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A challenge to climate sceptics

By Steven Meyer - posted Tuesday, 15 November 2011

In the third century BC the scientific consensus among the Greeks was that the Earth was stationary at the centre of the universe. The sun, moon, planets and stars, so it was thought, all revolved about the Earth. Well that was plainly wrong. But let's see what the scientists of that era got right.

They knew the Earth was spherical. The idea that educated people in Columbus' time, 1,700 years later, thought the Earth was flat, is a myth. Third century BC scientists also knew that the sun was not a fiery little ball in the sky. Mathematicians such as Aristarchus of Samos had calculated that it had to be at least six million kilometres distant and at least seven times the size of the Earth.

Our ancestors were not nearly as stupid or ignorant as we sometimes like to think. Aristarchus suggested a heliocentric model of the universe. He proposed that instead of the sun orbiting the Earth it was the Earth that orbited the sun. Day and night was caused by the Earth rotating on its axis.


The third century scientific consensus was having none of that. Was it because they were stupid? Hardly. Given what was known at the time there were excellent scientific reasons for rejecting the heliocentric hypothesis.

Archimedes of Syracuse, one of the most brilliant scientists of antiquity, led the case for the prosecution. He pointed out that if the Earth truly moved we would see the fixed stars move relative to each other, a phenomenon known as parallax. Yet no such relative motion had ever been observed. There was no detectable seasonal variation in the shapes of the constellations as the Earth moved from one side of the sun to the other.

Proponents of the heliocentric theory had no answer to these and many other objections. The scientific consensus was right in rejecting the heliocentric hypothesis at the time.

The scientific consensus may be wrong; but it is rarely irrationally so. There were good scientific reasons for accepting the phlogiston theory of heat in the seventeenth century and rejecting the theory of continental drift when Alfred Wegener first proposed it in 1912.

Before I leave this topic I want to make one last point. Even when the scientific consensus turns out to be wrong it is rarely an amateur outsider who comes up with the correct answer. The scientists who ultimately put the heliocentric theory on a firm footing, Copernicus, Kepler, Tycho Brahe and, of course, Galileo, were all respected professionals.

The lone amateur maverick who overturns the fuddy duddy scientific establishment is a bit of a myth. I am not saying it never happens. Occasionally an exceptionally gifted amateur who has devoted long hours to a problem may come up with an answer that overturns the accepted scientific paradigm. But I can't think of one instance of this happening in the past century.


The closest I suppose is Albert Einstein. Having failed to secure an academic post, he was working at the Swiss Patent Office when he published his three famous papers in 1905. But he was hardly an outsider. He had many connections in the scientific community whom he was able to use as a sounding board for his ideas. Einstein was more an amateur patent examiner than an amateur scientist.

Note also that Einstein submitted his theories to peer review. They were instantly recognised as an important contribution to physics and published in Annalen der Physik, arguably the most prestigious physics journal of the time. He did not simply publish a few pamphlets, the 1905 equivalent of posting on a website.

Be aware that if you are an amateur outsider challenging the scientific consensus then statistically the odds are heavily against your being vindicated; even more so if you do not submit your theories to peer review. That does not mean I can be absolutely certain that you're wrong. But if I were a bookie I would be giving odds of 100 to 1 against you being right.

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About the Author

Steven Meyer graduated as a physicist from the University of Cape Town and has spent most of his life in banking, insurance and utilities, with two stints into academe.

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