A Man of Galilee

By: Jeremy Gerlach

A conservative astronomy professor talks about climate: both global and academic

  “I want to be Galileo,” says Professor Chris Clemens, a 13-year member of the Astronomy and Physics department at UNC-Chapel Hill. “I’m that academic struggling against the current flow of thought.”

Take one look at Clemens, and you see that with a 17th-century wig he could come tantalizingly close to passing for the eccentric but austere Italian that he so idolizes. Yet close your eyes and open your ears, and Clemens sounds nothing like you’d imagine the progressive academic Galileo sounding. A native of the Deep South, Clemens’ voice evokes the dulcet Texas twang of Tommy Lee Jones, while his political inclinations rekindle the staunch conservatism of a Ronald Reagan reincarnate. Yet because of this conservative stance on both political and scientific issues – like global warming – some liberal-minded voices at the university have created a unique name for him.

“I’ve been called a ‘denier,’” says Clemens. “Yet I prefer to think of myself as a ‘resister’- it’s a term that I think everyone, at some point, does want to be identified with.”

Whatever you call him, Clemens is a conservative academic whose struggle seems at times a Galileo-like one-man resistance towards what he labels as liberal academic and political dogmatism, both at UNC-Chapel Hill and in the larger scientific community. Yet, Clemens notes that following in Galileo’s footsteps is about more than being a contrarian; Clemens’ story, as that of any scientist, is about observing his surroundings, understanding what causes them, and deciding how he can enact change with this knowledge. Clemens notes that his political struggle against the academic grain first began in a small college town that was a pocket of liberalism in an overwhelmingly conservative southern state. This wasn’t Chapel Hill, but it was close; Clemens spent his post-graduate career at the University of Texas-Austin.

“[Austin and Chapel Hill] are incredibly similar environments,” says Clemens. “Not only in politics, but even in the alternative lifestyle: in both you’ve got the independent music scene, urban attitude … even the Whole Foods.”

Clemens most college communities are left-leaning because of the liberal culture of academia. “Most schools are more liberal than not, and I think it’s because most conservative graduates go into business, not academics,” says Clemens. “Yet when I came to Chapel Hill, this was in effect on another level; this college seems to want to become another Berkeley.” Clemens says that while most of his colleagues in Chapel Hill are of a liberal political mindset, there are still conservative professors here who go largely unnoticed.

“There is a generic assumption that everyone is of the same political mindset here [at UNC-CH],” says Clemens. “[This assumption] is not just limited to politics; it’s present in issues like climate change theory as well.” Clemens says that his colleague, Dr. Hugon Karwowski, shares his skepticism of the current theory of global warming. Karwowski, an enigmatic, Dumbledore-like whisper of a man who seems every bit the quintessential, wizened physics professor, says that the “Doomsday Model” of climate change – the premise that man-made CO2 emissions are rapidly plunging the global climate into an impending cataclysm – is itself part of an overly politicized field of semi-science.

“Usually the desire to manipulate scientific findings for the sake of either conservative or liberal causes is a losing proposition,” he says. Karwowski, like Clemens, has faced his share of political divisiveness for these beliefs, if in a slightly more comical way; in a recent poll of his former graduate students, 38 percent called for Karwowski to resign his post – while the other 62 percent called for him to be made Emperor (what he’d be ruling was not specified). While Karwowski says that he rarely brings politically charged material into his classroom, he says that he has criticized early global warming theories in class because he believes that politics and the interpretation of science should not mix. Clemens says that Dan Reichart, another member of the Physics and Astronomy department, has taught his classes from differing opinion on global warming than Karwowski and himself. While Reichart, whose office neighbors Clemens’, declined to comment on this, he says that he also appreciates the value of keeping politics and scientific academia separate. Kaitlin Finan, a senior Environmental Studies major, says that this debate is an example of the damage politics can cause to science.

“Conservatives and liberals are both fighting over this for ideological reasons, and it’s slowing down the actual research in the field,” she says. Regardless of whose side the data supports, Clemens likens the mixing of scientific interpretation and politics to the formation of a religious dogma. If Galileo had his nemeses in the Catholic Church, it would seem that Clemens has found his in both the churches of extremist climate change theory and academic liberalism. While Clemens says he avoids actively advocating his conservative ideology on campus, he is well-known among conservative student groups who are looking for professors to sponsor them. For Clemens, this even led to a brief stint as the sponsor of controversial student group Youth for Western Civilization. Clemens says he separated from the group after he learned about the alleged racist overtones of its national chapter. Though Clemens says that being the member of a political minority both on campus and within his scientific field as a whole is at times a challenge, he is also quick to point out that his academic journey at UNC-CH has also at times led him into collaboration with individuals of opposing views; Clemens recently worked with Reichart in order to discover a way to save several Astronomy classes from being cut during Fall 2011.

“What matters to me is people understanding that science and academia are not supposed to divide,” says Clemens. “They are supposed to bring together a whole community to solve a problem – it doesn’t matter whether the person holding the telescope is left-wing, right-wing, Christian, atheist, et cetera.” It is perhaps ironic that Clemens most identifies with Galileo, a figure who opposed the teachings of conservative sources like Aristotle. Nonetheless, Clemens’ is a self-avowed “Man of Galilee”. This academic term was first coined in 1614, when the Dominican Tommaso Caccini verbally attacked Galileo, quoting the Bible’s Acts of the Apostles in rhetorically asking his congregation, “Men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven?”

Clemens calls this the best scientific pun in history; the Latin possessive of Galileo’s last name is pronounced “Gali-lee,” thus sarcastically relating the site of Biblical miracles to those who believed Galileo was providing similar insights. Yet to Clemens, what makes a “Man of Galilee” is not whether his views end up as the exclusive academic or scientific paradigm.Says Clemens: “What matters is that you respond honestly to what you discover, whether you have to resist the current prevailing mindset or not.’”

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