 1 million recharge cycles.

Clifford Eddy’s letter on climate change and Copernicus raises interesting questions about historical and scientific truth (C&EN, Oct. 27, 2014, page 4). As a loyal member of the Catholic Church establishment, Copernicus was in no danger of being burned at the stake for publishing his evidence that Earth orbits the sun. His heliocentric theory intrigued church leaders, including the pope. His major work was published by Lutheran allies diplomatically, almost under the noses of antiheliocentrics Martin Luther and Phillipp Melanchthon.

The vicious backlash arose later, when a defiant Galileo was sentenced to life imprisonment and advocacy of heliocentricity was strictly banned as contrary to scripture. The Catholic Church attempted to bolster its dubious logic by attacking the methodology of Copernicus and ­Galileo.

The theories of natural selection and climate change unfolded similarly. Initially Copernicus, Darwin, and climate scientists were each concerned about the validity of their novel theories. They shared their ideas with leading thinkers of their time to hone their evolving hypotheses. After widespread dissemination, each hypothesis triggered a sincere but illogical backlash from a scientifically illiterate public that gravitates toward simplistic ideologies promising a shortcut to eternity or wealth.

Evidence of climate change initially aroused more curiosity than skepticism. In the 1980s and ’90s, many liberal and conservative leaders were concerned, disagreeing mainly on whether mitigation should proceed by regulation or free-market incentives.

However, the conservatives gradually drifted into a dependence on consumerism as the engine of economic growth. They spread this ideology globally as the primary aim of human culture. A consumerist economy is driven by population growth and unbridled consumption of energy, resources, housing, food, and health care. These imperatives conflict diametrically with efforts to mitigate climate change. Attacks against evidence for climate change are thus inevitable.

Regarding Eddy’s quest for scientific truth about climate change, should we trust a consensus of climate scientists? Their science-based supporters like Rudy Baum and the Union of Concerned Scientists? The media? Majority opinion? Or our own analysis of reported data, which for nonspecialists is inevitably cherry-picked? Perhaps historians can address these questions better than ­scientists.

William K. Wilson



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