Op-Ed:  Think the climate change fight is tough? What about the 17th century fight over math?

Members of environmental group Greenpeace display banners in Yokohama, suburban Tokyo to protest against global warming.
Members of environmental group Greenpeace display banners in Yokohama, suburban Tokyo to protest against global warming.
(Yoshikazu Tsuno / AFP/Getty Images)

Secretary of State John F. Kerry knows that climate change is real. In fact, he told an audience in Jakarta, Indonesia, recently that climate change might be “the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction,” and those who deny this are just “a tiny minority of shoddy scientists and extreme ideologues.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) is not convinced. “Data are not supporting what the advocates are arguing,” he told CNN recently. “In the last 15 years,” he added, “there has been no recorded warming.”

Both Kerry and Cruz spoke with authority and conviction, and it is clear that neither man has any doubts about his positions. What is less clear is why.

Kerry studied political science in college, Cruz studied public affairs, and both have law degrees. As for climate science? As far as I can determine, neither has taken as much as a single course in that field. And yet both men consider themselves fully qualified to make pronouncements on the issue of climate change.

They are, of course, far from alone in their technical ignorance. Only a few thousand specialists in the world are qualified to offer deeply informed opinions about climate change, but this has not prevented millions of us from taking a stand on both sides of the issue. I for one am as firm a believer in global warming as Kerry, knowing that a large majority of climate scientists support his view. But my grasp of the finer scientific details supporting this position is, admittedly, no firmer than his.


Climate change has in effect become a stand-in for a clash of opposing worldviews. Broadly speaking, liberals believe the world is warming; conservatives do not. But why stake our views on a complex scientific question that the vast majority of us don’t fully grasp?

The reason, it seems to me, is that science holds a unique position in our society as an arbiter between competing views. A Christian fundamentalist might believe that truth is on her side, but she won’t get very far trying to convert an atheist, and a pacifist has little hope of persuading a gun rights activist of the justice of his cause.

But science is different. It is the closest thing we have to a shared objective truth, and it alone has the authority to pierce through the cloud of subjective opinions and decide the winners and losers of any issue. And so, when Kerry and Cruz debate climate change, they are not just trying to prove each other wrong on this issue. They are, rather, looking to endow their fiercely contested worldviews with the legitimacy of established science.

This is not the first time that a technical scientific question has become the center of a political struggle. In the 17th century, it was not climate change but mathematics that stood at the heart of that age’s culture wars.

It is hard for us today to imagine how an ethereal discipline such as mathematics could be political. But the 1600s were a desperate time in Europe, a time in which the world that people had known for centuries had collapsed into chaos and confusion. With the ancient Roman church split apart, the continent bloodied by unending wars, monarchies overthrown and radicals threatening violence and death to the propertied classes, people looked to the timeless truths of mathematics for certainty and solace. To them, mathematics was the science of universal order, a potential antidote to the turmoil around them.

The increased attention thrust mathematics into the caldron of social and political debates, and the kind of mathematics one favored became a question of the proper order of religion and the state. Some insisted that the only solution to the crisis was to establish a single authoritarian hierarchy in which a ruler’s decree could not be challenged. In mathematics, this faction admired Euclidean geometry, the epitome of eternal order and certainty.

Others believed that the time of such inflexible regimes was past, that the way forward lay in increased freedom of thought and a plurality of opinions and faiths. In mathematics, these freer-thinkers favored the new method of indivisibles, abhorred by the champions of geometry.

Indivisibles are mathematical atoms, the fundamental building blocks of lines, surfaces and solids. They were paradoxical entities, incompletely understood, and yet led to remarkable results, and ultimately to the mathematical discipline of calculus. To its advocates, this new mathematics put innovation over tradition and pragmatic results over rigid methodology and strict hierarchies.

As with climate change today, only a small number of professionals were truly qualified to evaluate the respective merits of the two approaches. But this did not prevent kings and cardinals, religious orders, social reformers and political theorists from charging into the fray to pronounce on the matter. As they well knew, the question might be technical and narrow but the implications were immensely broad. At stake was nothing less than the shape of the modern world, then coming into being.

Whether in the 17th or the 21st century, it is perhaps unfortunate that complex scientific questions become entangled with politics. But as long as science retains its place in our culture as arbiter between competing beliefs, it is also unavoidable. Because every true believer seeks what only science can bestow: the aura of objective truth.

Amir Alexander is the author of “Infinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World.”