Criminalizing Scientific Controversy: Climate Change, Galileo, and Our Modern Inquisition

The proposed federal investigation into those who question man-made climate change is more dangerous to science than the Inquisition.

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In a remarkable letter to President Obama, twenty climate scientists have called for a RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) investigation into “corporations and other organizations that have knowingly deceived the American people about the risks of climate change.” They support their position by claiming that “an overwhelming majority of climate scientists are convinced about the potentially serious adverse effects of human-induced climate change on human health, agriculture, and biodiversity.”


The notion that a criminal investigation should be used to arbitrate a scientific dispute is antithetical to the proper norms of scientific inquiry. Whether or not there is intended deception is irrelevant, because the validity of a scientific theory is independent of one’s motivation for affirming the theory. Moreover, an overwhelming majority of scientists favoring a particular position does not provide scientific support for that position. There was universal support for Newton’s laws for over two centuries, but it only took one dissenter to supersede them.


Worse than the authors’ nonscientific approach to scientific disputation is their effort to bring down the machinery of the state on their opponents. It has taken centuries for science to free itself from domination by the state. It was not long ago that the opponents of Trofim Lysenko were crushed by Stalinist oppression. The authors might argue that they only want an investigation. If so, do they really expect that potential criminal investigations would not have an adverse effect on free inquiry?


It is instructive to compare the RICO letter to a letter written 400 years earlier by Tommaso Caccini and delivered to the Congregation of the Holy Office (the Inquisition) on March 20, 1615. Caccini argued that the Copernican heliocentric theory that the planets orbit about a fixed sun is incompatible with the Bible and informed the Inquisition that Galileo had advocated this theory. On February 26, 1616, the Inquisition ordered Galileo “to abstain altogether from teaching or defending the said opinions and even from discussing them.” Galileo submitted to the decree and avoided prison.


There are similarities between the proposed RICO investigation and the trial of Galileo.

– In both, the accusers argue that they have the support of the majority of scientists. In the case of Copernicus, even the great Tycho Brahe rejected the heliocentric theory. By the time of Galileo, the theory had gained more support, including from Johannes Kepler.


– In both, the accused would be brought to trial under laws giving the prosecution wide latitude of interpretation.

– In both, the charge is essentially heresy against what Francis Bacon called the Idols of the Theater—uncritical acceptance of dogma and popular theories.


– In both, conviction would result in imprisonment.


– In both, the accusers claim there is great societal risk in not taking their position. In the case of Galileo, it was credibly argued that rejecting the geocentric theory would undermine the faith, thus undermining the moral order, and thereby leading to societal breakdown. The argument takes on great urgency when one realizes that from Caccini’s accusation to Galileo’s conviction spanned the period of 1615 to 1633 and that the Thirty Years War ran from 1618 to 1648, a war resulting in population declines of up to a third in parts of the Holy Roman Empire.



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