24 Sep 2014

Beware Smugness in the Name of Science

Climate Change 47 Comments

In the last hour I was assaulted by two wonderful examples of people misleading their audience while wearing the mantle of objective science.

First, I was reading to my son from Max Tegmark’s book, The Mathematical Universe. Tegmark is a physicist at MIT so he is a smart guy. In the begining of the book he was relaying the history of man’s efforts to estimate the distance and size of various celestial objects. Check out this quote from page 25:

Some ancients speculated that the stars were small holes in a black sphere through which distant light shone through [sic]. The Italian astronomer Giordano Bruno suggested that they were instead objects like our Sun, just much farther away, perhaps with their own planets and civilizations–this didn’t go down too well with the Catholic Church, which had him burned at the stake in 1600.

Now hang on a second. This makes it sound as if Bruno were killed because he had these cosmological views. But no, the Church wasn’t going to kill an astronomer for speculating about other civilizations. Here’s the Wikipedia account:

Giordano Bruno…(1548 – February 17, 1600), born Filippo Bruno, was an Italian Dominican friar, philosopher, mathematician, poet, and astrologer. He is celebrated for his cosmological theories, which went even further than the then-novel Copernican model, proposing that the stars were just distant suns surrounded by their own exoplanets, and moreover the possibility that these planets could even foster life of their own (a philosophical position known as cosmic pluralism). He also insisted that the universe is in fact infinite, thus having no celestial body at its “center”.

Beginning in 1593, Bruno was tried for heresy by the Roman Inquisition on charges including denial of several core Catholic doctrines (including the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, the virginity of Mary, and Transubstantiation). Bruno’s pantheism was also a matter of grave concern. The Inquisition found him guilty, and in 1600 he was burned at the stake in Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori. After his death he gained considerable fame, particularly among 19th- and early 20th-century commentators who regarded him as a martyr for science, though scholars emphasize that Bruno’s astronomical views were at most a minor component of the theological and philosophical beliefs that led to his trial. Bruno’s case is still considered a landmark in the history of free thought and the future of the emerging sciences. [Bold added.]

That’s a little bit different from Tegmark’s version, isn’t it? It should go without saying–but I’ll say it anyway–that the Church shouldn’t have killed someone for his beliefs, period. (Even if your sole goal in life were to get as many people as possible to accept Jesus in their hearts, killing heretics is arguably counterproductive; you’d get a bunch of people publicly confessing their faith, but who knows what they’d believe inside.) But it’s a bit more understandable that the Catholic Church in 1600 would have killed someone for heresy, who had been a Dominican friar and yet disputed the divinity of Christ, among other doctrines. Also, I note in passing, this hero of science was a Dominican friar. So the standard story of “Church vs. science” that Tegmark, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and other science popularizers like to tell, doesn’t work if you actually care about historical accuracy.

For my second example, watch Secretary of State John Kerry’s remarks in February 2014 about what “science” tells us about climate change, and the certainty of this knowledge. Start watching at 7:30. If you have the time, I encourage you to let it ride till 11:10 or so:

That’s really astonishing. Scientists are as sure that human emissions will lead to dangerous consequences…as they are that touching a hot stove will burn you? The way you have to interpret Kerry’s statement to make it true, takes away all of the controversy in the political debates. Richard Lindzen of MIT, for example, doesn’t dispute that other things equal, adding CO2 to the atmosphere allows for greater heat retention. But he disputes that other things remain equal. And in fact, the catastrophic predictions rely on positive feedback mechanisms, which are not completely fictitious theories but certainly aren’t as well established as the fact that a hot stove will burn human skin.

Another major problem with Kerry’s remarks is that he leads the unsuspecting viewer to believe that the Earth has had a fairly stable temperature for millions of years, and that within the last ten years it’s reached all-time record highs. But no, that’s completely false; temperatures have been far higher in the past. Kerry is very carefully using the phrase “on record” so as not to be out-and-out lying. But coming on the heels of Kerry’s discussion about the optimal “average temperature” to make life possible, someone who didn’t know better would certainly conclude that recent temperatures were higher than at any point in millions of years.

To be clear, my frustration with Kerry isn’t that he said some misleading things about climate change. No, it’s that he did so in the midst of lecturing people on how simple and clear-cut “the science” on this was.

47 Responses to “Beware Smugness in the Name of Science”

  1. Transformer says:

    “But it’s a bit more understandable that the Catholic Church in 1600 would have killed someone for heresy, who had been a Dominican friar and yet disputed the divinity of Christ, among other doctrines.”

    OK, so Tegmark was wrong (or at least imprecise) about the reasons why the church murdered Brono, fine.

    But is killing him because he opposed the virgin birth better than killing him coz he thought stars might be planets ? Am I missing something here ?

    • Transformer says:

      Oh, I suppose I should have said “stars might be like our sun”.

    • Major.Freedom says:

      Bruno’s imprecision is I think understandable, because the Church has attacked scientists for having scientific beliefs that contradicted the Church’s beliefs about the orientation of the physical world, apart from belief in God or virgin birth or Jesus.

      Galileo for example was threatened with torture if he didn’t “abjure, curse and detest” heliocentrism.

    • Gene Callahan says:

      The Church did not “murder” Bruno. In fact, the Church never killed heretics. The Church would judge whether someone was or wasn’t a heretic. If it was judged that they were, they were turned over to civil authorities who decided their punishment.

      The Inquisition was, in fact, set up to REDUCE the number of people being punished for heresy, which the civil authorities were apparently quite eager to do. And anyone accused of the crime was much better off getting tried by the Inquisition than by a secular court.

      And the issue is not whether this is “better”: if someone wants to accuse the church of being “anti-science,” obviously the fact that someone was condemned for denying the Trinity isn’t going to work! HeySo that is why people made up the idea Bruno was condemned for heliocentrism.

      • Ben B says:

        When you say “turned over”, I imagine someone being extradited in chains? Did the Church say, “Who Ben B?, oh yeah, he’s a heretic if ive ever seen one, why do you want to know?” or did the Church have some sort of formal setup with the State where they knew that the State was actively murdering these people?

        I mean, technically Obama isn’t a murderer, just like most mafia kingpins aren’t murderers, and neither was Charles Manson; however, I think you could argue that they’ve “turned over” many individuals to those who actually initiate aggression.

        I don’t know about you, but if I found out that the State was going around killing a bunch of people because of some things I said, and even though I was just “telling it like it is”, Id probably bite my tounge next time.

      • Major.Freedom says:


        It is not true that the civil authorities “decided the punishment”.

        The Church decided the punishment and the civil authorities physically carried out the punishment. The concept of “decision” is that of the mind. The mind of the middle ages, that of law, morality, and yes, punishments, rested with the Church.

        The Church wanted the civil authorities to put convicted people to death, and the Church knew that their convictions would be followed by killings.

        The civil authorities were in every case a member of the Church. The Church-State if you will were the authorities. The mind, the Church, and the body, the “civil authorities”.

        Can’t have an acting body without a mind.

        Is it your mind that is responsible for piss poor arguments, or is it your finders and hands and arms? Knowing the answer to that question should help in understanding who “decided” death for heretics.

        Read the Bible for crying out loud. It is full of advocacies of the death penalty for non-violent “crimes”.

        Sheesh, by your logic, Hitler was not a murderer because he did not himself pull any triggers, he just ordered it and people followed. Guess we’re all wrong about the peaceful, non-murdering Hitler. He was really just a loud mouth.

        I trust you will be there to correct anyone who said Hitler murdered their grandparents. “No no no, Hitler did not kill your grandparents, it was really Private Sheuller. Damn, you are blaming the wrong guy!”

        • Major.Freedom says:

          Hitler may have killed his girlfriend who threatened to leave him, but no strong evidence came to light that proved it.

    • pearl says:

      Yeah, you are missing the point that this friar was not killed for presenting scientific opinion, but for undermining Church teaching. If you don’t understand this distinction, compare it to the fact that there are people in jail in Canada and Europe for publishing opinions that were contrary to Academia’s pronouncements on the “Holocaust”. The criminalization of “apostasy” remains alive and well in the Church of Elite Opinion.

  2. Bob Roddis says:

    I recall learning in public school that during “the ice age”, Michigan was covered with a glacier which formed the Great Lakes when it melted. However, I always figured that was millions or billions of years ago. Not a mere 13,000 years ago. Michigan State used to have a series of four of these pictures, including one still showing significant ice only 9,000 years ago. I wish I had download them all before they disappeared. So what is a “normal” temperature in Michigan?


  3. Impatient says:

    This wikipedia account is deeply mendacious. We do not have the records of Bruno’s trial and no-one knows the exact charges against him. http://galileo.rice.edu/chr/bruno.html
    Tegmark’s implication is as justified or not as Murphy’s, but Murphy’s bald statement about what the church would not do is baseless.

    Bob Murphy may spend his time thinking up ‘more reasonable’ grounds for burning people who dispute his faith, but like Transformer I think this kind of apologetics astonishing.

    • integral says:

      Do you know what was in the summary mentioned in the wiki? I tried googling it but no luck so far.

    • Richie says:

      This comment seems eerily similar to Ken B.’s writing.

      • Transformer says:

        I suppose Bob’s point is not that the the church was a beacon of libertarian values (it clearly wasn’t) – but the much narrower one that it was not as anti-science as people think and much of its killing was done out of a desire to suppress religious dissent, rather than to suppress scientific thinking per se.

        I know very little about church history – but its hard not to think that 1) There would be a great deal of overlap between those holding anti-religious beliefs and those holding pro-scientific beliefs (as in the case of Bruno and 2) The church would clearly have deemed many scientific beliefs as anti-religious as well and persecute those who held such beliefs.

        For this reason I think it might prove a hard task to distinguish between anti-scientific and anti-heresy persecution by the church – which probably saw both kinds of persecution as part of an overall ideological purity plan.

        • Gene Callahan says:

          Once again, the Catholic Church never killed anyone for heresy. All it ever did was report to the civil authorities, “Yes, this is a heretic,” or “No, this isn’t.”

          Of course the church was aware that people were being put to death for this crime. But that was happening well before the Inquisition. The whole point of the Inquisition was to make sure someone really was a heretic before the civil authorities executed them, and not just someone who had a wife that the Duke wanted to marry or who was a threat to his rule.

        • Gene Callahan says:

          “I know very little about church history”


          ” – but its hard not to think that”

          This is an excellent way to do history: forget the evidence, just sit around and see what you can imagine!

          ” 1) There would be a great deal of overlap between those holding anti-religious beliefs and those holding pro-scientific beliefs..”

          Bruno was certainly not “anti-religious”: he was a religious mystic. And he was not a scientist at all.

          And in any case, what you find it “not hard to think,” the fact is that EVERY great figure in the Scientific Revolution was religious, and often deeply so. Copernicus was a priest, Galileo thought he was discovering God’s mind in discovering scientific laws, Kepler was a mystic, and Newton spent more time on Bible studies and he did on physics and mathematics combined.

      • Bob Murphy says:

        An interesting observation, Richie, let us keep close watch. And unlike the Catholic Church, the administrator of Free Advice will not dawdle and take 7 years to implement holy justice!

        (Chill out everyone, I am against killing people for their beliefs. I said that in the OP, but I know some of you need repetition.)

    • Gene Callahan says:

      “But as Ingrid Rowland demonstrates in her new biography of the renegade thinker, “Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic,” Bruno was no martyr for science. What got him killed was a murky mixture of spiritual transgression and personal foibles, combined with a large dose of bad luck. ” — http://www.salon.com/2008/08/25/bruno_2/

      According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “in 1600 there was no official Catholic position on the Copernican system, and it was certainly not a heresy. When […] Bruno […] was burned at the stake as a heretic, it had nothing to do with his writings in support of Copernican cosmology.”

      We do not need the records of Bruno’s trial: we can do actual historical research on all of the other evidence we have. You are calling the Wikipedia page “deeply mendacious” on the basis of a rather offhand remark from a website devoted to Galileo. No, you are wrong: Tegmark is just repeating a popular myth with no basis in fact, while Bob is forwarding the view of people who actually write books about Bruno.

      • Impatient says:

        So Bruno wasn’t burned for his cosmology. We know that ’cause the church didn’t care about it.
        How do we know the church didn’t care about it? ‘Cause they didn’t burn Bruno for it.

        The truth is we don’t know. Tegmark doesn’t know. You and Bob don’t know. We don’t have the trial records and we don’t have any explanation from the time.
        The Stanford Encyclopedia doesn’t say his cosmology. It says Copernican cosmology. His cosmology went way beyond Copernicus. He believed in other planets with people on them. He talked about an infinite universe. All that is way more radical and in conflict with the church than just Copernicus.

        That article actually provides a reason to think they did care. The inquisitor was the same guy Galileo faced.

        • Andrew Keen says:

          The whole issue at stake is whether Tegmark’s comment was fair. You wrote, “Tegmark doesn’t know.” Therefore, you agree with Bob’s main point. You’re welcome.

        • Gene Callahan says:

          Impatient, I point to actual historians who have researched the issue. You can put your fingers in your ears and say “We don’t know, we don’t know!” all you want, but that doesn’t make it so.

        • K.P. says:

          “How do we know the church didn’t care about it? ‘Cause they didn’t burn Bruno for it.”

          Did they burn others who shared his views on cosmology? Might be an indicator, at the very least.

          • Bob Murphy says:

            KP don’t bother. When it comes to this topic, all normal thought goes out the window, which is ironic given the framing of the debate. If someone said, “Jim shot his wife when she left the back door unlocked,” then I said, “Well hang on, she unlocked the door so her lover could come in, and Jim discovered the two of them in his bed, so his shooting is more understandable,” would anybody conclude that I’m OK with shooting a cheating spouse? (I mean, besides my blog post about 100 wives killing their husbands on Day 100.)

  4. Tel says:

    I think the news article might have had a tiny hint of trolling but it did a good job of conveying the type of “Very Serious Person” who is into the Global Warming caper these days.

    “Carbon pollution directly results in asthma, heart disease and cancer,” said Dr. Steve Auerbach, a New York City pediatrician who also marched in his lab coat. “From a micro and macro point of view, climate change is a global health issue.”


    Wearing the mantle as it were.

  5. Philippe says:

    you forgot to add at the end that evolution is a lie.

    • Tel says:

      Ah yes, now you remind me Charles Darwin was famous for wearing a lab coat at inappropriate moments. It was almost his trademark.

      Many people at the time treated his theory of Evolution with suspicion, even outright contempt… but once they saw Darwin stand proud in his stark white lab coat, they saw the light and fell to their knees.

      • Philippe says:

        thankfully science experts similar to Bob have now shown beyond doubt that evolution was just an atheist scam.

        • integral says:

          I didn’t know philippe was an evolution denier.

          • Tel says:

            He would have to understand evolution first.

            CO2 in the outdoor atmosphere (now) ~ 0.04%
            CO2 in typical indoor office atmosphere ~ 0.05% to 0.06%
            CO2 levels in submarines ~ 0.4%
            CO2 in your lungs if you hold your breath until uncomfortable ~ 5% (much higher for people who practice, or push themselves).
            CO2 level considered dangerous but survivable ~ 6% to 8%

            Since evolution is biological adaptation to the environment, we have long ago adapted our respiratory process to depend on orders of magnitude higher levels of CO2 in our lungs than the outside atmosphere, in order to operate our breathing reflex. Beyond that hemoglobin also requires CO2 in the blood, else it won’t carry oxygen (a clever regulation system if ever there was one).

            Yet, Philippe believes that an extra few parts per million is going to cause cancer, because some guy marching in the street wearing a lab coat said so… and errr, evolution or something. Did I say evolution, that means I’m right.

            But the lab coat!

            • Philippe says:

              you are a true science expert, Tel, just like Bob.

              • Bob Murphy says:

                Philippe, two quick things:

                (1) I don’t know what your job is etc., but I’m pretty confident I know more about climate science and evolutionary biology than you do. If in fact you really are well versed in both subjects, you have done a good job hiding it.

                (2) I can’t say exactly when it happened, but within the last 6 months you went from being an annoying commenter who asked basic questions that were possibly sincere, into an obvious troll. If you want to hang around here, you are going to have to reduce the trolling proportion of your remarks. Right now you’re running at about 90%.

              • Philippe says:

                please ban me from your cavern of total insanity.

              • Bob Murphy says:

                OK sure thing, you are officially banned Philippe. Please don’t be a 6-year-old about it and come back under a different name.

              • Tel says:

                Bob, I thought he was trying to illustrate your article with a first hand example.

                You better take it easy messing with the guy… he’s got a lab coat, and I don’t want to be the one to force him to use it.

              • Matt S says:

                Philipee’s comments were sometimes pretty good about opening up discussion with other people here (MF, BR, etc) so being mainly a lurker here I enjoyed reading through many of those debates/discussions.

                Lately his comments seem to only be trolling though. Glad I’m not the only one who noticed.

  6. Matt S says:

    “The ice cap is falling off a cliff.It could be completely gone in summer in as little as seven years. ” – Al Gore over 7 years ago. Hahahahah.

    But we all know we should put our trust in these smug people coming to save us all in the time of “SCIENCE!””

  7. Gamble says:

    Stop and ask yourself, why Jesus at times refers to himself as God and at other times refers to God as somebody other than himself? Jesus cant seem to determine his own place, sound familiar?

    If you really do eat the blood and body of Jesus as transubstantiation claims, does this not make you a cannibal? How much can you eat till its all gone?

    How can you love and worship the virgin Mary when Jesus commands you to love Him with all your heart?

    Divinity of Christ? If it were God, then it was no sacrifice at all.

    • integral says:

      Jesus cant seem to determine his own place, sound familiar?

      No. What are you referring to?

  8. Ivan Jankovic says:

    Bob, the thing is not only that “not everything remains the same”, but even if it does remain the same, the amount of warming expected from doubling the CO2 concentration is about 1-1.2 degrees C. Everyone agrees about that, from Jim Hansen to Richard Lindzen. The problem is that the IPCC types hypothesize that everything is NOT going to remain the same, and it will change in a very nasty fashion to boot, namely the positive feedback of water vapor and clouds would TRIPLE whatever CO2 is doing by itself. This is the main thing in the models why they predict so much warming and why they are so at disconnect with observations in the last 15-20 years.

    Even if we assume away any natural climate variability that may counteract the CO2 warming in the future and say: ok, the only change that’s going to take place is the greenhouse warming – that in and of itself would not produce much warming at all – about o.5 degrees C until 2100. You need all those speculative and implausible scary scenarios of a nasty “positive feedback” to justify the alarm.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      Ivan would you have liked my post better if I started a sentence with, “And in fact, the catastrophic predictions rely on positive feedback mechanisms…”

  9. khodge says:

    There is more than a bit of dishonesty when dealing with the Catholic church and science. Two points:

    * most of the anti-science claims started with that bastion of true science: the protestant revolution

    * the disputes were largely between schools of science (very much like two of the major schools of science in the 20th century were anti-relativity in physics and anti-plate tectonics in geology) and the transition between the old school and the new school died out only when the proponents of the old school died. The problem was, of course, the old school also had control of theology, the state, capital punishment, and the divine of kings.

  10. Wesley says:

    Matt Ridley, an award winning scientist, explains to Reason Mag. how fossil fuels are greening the planet…


  11. Oscar says:

    Major Freedom: What are “finders?” Do dey be on yo “hand?” You castigate the “Church” for, in your mind, ALL the atrocities of the middle ages and the Inquisition, in particular. And just like the spelling of the word for digit, you get it wrong. Jesus Christ left with the “Church” the Paraclete (the Holy Spirit) to inspire and guide the PEOPLE who would BE the Church. Sin, murder, violence, crime would always be with us, even in the finite people of the Church, even to this day. But the Church is made up of more than sinning people. There are “saints” among the sinners, and, I dare say, the “saints” far outnumber the sinners. St. Augustine, perhaps the greatest of the Doctors of the Church, was a rampant fornicator before he “saw the light.” Mother Teresa of Calcutta is a great example for us. She doubted that God would have her in His Heaven. But I’ll choose to follow her example, thank you. And, of course, Jesus Christ is the Ultimate Example of goodness. Yes, the Church has had its scoundrels, and its shame. But not ALL the clergy were guilty of the violence. In fact, only a small minority were. So, as you judge the Church in your life, remember that She never says that She is the Be-All, etc, just the map for the “road” which we all must travel for Eternal Life. The map-makers followed Jesus, lived their lives, suffered persecution and martyrdom, as they do today, and STILL maintain their LOVE OF GOD. And most were pretty smart, too.

  12. Tel says:


    SCHULTZ: Dr. Halter, what happens over the next 20 years if we as a country do nothing?

    HALTER: Good evening Ed and Michael. It is an unimaginable scenario — spending over 36 billion tons of greenhouse gases this past year, if we continue at this rate sometime soon after 2030 we will have spent the entire carbon budget for this century. We will then be in the realm of eclipsing 7 degrees Fahrenheit, and it will be an uninhabitable planet for our children. The oceans will shut down. The forests globally will shut down. Ed, that is a scenario that we are not going near.

    There you go, business as usual and both the forests and the oceans globally will “shut down” by 2030.

    You heard it first here folks, every ocean in the whole world will stop being oceanic. Meanwhile, the forests will stop being made of trees. Really. And humans will stop having children. This is no joke. The man is a genuine nutter.

  13. Anders Mikkelsen says:

    From what I recall Galileo was actually wrong. Not all of his results were reproducible, as he was using early telescopes. So he actually un scientific himself being so dogmatic.

    Owen Barfield pointed out that part of the church’s problem with Galileo was his new theory about theory. Galileo believed that his findings were literally truth, in the sense as 2+2=4, or that Jesus died for our sins, or even that markets won’t clear under price controls. However Galileo’s findings are provisional, and no one today familiar with the history or physics believes his findings are Truth for ever and ever, merely that his work was important. However any Church should be concerned that people hold any particular finding of science as eternal truth, we have the history of Eugenics as a shining example of scientific error leading to genocide on various scales.

    Here is a quote
    ““When the ordinary man hears that the Church told Galileo that he might teach Copernicanism as a hypothesis which saved all the celestial phenomena satisfactorily, but “not as being the truth,” he laughs. But this was really how Ptolemaic astronomy had been taught! In its actual place in history it was not a casuistical quibble; it was the refusal (unjustified it may be) to allow the introduction of a new and momentous doctrine. It was not simply a new theory of the nature of the celestial movements that was feared, but a new theory of the nature of theory; namely, that, if a hypothesis saves all the appearances. It is identical with truth.” ”


    For more on Galileo including how he was simply wrong:

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