Although nearly all experts accept that the greenhouse gases emitted by humans have caused significant warming to the planet and will likely cause much more, only about half the US public agrees, even after years of heavy media coverage.
How did we get into such a mess? What are the implications for science, for how it should be communicated, and for how debates should be interpreted?
Some insights may be gained by noting that global warming is not the first “inconvenient truth” in physics.
Consider this description of another, bygone debate:
The decision [whether to accept the new theory] was not exclusively, or even primarily, a matter for astronomers, and as the debate spread from astronomical circles it became tumultuous in the extreme.
To most of those who were not concerned with the detailed study of celestial motions, Copernicus’s innovation seemed absurd and impious.
Even when understood, the vaunted harmonies seemed no evidence at all. The resulting clamor was widespread, vocal, and bitter.
Thus does science historian Thomas Kuhn describe the difficulties experienced by astronomers in convincing the public of the heliocentric theory of the solar system, which ultimately ushered in the scientific revolution.
The “clamor” prevailed around the time of Galileo Galilei, more than a half century after Nicolaus Copernicus, on his deathbed, published the heliocentric model in 1543. Copernicus’s calculations surpassed all others in their ability to describe the observed courses of the planets, and they were based on a far simpler conception.
Yet most people would not accept heliocentricity until two centuries after his death.
Why did it take so long?
...Even Albert Einstein was not immune to political backlash.
His theory of general relativity, excerpted on the notebook page in figure 2, undermined our most fundamental notions of absolute space and time, a revolution that Max Planck avowed “can only be compared with that brought about by the introduction of the Copernican world system.”
When observation, by Arthur Eddington and others, of a rare solar eclipse in 1919 confirmed the bending of light, it was widely hailed and turned Einstein into a celebrity.
Elated, he was finally satisfied that his theory was verified. But the following year he wrote to his mathematician collaborator Marcel Grossmann:
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.
Instead of quelling the debate, the confirmation of the theory and acclaim for its author had sparked an organized opposition dedicated to discrediting both theory and author...
Relativity contrarians basked in conspiracy ideas, claimed to be able to disprove Einstein’s theory, and were convinced that the scientific establishment was suppressing their alternative views — all claims echoed nowadays by climate contrarians.
But it is not hard to spot the differences between those groups and the real vanguard of a scientific revolution.
Copernicus, Einstein, Charles Darwin, and Alfred Wegener, the founder of plate tectonics, all proposed powerful new theories that challenged core assumptions held by humanity for generations. Their theories steadily gained traction first among up-and-coming experts, then among the general population.
...Relativity and climate contrarians instead offer a wide range of mutually exclusive and sketchy proposals, which generally predate the new theory and lack predictive power.
But because the contrarian proposals reinforce traditional beliefs, they enjoy a prolonged period of public popularity even as their currency among successive generations of experts approaches zero.
...Sadly, some new textbooks in climate and atmospheric physics are being written with long prefaces explaining why students should believe what the textbook says, despite contrary information from their parents, radio talk show hosts, or the internet.
Normally a textbook does not have to defend itself. Since modern science, and physics especially, is done primarily at the pleasure of the taxpaying public, such developments should concern all scientists.