Parallels between climate denial & 1920s anti-relativity movement

"Currently, every coachman and every waiter is debating whether relativity theory is correct" - said Einstein; there are striking parallels with climate denial.

“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.” – so wrote Albert Einstein in a letter to his one time collaborator, the mathematician Marcel Grossmann in 1920.

Jeroen van Dongen of the Institute for History and Foundations of Science at Utrecht University in Holland, writing in a recent edition of the journal ‘Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics’, describes the effectiveness of the movement that grew up to oppose Einstein’s theory. There are some striking parallels with today’s climate debate.

At a time when The Guardian just reported another poll showing a drop in concern about climate change, and a New York Times front page this week described Britons’ growing doubts about the science, it is worth taking a look at that anti-science campaign, which was waged by Einstein’s critics because like today’s climate denial movement, the anti-relativity movement had some success too.

Van Dongen writes:

Anti-relativists… built up networks to act against Einstein’s theory in concert. This led to some success. For instance, the clamour about the theory in Germany contributed to the Nobel Committee’s delay in awarding its 1921 prize to Einstein and to the particular choice of subject for which he finally did receive it: his account of the photo-electric effect, instead of the controversial theory of relativity.”

He continues:

“Anti-relativists were convinced that their opinions were being suppressed. Indeed, many believed that conspiracies were at work that thwarted the promotion of their ideas. The fact that for them relativity was obviously wrong, yet still so very successful, strengthened the contention that a plot was at play.”

Van Dongen concludes:

“Conspiracy theories tend to do well in uncertain times: they create order in chaos… Just as there is no real point in debating conspiracy theorists, there was no point in explaining relativity to anti-relativists…

“Their strong opposition was not due to a lack of understanding, but rather the reaction to a perceived threat… Anti-relativists were convinced of their own ideas, and were really only interested in pushing through their own theories: any explanation of relativity would not likely have changed their minds.”

Despite the well-intentioned efforts of some climate scientists like Professor Rapley of the Science Museum, it’s not apparent that a repeated explanation of the basics of climate science is what will help in the face of the latest disinformation campaigns on global warming.

As I’ve documented elsewhere, prolific climate deniers such as Ian Plimer, James Delingpole and Christopher Booker who deliberately spread untruths on climate change can be wrong 99% of the time and right for less than 1% of the time and still ‘win the argument’ because the playing field simply isn’t level; equally, the IPCC can be right 99% of the time and wrong less than 1% of the time, and they still ‘lose.’

As Dr. Robert J. Brulle of Drexel University, whom the New York Times quoted last year as “an expert on environmental communications,” told Climate Progress:

It is well known in both sociology and communications that public opinion is largely shaped by media coverage. So the shift in public opinion about climate change is linked to the nature of mainstream media coverage of the so-called ‘climategate scandal’.”

It is not a surprise that public concern about climate change should have been dented following such a fierce media and smear campaign by a coalition of fossil fuel industries (well documented in the case of Koch industries and Exxon) and conservative ‘think tanks’ (covered extensively by Desmogblog and Climateprogress in a US context, and exposed to a less extent in the UK) which have peddled disinformation for decades to deny this fact.

As the US blogger David Roberts wrote for Grist in response to separate polls on US public opinion in relation to global warming:

“Polls about climate science get treated like the results of some contest between two ideological interest groups. It becomes a horserace story – ‘Democrats/environmentalists are losing’ – rather than a story about danger to public health.

“It’s about environmentalists’ failure to persuade rather than the anti-scientific obscurantism that’s completely overtaken the Republican party, with financial support from large corporate interests…

“If I can’t convince a guy standing in a downpour that it’s raining, seems to me the dumb ass in the rain is the story, not my poor messaging.”

Who can disagree with Roberts’ conclusion?

“It may be helpful to understand these affective responses of the public, but they are no substitute for science and pragmatism in policymaking. Ultimately leaders are going to have to acknowledge the problem and deal with it. Waiting until all the polls line up is a gutless dereliction of duty.

As you’re here, we have something to ask you. What we do here to deliver real news is more important than ever. But there’s a problem: we need readers like you to chip in to help us survive. We deliver progressive, independent media, that challenges the right’s hateful rhetoric. Together we can find the stories that get lost.

We’re not bankrolled by billionaire donors, but rely on readers chipping in whatever they can afford to protect our independence. What we do isn’t free, and we run on a shoestring. Can you help by chipping in as little as £1 a week to help us survive? Whatever you can donate, we’re so grateful - and we will ensure your money goes as far as possible to deliver hard-hitting news.

22 Responses to “Parallels between climate denial & 1920s anti-relativity movement”

  1. Jamie

    RT @leftfootfwd: The parallels between climate denial and the 1920s anti-relativity movement:

  2. ciphergoth

    RT @leftfootfwd: The parallels between climate denial and the 1920s anti-relativity movement:

  3. Sarah Duff

    RT @leftfootfwd The parallels between climate denial and the 1920s anti-relativity movement:

  4. Anon E Mouse

    Joss Garman – Have you ever considered that trying to bully and force people to share your unproven views won’t work?

    Next you’ll be telling us that our government spent £millions on bird flu vaccine…

  5. Katy Wright

    RT @leftfootfwd The parallels between climate denial and the 1920s anti-relativity movement:

  6. Mike Finn

    Excellent! I always knew history of science had lessons to teach us about THE NOW.

  7. Oxford Kevin

    Since science can only disprove and never prove it is not surprising Joss’s view are unproven. Exactly the sort of argument used about relativity.


  8. trevmax

    and of course relativity may be proved wrong, and that it was just the most recent – and brilliant – approximation of our model of the structure of the universe. interestingly although helping found the field, Einstein was opposed to some quantum mechanical fundamentals “God Does Not Play Dice” and quantum mechanics and relativity are in absolute disagreement where they can be compared.

    as for global warming, there are a range of valid viewpoints, all the way up to climate catastrophism. to attempt to portray your opponents as mad, bad or deluded really shows up the weakness in your own argument.

  9. Roger D.

    Typical – rather than engaging with the argument, let’s just write these sceptics off.

    It seems that quite a few of the Royal Society also have their doubts; see today’s report

  10. David Aaronovitch

    Conspiracy theories: Climate change deniers and relativity deniers of the 20s.

  11. guynewey

    RT @leftfootfwd: Parallels between climate denial & 1920s anti-relativity movement

  12. Katrina Forrester

    RT @leftfootfwd: The parallels between climate denial and the 1920s anti-relativity movement:

  13. Anthony Cox

    RT @DAaronovitch: Conspiracy theories: Climate change deniers and relativity deniers of the 20s.

  14. Inv Amigo

    Parallels between climate denial & the 1920s anti-relativity movement #science

  15. Oxford Kevin

    RT @leftfootfwd: Parallels between climate denial & 1920s anti-relativity movement

  16. Robert P Reibold

    Parallels between climate denial & 1920s anti-relativity movement …: Currently, every coachman and every waiter …

  17. John Ruddy

    RT @leftfootfwd: Parallels between climate denial & 1920s anti-relativity movement

  18. Neil Francis

    @russellhawker One for you councillor – 🙂

  19. Russell Hawker

    @ccsnjf You're a "climate change fraud deniar". CC Alarmists use fake "science" to claim grants >One for you councillor

  20. Charlie

    This is a ridiculous article because history is littered with just as many widely held scientific theories that ultimately have proven incorrect. On this basis, you might as well go back to those people who were persecuted for saying the world was round and not flat and say that the ’round earthers’ were mad flat earth deniers. Or say that those minority who did not believe in the once widely held belief that there was an invisible ether responsible for the propogation of radio waves (which was a perfectly logical theory) were irresponsible and heretics. And of course, even with Einstein, people still refer to Newton’s law of gravity which has been superseded by Einstein’s theory. Articles like this give credence to those who challenge climate change theories because they show a lack of appreciation of the how scientific theory works (which is precisely what those who support climate change theories keep alleging).

  21. Joss Garman

    @sunny_hundal @mjrobbins you read it here first 😉

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.