March 2, 2009 - Heretics, Skeptics and Politics

Ever heard of J. Harlen Bretz and Joseph T. Pardee? They were the scientific heretics of the early 1900’s who posited the theory of a glacial Lake Missoula and a mammoth flood shaping the channeled scablands of Eastern Washington, washing an area stretching from Montana to the Willamette Valley. It was considered a preposterous hypothesis. The consensus of the scientific community was that such a large and earth shaping event was inconceivable, as it violated the accepted principle of Uniformitarianism (holding that “past geological events can be explained by forces observable today,” Glacial Lake Missoula and the Ice Age Floods at

It took over 30 years and the development of new technological tools (including aerial photography) to finally convince the scientific consensus to accept an inconvenient truth – a single cataclysmic flood event on a scale never witnessed by man. The consensus has continued to change, as more and better research has pointed to a series of floods over thousands of years. Research and questions continue. New information continually shapes our understanding of the events of the past.

Recent blogs and my brief letter to the editor on climate change science drew lots of responses, both “atta girl” and “how dare you.” Some of the e-mails came from folks as vehement in defending their faith in cataclysmic anthropogenic climate change as William Jennings Bryan defending his faith in literal creationism at the Scopes trial.

Science cannot be determined by consensus. Science is about asking questions and accepting the answers as the basis for more questions. As new information continually shapes our understanding of the past, new information must continually shape our understanding of the future. Current climate change models are limited by the technology and information available to them, and are rightly subjected to rigorous and continuous testing by skeptics, as all good scientists must be skeptics.

Read the testimony of Dr. William Happer before the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works committee, chaired by Sen. Barbara Boxer. A transcript is available at: .
If you have trouble with the link, e-mail me at and I’ll send you the pdf. He lays out his own scientific understanding, as a physicist, of atmospheric gases and their interaction with visible and invisible radiation, He also provides his analysis, as a former Director of Energy Research at the Department of Energy, on the interaction of politics and science.

As you read, ask yourself if perhaps the late Harlan Bretz and Joseph Pardee would advise more curiosity and less consensus as the path to better science. We are in an age of a new Uniformitarianism, holding that future climate events can be explained by forces observable today. Skepticism is not scientific heresy.