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Faraday and the Generations of Science

On November 22, 1997 The Globe and Mail published a long article I wrote entitled "Science Fiction: The day the Earth warmed up" that examined some dubious assumptions behind the global warming theory...


On November 22, 1997 The Globe and Mail published a long article I wrote entitled “Science Fiction: The day the Earth warmed up” that examined some dubious assumptions behind the global warming theory. Chillingly, senior scientific staff from Environment Canada demanded (and received) a meeting with the newspaper’s editorial board and denounced the article as irresponsible and inaccurate.

So it was with more than a little pleasure that I recently read an excellent new book, Taken by Storm: The troubled science, policy and politics of global warming, by Canadian scientists Christopher Essex and Ross McKitrick. The book confirms my worst suspicions about this issue and the Kyoto Accord (read the book and decide for yourself), but what struck me most was the authors’ description of science as an “individual journey” and not a matter of consensus or group thinking.

I wholly agree with this and suggest that whether the issue is how our gas emissions may or may not affect the climate, what should be done with garbage, or any other matter that involves science, we must remember that scientific understanding is achieved through experiment and observation in light of proper theory, and not by way of a show of hands.

Ironically, scientists themselves often become the worst persecutors of the very scepticism and free thinking they should uphold, and are abetted in this by many science-beat journalists, government scientists and academics.

An excellent recent example is the censure of Bjorn Lomborg by the Danish “Committee on Scientific Dishonesty” that ruled his book The Skeptical Environmentalist as “clearly contrary to the standards of good scientific practice” because of its “systematic one-sidedness in the choice of data and line of argument” and that Lomborg has “perverted the scientific message” through “systematically biased misrepresentation.” As physicist Gordon Pusch commented, “I find such accusations rather ironic, given that part of Lomborg’s thesis is that the ‘scientific consensus’ was itself the result of bias and selective analysis of data. It is truly a sad day for science when a scientist can be tried by a government tribunal for ‘unscientific behaviour’ because he dared to question a politically sanctified ‘scientific consensus’ that has hardened into unquestionable dogma — more evidence that state-supported science has become a priesthood. (I have a hard time not seeing parallels to the trial of Galileo…)”

This phenomenon has a long history and, ironically, it’s usually the persecuted outsider who conceives the original ideas that move science forward in great leaps.

A great example is Michael Faraday, a twenty-year-old apprentice bookbinder who escaped poverty in the Georgian London of the 1810s and entered the world of high science in a most unusual manner. A visitor to the bindery offered him tickets to a lecture at the Royal Institution by the distinguished Sir Humphry Davy on the mysterious forces of electricity. After the lecture Faraday realized he wanted to participate in this rarefied intellectual research, but lacked the prerequisite Oxford or Cambridge education. So, he expertly bound a copy of his notes from the Davy lecture as a gift for the older man. After a subsequent meeting, Davy generously offered Faraday a junior lab position.

Faraday’s outsider status eventually proved to be a huge asset. Faraday’s new peers (and his boss Davy) had worked for years to understand the curious relationship between electricity and magnetism ever since a lecturer in Copenhagen observed that a compass needle would turn slightly to the side if placed above an electrified wire. No one could understand the relationship between these seemingly disparate powers. Most explanations (to simplify) used traditional mechanistic terms in which Newtonian forces pushed and pulled against one another in a linear fashion.

Faraday was a member of a benevolent Christian group known as the Sandemans who believed that people are connected in Karma-like “circles” (and therefore must help one another, since what goes around comes around). Faraday applied this unconventional thinking to magnetism, which he conceived of as circular energy “fields.”

His insight led to the discovery of the century that formed the basis of the electric engine and also the Law of the Conservation of Energy in physics.

Sadly, his patron Davy became jealous and spread false rumours that Faraday had overheard and stolen his own ideas. Faraday was devastated by Davy’s statements and the way in which the academic ranks closed against him, although after Davy’s death Faraday returned to physics and made numerous important discoveries.

The history of science is full of outsiders shattering the status quo. The most well-known, of course, is Albert Einstein. It’s easy to forget that when Einstein published E=mc2 in 1905 the equation, that eventually became the foundation for the Special Theory of Relativity, was at first almost entirely ignored. This was in part because Einstein was a virtual nobody working in a lowly patent office job in Bern. He had barely passed math, failed to secure a decent teaching position, and had drifted aimlessly after alienating his university professors with laziness and indifference to authority.

Yet the product of this Jewish patent office clerk’s daydreams swept away centuries of Newtonian orthodoxy and gave the world new concepts about time, space, energy and matter that led to the splitting of the atom, nuclear power, the discovery of Black Holes, and many other things.

That’s something to remember the next time you read about some panel’s “consensus of scientific opinion” on climate change or a “Committee on Scientific Dishonesty”.

Readers interested in the history of science and the role of outsiders versus the consensus should read E=mc2: A biography of the world’s most famous equation, by David Bodanis (Anchor Canada).

Guy Crittenden is editor-in-chief of this magazine. Send your letters to:

gcrittenden@solidwastemag.com


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