Semmelweis Syndrome: good science, bad science and global feuding

Semmelweis Syndrome, when science confronts the established powers and wealth, battles ensue.
Written by Harry Fuller, Contributor on

Today a sincere scientist has published his lament about having his East Anglia emails hacked and the incresasingly strident politics around global warming research. The writer says science is never done, never absolute and then calls for gobal warming debate based on "risk management, of valuation, and political ideology." Good luck to him. Many skeptics want to see science silenced if it challenges the reality they favor.

So how or why did global warming become so political?

The political opposition to scientific findings is as old as empiricism and power, it's realllllly old. Read about Copernicus and Galileo who arrogantly tested theories in the real world, contradicting the central belief system of Europe in their time: kings supported by the Papacy. They had science on their side, but not the powers of the status quo. Science and technology have only had an easy time when they serve the powers in charge and the status quo. Build a steam engine or gramophone that can be used for profit? Bingo. Build a bigger and deadlier bomb and the military will support you.

But come up with evidence about the earth revolving around the sun, or a method of pregnancy prevention, or evidence that some pesticide like DDT is dangerous? Tell the world that tobacco smoking can be deadly? That asbestos destroys human lungs? Expect all the forces and propaganda skills of the status quo to come down upon you. Expect long, bitter, costly battles over every scientific finding that endangers current practice. It is always easier to hire a lawyer or a spinmeister than it is to reform an industry.

And global warming goes further than simply challenging hugely profitable industries in many nations. It even implies that the "free market" is faced with a serious phenomenon that it cannot stop without massive government action and individuals changing how they live. This strikes at the heart of several existing power structures. Unlike AIDs or H1N1, global warming threatens to force every human on the planet to change daily life. That's some serious economic disruption and those doing well right now never favor disruption.

What are status quo-ers afraid of? The goals of their known enemies. Take the Rocky Mountain Institute, which reasearches renewable energy. On their website they say they are “Reinventing fire to drive the profitable transition from fossil fuels to efficiency and renewables." Transition? Sounds like disruptive revolution if you run an oil or coal company.

The scientists who are doing global warming research are running brain-first into a major source of wealth and power on this planet: the fossil fuel industries and the states and nations that feed off of it. I blogged how Saudi Arabia will be pointing to East Anglia hacked docs as a good reason to not move on global warming. Canada with its tar sands will not be looking to clamp down on CO2 emissions. The U.S. government spent eight years not dealing with global warming.

In the U.S. there are 21 coal-producing states. That accounts for up to 42 votes in the U.S. Senate. Over 30 states produce at least some crude oil. Of the top thirteen, only one is a blue state. That's California. Oil and conservative politics go together like oil and conservative politics. Those two now frequently go together with global warming skepticism. Texas, BTW, leads the nation in oil and CO2 production.

The historic conflict between scientific findings and entrenched power structures is long, bitter and often tragic. This is the Semmelweis Syndrome. Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis was a 19th Century Hungarian physician. He found clear evidence that doctors, nurses and hospitals were themselves passing along infections, killing a majority of maternity patients, and newborns. This was before antibiotics were known. Semmelweis mistakenly thought he should share this information. It could save lives, he reasoned.

What Semmelweis did, in fact, was challenge the entrenched "knowledge" and power of the medical establishment for which he was hounded, attacked and finally destroyed. Not burned at the stake as he would have been in the 17th Century for talking about invisible microbes, but effectively silenced. Even if you're doing science to describe what's happening, you must measure your opponents and realize what they are fighting for. Power. Position. Money. Status and status quo. Find them a new product they can make from oil and sell at a profit and they'll support you. Tell them a multi-trillion dollar industry is endangering the planet and you are their enemy until the end.

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