Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Who Can You Trust on Climate Change?

Today's New York Times examines Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli's one-man crusade against climate science.  Take a look at it here.

The ongoing battle over climate change highlights a central problem in a population that is under-educated in science.  The question is, who can you trust?  For those who have not gone to the trouble of educating themselves on climate science, you just have to trust what you're being told.  But for a subject as contentious as climate change, you're being told two radically different things.  One the one hand, you have a large majority of scientists, who have reached a consensus.  They tell us that climate change is real, and that human activity is the primary agent of global warming.  Some of the details remain to be nailed down (for instance, how fast is it happening, how extensive will the damage be, how high will seas rise, etc), but the main storyline is clear.  On the other hand, you have some politicians, media personalities, and a small minority of scientists, who cast doubt on the whole affair.  This group can be broken up into two main varieties: those who don't believe climate change is happening, and those who do believe it is happening but think we humans are not responsible for its creation or its resolution.

The population is left to decide who is right.  Who do you choose?
Since many of us identify with a political party, we sometimes have the luxury of going along with the party line even when we don't fully grasp or care much about every single issue in that party's platform.  In other words, you may not know anything about climate science, but if you identify as a Democrat, you'll probably go along with the Democrats, and vice versa.  But this is a troubling state of affairs, because it means that public opinion is largely under the influence of politicians, who may be misinformed or guided by ulterior motives.

When it comes to educating ourselves, we must be careful not to conflate partisan and scientific literature.  Let's take Ken Cuccinelli, for instance.  In the aforementioned article, he admits that he didn't know much about climate science until recently when he did "basic reading" on the subject and, in the wake of the fake scandal known as "Climategate," decided that these climate scientists were up to no good.  Well, this is a problem.  It's unclear what exactly he read, since most non-partisan and scientific periodicals accept climate change as established science.  But if his "basic reading" on the subject consisted of articles from Andrew Breitbart and The Drudge Report -- champions of the now-debunked Climategate controversy -- he's not really getting all the facts.  He's getting a partisan slant.  Not all reading is created equal.

But who's actually reading the scientific literature?  The academic papers are really just for scientists.  The general population doesn't really know what's an acceptable level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  Is 390 parts per million a lot?  It doesn't sound like it, but who knows?  And what constitutes a big increase?  A few parts per million?  It's hard to imagine such small quantities having such a profound impact on global temperatures (but of course, this is a misleading number.  There is really a huge amount of carbon dioxide dumped into the atmosphere every year: the United States alone is responsible for adding about 6 billion metric tons of CO2 each year).  And then we get into all sorts of other complicated science problems: how exactly can we determine the global temperature of past epochs from a column of ice?  How do sunspots affect global climate?  How much do seismological events contribute to the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere?  These are the subjects of much research, but this work rarely reaches the public in raw form.  Instead, it is left to journalists to interpret the findings and spell it out in plain English for the rest of us. 

Anyway, the problem remains: since most people are not going to be climatologists, we just have to leave it to the climate scientists to figure it out.  This may sound unsatisfying, but every field of science operates the same way.  Few of us have done the math to calculate the expansion of the Universe.  Few of us have looked at the spectrum of Neptune's atmosphere to determine its composition.  Few of us have studied quantum mechanics.  Most of us are not geneticists, or computer scientists, or chemists.  Consequently, we just have to trust that the Universe is expanding, that Neptune is made mostly of hydrogen and helium with a bit of methane, that atoms are made up of all kinds of exotic particles that exhibit incredible behaviors.  We have to trust that there is such a thing called DNA, that microchips are the driving force behind millions of unseen processes, that water is two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen stuck together.  It's easy to trust these scientists, though, because these questions are basically uncontroversial.  We trust they are not manipulating their data.  But it's a whole different ballgame when the scientists say something we don't like.  

People in the anti-science community often accuse scientists of treating their work like a kind of religion.  It's a particularly effective tactic: as much as scientists rail against dogmatic religion, they say, they seem to be equally dogmatic about science.  To them, scientists are saying, "you have to believe it all, without questioning it."  It's important that scientists draw a distinction here.  The reality is, debate is encouraged in science, not stifled.  Debate is essential for progress.  But a dissenting opinion has to be backed up by a compelling alternative theory if it is to be given much credence, and this is where the opponents of science typically fall short.  Whether we're talking about climate science or evolution (the other most popular subject for science skeptics), simply finding little gaps in the data is not enough to disprove the theory.  You need to advance another theory that is equally or better supported by the facts, and this theory cannot be based on ideological or theological feelings.

Manipulating data to reach a predetermined conclusion is just bad science, and it should never be tolerated.  But climate change skeptics have accused scientists of doing just that, on an enormous scale.  The accusation calls into question the ethics of literally thousands of scientists.  According to the skeptics, there is a worldwide conspiracy to falsify data, but the evidence for this is dreadfully thin.  Scientists have little to gain by participating in such a massive fraud.  It may be that some scientists with opposing views are afraid to speak out, but this alone is not proof of a conspiracy.  The truth is, we would all love for global warming to be a figment of our imaginations, but the numbers are unmoved.

Perhaps the skeptics think the scientists are simply making up facts.  This is easy enough to imagine; if we don't understand how conclusions are derived, we're tempted to think it was all just cooked up out of thin air.  But just because you haven't heard about all the evidence, doesn't mean it's not there.  Innumerable scientists have devoted their lives to investigating the world around us, and sometimes the correct conclusions are drawn from arcane observations.  The correct conclusions can also be counter-intuitive.  Strange effects are predicted and have been observed at relativistic speeds, but you need exquisitely precise time keeping to detect it.  Variations of the double-slit experiment demonstrate a bizarre, paradoxical behavior of light, but you need a sophisticated apparatus to investigate it.   We may not be able to fully grasp the nature of these phenomena, but they really happen.  Similarly, in our day-to-day lives, we cannot experience climate change.  The changes are too small, and our perspective is too local.  But the data tells the story.

Education is the key.  The only way to be sure who is right is to study the facts and draw your own conclusions.  But if you're not able to do that, you'd be well advised to follow the scientists.  There are dissenting voices, but the consensus is clear.  We've got a real problem on our hands, and we've got to figure it out soon.


  1. I sense a note of despair in your post. A major problem is that in many fields of science the technicalities, the volume of data is such that even experts in the field cannot gain an overview.

    Technical details, arcane language and nomenclature don't help the general, intelligent reader to get to grips with what are complex scientific ideas.

    My own frustration is the gap between the elementary and intermediate levels, where ideas are readily expressed in language, and the next level where language appears to be insufficient to express the greater complexities. I then find myself confronted with mathematical tools I have no experience of yet feel sure that a deeper understanding is just out of reach.

    Yet, many arguments, postulates and ideas can be tested by applying intelligent questioning. along with careful reading to get behind the hidden assumptions that underlie the science. If you have questions that aren't answered to your satisfaction then be sceptical. Of course, you have to know what the right question might be.

    We can't all be Galileos or Newtons, but that shouldn't prevent us from using our God given genius to question,imagine and speculate.

    On a technical note: I have huge difficulty with the implications of the double - split experiment. I'm certain understanding that fully would give me the key - I think Schodinger's cat said something very similar before collapsing.

  2. Thank you for bringing this most intriquing and quite important conversation, concern, to this venue. Although, most of the participants in this sight are participants in the 'art of writ' and not nececessarily scientific techs we are all intrameshed and intergral in what makes up and will sustain the aesthetics of the Universe. Anywhere where we can query the anomolies that seem to be taking place is a worth while forum. Thank you!

  3. It’s strange to think that the very thing that Sagan was against – a powerful priesthood operating in isolation from the general public – is exactly what science seems to have become. Maybe this is inevitable, given the complexity of modern science. I suspect Sagan’s ideal of a democratic, open, scientifically literate society is probably a fantasy given humanity's Gaussian IQ distribution and the difficulty of modern science. The harsh fact is that very, very few of us could ever be an Einstein, Newton, Feynman or Sagan no matter how hard we try, and at some point we just have to accept the authority of people smarter than ourselves. Or we can reject that authority if we don’t like its findings, which is exactly what is happening now with issues like climate change.

    I’m not sure there's any resolution of this that doesn’t involve a privileged class of decision makers -- at least until we find a way to technologically increase our collective intelligence. What’s important for now is that the people making the decisions are more like Carl Sagan than, say, Sarah Palin!