When CERN last week announced that it had experimental results suggesting that neutrino could travel faster than light — thus breaking Einstein’s theory of relativity — the only thing that moved faster than the particles in question was climate-change sceptics. Here’s Tory-Boy website Guido Fawkes announcing that such results demonstrate that “the science is never settled”.

Yes, the science is never settled — but the conclusion to be drawn from that is that critical action has to be taken on the basis of the strongest existing scientific case, because there will never be a definitive result.

Last week’s unusual findings (most physicists presume they will turn out to be experimental error) confirm this. Einstein posited the theory of special relativity in 1905, and general relativity in 1915. The theories were confirmed (i.e. shown to be a better picture of the world than Newtonian physics) by clearing up certain anomalies — such as the tricky issue of the gradual shift in Mercury’s elliptical orbit — which happened faster than Newtonianism predicted, but was exactly predicted by relativity.

From there (and nailed down by Eddington’s 1919 ecliptic observations), relativity (and due to separate developments, quantum mechanics) have been the theories by which we have acted on the world. Satellites, computers and microchips, lasers (hence CDs), mobile phones … none of these would work as they do if Newtonian physics was employed.

Amazingly, these things will still continue to work if it turns out that neutrinos can move faster than light. Relativity will still be correct (in relation to Newtonian physics) in the frame of action where there differences are significant – i.e. satellite orbits, supercomputer clocking, and much more. It will not be necessary to abandon all post-1950s technology, until such time as the universe has been entirely re-theorised.

But that’s exactly what climate-change deniers/sceptics argue that we should do, when they suggest we take no decisive action because the “science isn’t settled”. The neutrino finding shows that we have no choice but to go with the strongest possible case — especially if there is a reasonable chance that inaction, while waiting for “more” science to come in, will lead to a catastrophic result.

How is it that conservatives such as Guido Fawkes can latch on to a finding such as that, and get it exactly wrong? The question concerning those who argue for no action on climate change — effectively “climate-change irrationalists” — has always rotated around three possibilities: they’re genuinely stupid, they’re delusional, or they’re malign and nihilistic.

The Guido Fawkes example shows that the first two are not in contradiction. Most conservatives are fundamentally incurious, anti-intellectual even; most inherit their politics — those who don’t are usually looking for a simplistic, moralistic worldview in which the way things are, are never in contradiction with the way things should be.

The capacity to never question the whole deal can only be achieved by a certain thickness, since such stupidity ensures that any evidence that disturbs one’s worldview will be treated not as invitation to think critically about that worldview, but as wrong — and any fairytale such as grabbing a 10-year section of a 50-year period and claiming there is no warming — will suffice. Of course, they would draw exactly the wrong conclusion from the CERN findings. A whiff of insouciant nihilism rounds it out, debate about the path humanity should take reduced to a series of gags and gotchas.

The key feature of such irrationalism is that it makes it increasingly difficult to get a true picture (or the best picture for action, or the least worst one) of the world, such as would steer rational action. Irrationalism has a way of spreading. Relativity is a piquant example, for it was the Right’s rejection of it as “Jewish science” that sent to the US all the scientists who could have eventually provided it with nuclear weapons.

Irrationalism has a way of spreading. You can’t help but notice that the spread of climate-change irrationalism on the Right has been accompanied by a more general rejection of science — in the uptake of anti-vaccination theories, for example, long after any suggestion that they cause autism, etc, has been long disproven. Eventually, this undermines the trust that a wider public will place in the Right — in the US, the climate-change circus in the Republicans may well screw up their pitch to independent voters.

The stupid party rides again, faster than the speed of light. All to the good, if they don’t kill us all in the process.

Peter Fray

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