The great Russian scientist and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov wisely said:
“Intellectual freedom is essential to human society—freedom to obtain and distribute information, freedom for open-minded and unfearing debate, and freedom from pressure by officialdom and prejudices.the only guarantee against an infection of people by mass myths, which, in the hands of treacherous hypocrites and demagogues, can be transformed into bloody dictatorship. Freedom of thought is the only guarantee of the feasibility of a scientific democratic approach to politics, economy, and culture.
But freedom of thought is under a triple threat in modern society—from the deliberate opium of mass culture, from cowardly, egotistic, and philistine ideologies, and from the ossified dogmatism of a bureaucratic oligarchy and its favorite weapon, ideological censorship. Therefore, freedom of thought requires the defense of all thinking and honest people.
If you have a hard time thinking vast numbers of even intelligent people can succumb to “mass myths,” recall America’s home value boom and bust and other bubbles (e.g., the Dot-Com Bubble, the South Sea Bubble, the Darien Scheme, and the Tulip Mania). You might consider such political mass myths as Marxism, Fascism, and Nazism.
One of the great dangers of mass myths is the pressure they impose for conformity. Sometimes the pressure is only social. Sometimes it becomes political, as when NASA scientist and leading global warming alarmistJames Hansen says, “CEOs of fossil energy companies … should be tried for high crimes against humanity and nature.” Sometimes, as Hansen seems to hope, it even becomes legal, as when the Soviet Union criminalized opposition to Lysenkoism (belief in the heritability of acquired characteristics).
Last week I reported on comments by two plenary speakers at the Evangelical Theological Society’s annual meeting. The more I reflect on what they said, the more amazed I am. It’s not just matters I addressed more fully last week:
- “Trust the scientists,” they said.—As if all scientists agreed! As if the history of science offered no instances of major reversals of major, not to mention minor, theories, and scientific “facts” remained forever set in stone.
- “Remember Galileo! … [We should revise] our understanding of Scripture in the light of science.”—As if the Bible weren’t its own supreme interpreter!
- Cornwall Alliance and I are “Playing silly games with pseudo science.”—Can either speaker name a single place in all of Cornwall’s documents in which we present as scientific an argument that is unscientific—that is analogous, say, to an astrological or alchemical or magical argument?
- We should “not to try to meddle in stuff we don’t know anything about”—So on what grounds can someone who confesses he doesn’t know the science himself accuse the Cornwall Alliance and me, whose publications demonstrate wide and deep scholarship in environmental (especially climate) science, of “playing silly games with pseudo science?”
There’s more. The speakers were shocked that I would stand against the consensus of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), national academies of science, and various professional scientific associations that have embraced catastrophic anthropogenic global warming.
Would that those two ETS speakers shared the thinking of the theologian W.G.T. Shedd, who wrote over a century ago:
… physical science is not infallible, so … an actual conflict between science and revelation would not necessarily be fatal to revelation. It might be fatal to science. In the seventeenth century the physics of Descartes had great authority and much was made by the skeptics of that day of the fact that the Mosaic physics did not square with the Cartesian physics. … The “vortices” of the Cartesian physics are today an exploded and rejected “science”; and the most skeptical physicist of this generation would not dream of alleging a conflict between science and religion because Moses does not agree with Descartes.
Again, … physical science is not one and invariable in its contents. There have been a multitude of scientific theories that cannot be reconciled with each other. The Ptolemaic and the Copernican astronomies are examples. … Christianity, on the other hand, has had substantial invariability. The differences between Christian believers, even upon the more recondite doctrines, are by no means so great as those between the ancient Greek and the modern Englishman upon the nature and laws of matter. … [N]o such substantial invariability as this appears in the history of physical science. Even, therefore, if it could not be shown that revelation is in harmony with a science that confessedly is not infallible and actually is not invariable, it would not be a very serious matter for revelation. The error might be upon the side of science. [Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, ed. Gomes, 374–375]
- Whatever happened to the day when a man who stood alone (though I don’t) was respected for his courage and integrity, for his determination to be convinced only by evidence and not by vote?
- Whatever happened to the British Royal Society’s motto, Nullius in verba, roughly translated, “Take no one’s word for it”?
- Whatever happened to the day when one of St. Athanasius’s (ca. 296–373) disciples could say to him, “Athanasius, the whole world is against you!” and Athanasius could respond, “Then it is Athanasius contra mundum [against the world]”—and the people of God admired him?
Perhaps these two scholars would ridicule Athanasius, as they did the Cornwall Alliance, for standing contra mundum. But did not the Apostle Paul say, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). And did not the Apostle John say, “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:19)?
Might Cornwall Alliance’s scholars be able to discern precisely because we are committed to standing with the truth of Scripture and testing all things, despite what the world says?Would you help us continue getting our message out despite such opposition?
Free debate is essential to the preservation of liberty, and free debate depends on a willingness not only to tolerate but also to respect disagreement and nonconformity.
How do mass myths like climate alarmism arise? For the history of some of them, and for explanations of the crowd psychology that drives them, see two classics: Charles MacKay’sExtraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds and Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. How can you avoid being caught up in mass myths? Some help can be found in Humphrey B. Neill’s The Art of Contrary Thinking, Thomas Gilovich’s How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life, and H.W.B. Joseph’s Introduction to Logic.