This is a guest post by Jamie L. Vernon, Ph.D., an HIV research scientist and aspiring policy wonk, who recently moved to D.C. to get a taste of the action
Well, today Chris is somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea. For those who aren’t aware, he is on the Center for Inquiry Travel Club Cruise with the likes of Joyce Salisbury, Lawrence Krauss and Phil Plait. I can only imagine the discussions they are having as they travel across seas that were once the battlegrounds for control of ideas and thought in the world. Most often those conflicts occurred between religious and scientific views, which in many cases is not very different from what is occurring today.
Will Phil Plait take a late night stroll on the upper deck to catch a glimpse of our galaxy as it passes overhead? If so, will he think about the fact that our galaxy, the study of which has forced massive changes in religious thought, ultimately bears its name because of the story of a jealous Greek goddess?
Hera, the wife of Zeus, is said to have spilled the milk from her breast when she forced Herecles, the child born of one of Zeus’ adulterous escapades, to stop suckling. The spilled milk appeared in the sky and became known as the Milky Way.
Will Lawrence Krauss catch a glimpse of a star from his balcony and remember that if not for Copernicus’ observation that the universe does not revolve around the Earth but rather the Earth revolves around the Sun, if not for this observation, the Scientific Revolution may never have occurred?
Will Chris Mooney pace along the main deck and ponder the challenges Galileo faced after he developed the scientific methods to prove Copernicus’ theory of heliocentrism?
As these great minds explore the Mediterranean this week, I wonder how Galileo communicated his discoveries to the people of his time? Did he use different communication methods to reach the citizenry than those for his scientific peers? What did it take to convince his opponents to embrace his conclusions? Indeed, many of his opponents never did.
I can only imagine the angst that Galileo endured once he realized that his science would reorder human understanding of the universe. For the rest of his life, he would struggle internally and externally over the turmoil his discoveries would create. The challenges he faced then were similar to those we face today as we struggle to make a persuasive argument that the climate is changing in a not-so-good way. Only the stakes for Galileo were much higher. His discoveries put his life at risk and ultimately led to permanent imprisonment at the hands of the Catholic church.
But why? Well, the threat this posed to the Church was so great and required such reevaluation about the teachings from the Bible that he was forbidden from defending his observations. Fortunately, for the fate of humanity, he violated the Church’s demands. This, in the end, led to his incarceration.
Today, we see a similar form of scientific oppression, only the oppressor is not always the Church and the motive is not only to preserve the integrity of religious practice. Rather, as we see in the climate debate, the oppressors are big corporations, as they are legally bound to protect the profits of their investors. What some perceive to be evil intentions that arise from greed and gluttony are actually the result of legal bindings that require corporations to defend their profit-making practices.
For example, within the oil industry, companies whose profits are based on fossil fuels must consider the impact that investing in alternative fuels will have on the value of their stocks. If it is deemed that significant spending on research and development of alternative energy sources will have a negative overall impact on corporate value (by sending a signal that oil is not the future, thus driving investors to new technologies), these companies are legally bound to not participate in these activities. Further, if a corporation identifies a threat to the value of their stock, such as a competitor or an entity that wishes to limit the company’s profits, then the company must act to defend their product.
An oil company has many faculties for defending itself. It may attempt to use its funds to buy out a competitor or silence an antagonist. It might use its massive profits to form relationships with political leaders in order to persuade them to support legislation that protects its industry. The company may also use its political power to motivate public officials to carryout acts that are based in law, but are actually designed to squash the rise of opponents. We are currently witnessing this in regards to climate scientist Michael Mann’s fight with Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. While this fight is considered legal, it is designed to achieve ends that are counter to the interests of the public. But, the oil companies are legally required to support these types of activities. The company may also pay scientists to use their understanding of the science behind their opponents’ arguments to manufacture a controversy over things like climate change, which they classify as a scientific controversy. Clearly, we are seeing this when less than 2% (many of this 2% are employees of or benefit from the fossil fuel industry) of climate scientists disagree that the planet’s climate is warming and yet this 2% is given equal footing in the media. Perhaps this form of “balanced” media coverage is due to the fact that oil companies offer such lucrative advertising revenue for media outlets. Could this possibly be the case? Heh. On a different front, the company may simultaneously carryout public relations campaigns that shed a positive light on their products. The company may also create a campaign that leads the public to believe that they are exploring alternatives to the extent that they satisfy the public’s desire to achieve the benefits of alternative fuel sources while not putting the oil industry at risk of losing investors.
Today, while all of these devices are being put to use by the oil industry, one (myself included) must be cautious not to jump to the conclusion that these activities are of evil origin. Instead, we must understand that our legal and economic systems led to the creation of policies that necessitate these behaviors on the part of the company. It is survival of the fittest, corporate-style. If they fail to live up to their legal commitments to their investors, they are legally bound to accept financial responsibility for the losses that might occur without these actions.
Whereas Galileo, despite his contradictory scientific theories, was thought to have been a true religious believer until his death, some have argued that his proclamations of “belief” were merely survival tactics. A denunciation of the Church could have been a death sentence. Today, we are under no such religious persecution.
Aside: For oil corporations that rely on profits from fossil fuel sales, it truly is a life or death situation. If investors get a whiff of blood in the water that the world is genuinely moving away from oil, these companies will be doomed. Thus, those whose livelihoods rely on oil profits are truly fighting for their own survival.
While we may be concerned about livelihoods, we are not talking about losing our lives in the fight for science. Fortunately, even in this atmosphere, there are those who are willing to fight. Michael Mann may be financially devastated by his fight with Cuccinelli. Who knows? But the fight over climate change will go on. It will continue in the blogosphere and on television. It will continue in classrooms and board rooms. It will continue in Notting Hill and on Capitol Hill. Unlike Galileo, we have the American democratic system to give us the environment to hold this debate. We also have the authority to change the laws to release the oil companies from their legal bindings. We must apply all options. If we look at this as a legal problem rather than a war against evil, perhaps we can reach a mutually beneficial resolution. And, perhaps, the oil industry will be able to act on its knowledge that climate change is occurring and that it is likely due to human activities, specifically the burning of fossil fuels.
What we know about the Catholic Church is that they eventually came to accept the theory of heliocentricity. We can only hope that the conditions change such that the oil industry follows suit in regards to the climate debate.