Increasingly over the last few centuries, science has become the dominant narrative of the West. The spectacular success of natural science in understanding, controlling, and transforming the material world has given science an authority that transcends the old certainties of faith, custom, and tradition. These authorities are now seen as retrograde, illiberal, and dangerous, the realm of superstition and myths that impede the ultimate triumph of progress and the utopia our cognitive elite “brights” who “follow the science” will create once the forces of reaction and unreason are corrected or eliminated.
Yet human nature––“the crooked timber,” as Kant put it, from which “nothing straight can be made”––continues to thwart this optimistic orthodoxy, partly because of our own hubris. We arrogantly claim more knowledge and wisdom and certainty than we actually have, even when talking about the natural world, let alone the unpredictable springs and consequences of our frequently irrational choices and actions. Hence the beliefs and ideals that we think are the fruit of science and reason, often end up to be the detritus of old myths we dress up in the formulas and rhetoric of science.
In a time like the present––with a brutally destructive, potentially nuclear war in Ukraine, a looming global economic disaster, and especially an energy crisis created by our own irrational or venal polices that confuse science and myth––such policies are increasingly suicidal.
The threats to energy supplies, and the punitive costs of the fossil-fuel products that comprise 80% of all the energy we use, are a lesson in the dangers of claiming the unearned certainty of our science, and substituting gratify myths for established facts. Indeed, our current energy difficulties are the direct consequence of the progressives’ feckless “green” energy cult of zero-carbon emissions, and its misguided attempts to replace cheap, abundant fossil fuels with unreliable, expensive “renewable” solar and wind power.
Contrary to its proponents’ assertions, these dangerous policies are not the outcome of real science. The obvious tell is the green cultists’ and grifters’ unscientific, vicious assaults on the critics of the greenhouse-gas hypothesis. Those who challenge the consensus are smeared as “deniers,” a despicable echo of holocaust deniers; or dismissed as tools of Big Oil who should be censored, “cancelled,” and deplatformed for spreading dangerous “disinformation.”
These attempts to shut down critics, apart from violating the First Amendment, contradict the foundational tenet of the scientific method, which is “the method of bold conjectures and ingenious and severe attempts to refute them,” as Karl Popper put it. It’s what physicist Richard Feynman called “a kind of scientific integrity” that requires you “report everything that you think might make [an experiment] invalid—not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results.”
But all these efforts, abetted by an establishment media, schools, and popular culture that shill for official climate-change orthodoxy, have not stopped the revisionist researchers who have continued to practice honest science. For decades the claims of anthropogenic, catastrophic global warming have been steadily challenged by more empirically based evidence of an alternative hypothesis to the establishment orthodoxy that CO2 is the most important factor in global warming, as well as the even more dubious claim that in the coming decades, CO2 emitted by humans will heat the planet to catastrophic levels.
The revisionist explanation of global climate warming is laid out in the revised and updated 2007 edition of Unstoppable Global Warning: Every 1500 Years. As authors S. Fred Singer and Dennis T. Avery summarized this research, “The earth is warming but physical evidence from around the world tells us that human-emitted CO2 (carbon dioxide) has played only a minor role. Instead, the mild warming seems to be part of a natural 1,500-year [later revised to 2500 years] climate cycle (plus or minus 500 years) that goes back at least one million years.”
Rather than warmer climate being a dangerous anomaly, “The Earth continually warms and cools. The cycle is undeniable, ancient, often abrupt, and global. It is also unstoppable. Isotopes in the ice and sediment cores, ancient tree rings, and stalagmites tell us it is linked to small changes in the irradiation of the sun.” These cycles also comport with the historical record of the last 2000 years, which documents alternating cycles like the Roman Warming, the Medieval Warming, and the Little Ice Age that ended in 1850, the beginning of the Modern Warming we are now living through.
So, based on an unproven hypothesis that ignores or dismisses alternatives, the developed nations of the West are trying to eliminate the cheap, abundant energy that has created modern, affluent economies. Does that sound like “scientific integrity”?
But even if Singer and Avery and other revisionists are wrong, all the proposed “green” solutions for lowering these apocalyptic temperatures––such as wind turbines, solar panels, electric vehicles, and the most destructive, eliminating fossil fuels––even if achieved will not lower temperatures enough to make a difference despite the trillions of dollars it will cost.
For example, the Wall Street Journal’s Bjorn Lomborg points out that the “International Energy Agency estimates that in 2040 fossil fuels will still meet three-quarters of world energy needs, even if the Paris agreement is fully implemented. The U.N. body responsible for the accord estimates that if every country fulfills every pledge by 2030, CO2 emissions will be cut by 60 billion tons by 2030. That’s less than 1% of what is needed to keep temperature rises below 2.7 degrees. And achieving even that fraction would be vastly expensive—reducing world-wide growth $1 trillion to $2 trillion each year by 2030.”
And when China emits more carbon than the U.S. and the EU combined, it’s irrelevant what the West does to mitigate global warming. Meanwhile, our climate policies and “green new deals” are steering us toward economic disaster.
What explains this unprecedented, collective delusion that a mere hypothesis is “settled science” and adequate enough to justify destroying our economies and immiserating billions of people? Money, of course, is the perennial explanation for human folly. The climate-change industrial complex generates billions, if not trillions of dollars for rent-seeking corporations and venal researchers.
Next, our cultural deference to science, real and imagined, that typifies the modern world leaves us prey to bad ideas as long as they sport the quantitative data and forbidding jargon of real science. And humans, as Carl Sagan once remarked, are loath to let go of a meaningful narrative that defines their identity, status, and virtue: “If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth.” That’s how pernicious ideas like “scientific racism” and eugenics dominated our cognitive elites in the early 20th century.
Another factor less recognized is the persistence of old myths that still influence our understanding of the natural world and humanity’s relationship to it. One of the oldest is the myth of the Golden Age in the Greek poet Hesiod’s Works and Days (c. 700B.C.) The poet describes a people who “lived like gods, without sorrow of heart, remote and free from toil and grief . . . and dwelt in ease and peace upon their lands and with many good things.”
What makes this utopia possible is that the natural world “on its own” provides people enough sustenance without the need for human labor or technology. But the cycle has turned, and now that world has degenerated into the Iron Age, a time when “men never rest from labor and sorrow by day, and from the perishing night; and the gods shall lay sore troubles upon them.”
Later versions of the myth, like the first-century B.C. Roman poet Ovid’s, explicitly link these Iron Age technologies like agriculture, mining, metallurgy, cities, laws, and urban civilization to the evils of the Iron Age. Those innovations in turn created private property, seafaring, trade, and wealth, which nurture the “wicked lust for possession,” as Ovid calls it, that foments crime and starts wars. Civilization is the root of all evil, for it has alienated humans from their once harmonious, simple life provided by a beneficent natural world.
These ideals were popularized during the Romantic movement of the late 18th century. That’s when an incipient industrialization––with its rapid social dislocation and clouds of coal smoke from what poet William Blake called “satanic mills” ––made such wish-fulling myths more attractive. More important, Marxism’s hatred of private property and capitalism also found the Golden Age myth a useful weapon for attacking and demonizing free-market economies. Hence the continuing symbiosis today between “green” political parties and socialism, what in Europe is called “watermelons”: green on the outside, red in the inside.
This sensibility of nature-love and discontent with the trade-offs of modern capitalist civilization has permeated environmentalism for decades now, appearing in popular culture and school curricula, and replete with redemptive rituals like Earth Day and recycling. Or take Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg delivering hysterical sermons to world leaders, and predicting doom brough on by their selfishness and greed.
Finally, the green cult is another consequence of secularism, the banishment of faith to the subjective realm of private taste. The place of religion has been taken by an imperious science, the “creed,” G.K. Chesterton presciently wrote in 1922, “that really is levying tithes and capturing schools, the creed that really is enforced by fine and imprisonment, the creed that really is proclaimed not in sermons but statutes, and spread not by pilgrims but by police.”
The green cult that degrades science into scientism is a more dangerous version of such a creed. Without a restoration of the integrity of real science, and its disentanglement from gratifying myths and fantasies, we may well see the apocalypse arrive––not from carbon, but from bad political ideas and policies about the energy that has created the richest, freest, best-fed people in human history.