Curiosities of the global warming debate
As I said a couple posts ago, I’m nothing if not current. I find it curious how often global warming deniers equate belief in human caused climate change with faith. This post from one of Montana’s newer conservative blogs (and so far, what appears to be one of our better ones) is a good example. Cody’s list of “truths” is a bit muddled.
The first point (which seems to conflict with point 8 ) claims man made global warming is a scientific theory. Well, sort of. The mechanisms causing it are the province of scientific theory, but whether the Earth is warming or not is a factual question (a difficult one, of course). This is similar to evolution, where we have the fact that evolution that has occurred and the theory detailing the mechanisms driving it. I’ll return to this in a moment.
Points 3 and 4 seem to address the claims of those who accept global warming who bring up the fact that science is based on consensus. Cody is right that science isn’t democratic. If you’re a scientist studying global warming and someone counters your research by claiming the consensus says otherwise, that person is an idiot. However, we aren’t scientists studying global warming, so this is largely irrelevant. We’re people who don’t have adequate expertise to fully judge these issues. We have to rely on and respect the consensus to some degree. We base public policy on scientific consensus. Scientists who explain the consensus are educators and those who advocate policy solutions are practicing politics. Seems pretty clear to me.
The next two points are the big ones, I think:
# Man-made catastrophic global warming is not a hypothesis, it cannot be tested or falsified via experiment. Similarly, it cannot be proved true. Only time will tell.
# The acceptance of things unproven by scientific method relies on faith; faith is not restricted to matters of religion. Nor is faith a bad thing – it allows us to function in a world about which we do not know everything.
Let’s take the first one. It’s strikingly similar to what creationists say about evolution. Climate scientists create models based around our current understanding of the physical processes that contribute to our climate. These models make predictions about what we should see in certain situations, past or present. We then test the models by comparing their predictions to data from those past situations or on data that comes from those future scenarios as they move into the past. If they don’t match, the models are changed. Real Climate explains this quite well (and they’re actually climate scientists, so that helps).
Of course, Cody is right that these models can’t be proved true. That Cody thinks this is a relevant point reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of science. The scientific method doesn’t prove things. It provides evidence (it can disprove hypotheses, of course). There’s always uncertainty. We’ve done lots of experiments, but can you really prove you aren’t going to wake up tomorrow and the acceleration due to gravity is 4.3 m/s2 instead of 9.8 m/s2? Nope. However, we can use the inductive reasoning central to science to say that’s vanishingly unlikely. We use similar reasoning when we accept a climate model’s predictions of future temperature. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot more uncertainty here, but it’s the same basic principle. And the process is science. It’s just not 7th grade biology science.
The second point above (and those following) seems to fall away after that. Faith is a loaded term. It doesn’t mean belief in things that we don’t know for certain but which we have good evidence for, as we do with global warming. In means belief regardless of evidence. Now, some who accept global warming do describe their belief as faith; Mark T has done so. This is slightly different than Cody’s claim. Mark has chosen to rely on scientific consensus because he doesn’t have the competency to judge the science (which is much more honest and humble than a lot of us who like to talk about his issue are). It’s not blind trust, though. Science has a pretty decent track record and much of this seems superficially true anyway. Mark has chosen a position based on a line of reasoning that’s pretty valid. I don’t think that’s really faith, but it’s not necessarily rational inquiry, either.
Cody doesn’t seem to be a fan of environmentalists, either. Much of global warming denialism seems to be sustained by that same antipathy. I’m right there with them, for the most part. Lots of environmentalists are shallow and have only a superficial understanding of these issues. They’re stuck in a mindset that causing them again and again to prescribe the same policy solution. It’s more theological than rational. They deify nature and view any human intrusion as wrong, rather than something to be debated on a case by case basis. If we cross nature, if we try to control it, we’ll be destroyed. They’re so narrow-minded they refuse to look outside their belief that we just have to limit humanity’s impact; instead of trying to push society to a position where we can preserve nature without hurting people’s livelihoods, they play prophets of doom, warning us to repent. They’re suckered by any crisis that fits their theology.
That said, they’re not always wrong. We did burn a hole in the ozone layer (and we were able to fix because we had viable alternatives to CFCs). Pollution and mining have had negative impacts on our environment. It’s not enough to define yourself in opposition to them. Global warming is certainly the in style crisis right now. There’s over the top alarmism. But it is real and we do need to do something about it.
Another thing denialists seem to be afraid of is liberals pushing their politics as solutions to this issue. Yes, that’s going to happen. Guess who’s fault it is? It’s the people who have better ideas who cling to denial because we’re not absolutely sure and because the annoying environmentalists believe in it. As long as we liberals are committed to this problem, our solutions are going to become policy. Don’t like that? Stop debating what’s already been debated and start talking about policy. Start promoting solutions.