Thursday, February 19, 2015

Anti-Science, Moby Dick, Climate Change... By the time you feel warmer it will be far too late.

In rereading Moby Dick I came across these paragraphs in Chapter 32, the seeds of which are  arguments, whether tongue in cheek or not, against science.  Melville's character starts by saying that the science is uncertain. He then goes on to make it sound ridiculous that anyone could even conceive that a whale were anything but a fish. The fancy latin words of egghead Linnaeus cannot compare to the direct experience of shipmates and friends, who declare the former to be nothing but humbug.  Then in the third paragraph he invokes the story of Jonah, wherein the bible calls the whale a fish, and that settles the fundamental thing.

First: The uncertain, unsettled condition of this science of Cetology is in the very vestibule attested by the fact, that in some quarters it still remains a moot point whether a whale be a fish. In his System of Nature, A.D. 1776, Linnaeus declares, "I hereby separate the whales from the fish." But of my own knowledge, I know that down to the year 1850, sharks and shad, alewives and herring, against Linnaeus's express edict, were still found dividing the possession of the same seas with the Leviathan.
The grounds upon which Linnaeus would fain have banished the whales from the waters, he states as follows: "On account of their warm bilocular heart, their lungs, their movable eyelids, their hollow ears, penem intrantem feminam mammis lactantem," and finally, "ex lege naturae jure meritoque." I submitted all this to my friends Simeon Macey and Charley Coffin, of Nantucket, both messmates of mine in a certain voyage, and they united in the opinion that the reasons set forth were altogether insufficient. Charley profanely hinted they were humbug.
Be it known that, waiving all argument, I take the good old fashioned ground that the whale is a fish, and call upon holy Jonah to back me. This fundamental thing settled, the next point is, in what internal respect does the whale differ from other fish. Above, Linnaeus has given you those items. But in brief, they are these: lungs and warm blood; whereas, all other fish are lungless and cold blooded.

Friends, anti-science thinking, call it denialism, has been around as long as there have been scientists.   In this example it comes down to the distrust of organized and disciplined thought and the fancy words that precisely describe the topic compared to the direct experience and the agreement of drinking buddies and messmates.

In my first argument with a climate skeptic some years ago went a little something like this.  She asked, "So when am I going to feel warmer?".  But what she was really asking for the direct experience of the thing itself vs the fine grained measurements and analysis of the scientific community. Her close friends had also called climate change nothing but humbug, so she felt she was in good company with this opinion I guess.  If I'd had my wits about me I would have rejoined, "By the time you feel warmer it will be far too late".