Do you believe in climate change?
Every newspaper, website, blog site, etc. has an opinion on the subject. We are flooded by inch upon column inch of reportage, opinion and hyperbole. With such a quantity of information being force-fed to us, surely we are all equipped to offer a judgement on the truth of the matter.
No, we’re not.
A high number of column inches does not equate to high quality information. Neither does an ability to read (or to write) equate to understanding the subject matter in hand. A large quantity of information does, however, contribute to a common belief that we all know it all.
The depth of research and understanding that is simplified into a single newspaper article is simply not understood by the majority of us who have never seen ice core data and would not understand what we were looking at if we had.
Sceptical responses to the evidence of climate change closely resemble religious faith – the absolute confidence, despite all evidence to the contrary, in a convenient deity/story and/or a pick and mix selection of any number of associated tenets.
If you tell someone something often enough and loudly enough, if you give them a reason to believe that your truth means they can consume more without consequence, or that they will be saved or that they will see their loved ones after death, many will happily become the advocates you need to expand your following.
A couple of years ago, on a fabulously damp and enjoyable holiday in the youth hostels of the Lake District, my sustainability friend and I were faced with one such example of an anti-climate change zealot.
On learning of our environmental leanings, he launched into a tirade against the misguided scientific community.
“Do you believe in carbon?”
Do I believe in the basic building blocks of life? Umm, yes.
“Because I read a book about it and it said that the climate isn’t changing at all.”
Wow. You read a book. Well, whoop-di-doop, congratulations. And your ability to read one book (a publication from 1970 that has long since been superseded by current research) qualifies you to dismiss the work of the thousands of climate scientists who have been researching the subject for the past forty years?
It’s easy to say “we don’t believe” in something simply because we consider it untidy or unpleasant or because we don’t understand the evidence that contributes to an overwhelming truth.
I consider internal organs to be nasty, untidy, gooey things that I’d rather not think about. I’ve never seen mine and I hope I never do. I’m not a biologist and I don’t fully understand their purpose. Therefore, I chose not to believe in their existence.
Science doesn’t have all the answers, but neither does it pretend to have all the answers. Sometimes, it has to be okay to simply not know. That doesn’t mean we stop looking for answers. It does mean we don’t jump on a convenient but unproven idea simply because it provides an easy or convenient answer.
Scientific method attempts to negate natural human bias. The answers may not always be what we want or what we expect, but, In the words of marvellous Ben Goldacre, ” that’s science all over: the results are often counterintuitive. And that’s exactly why you do scientific research, to check your assumptions. Otherwise it wouldn’t be called ‘science’, it would be called ‘assuming’, or ‘guessing’, or ‘making it up as you go along’.”
Yet, how many of us who espouse the scientific life either fully understand the research in which we set such store? Do we to demand the evidence of our own eyes, and recreate every experiment ourselves? No. If we did, knowledge would never progress. We rely on the work of others to guide our own and future studies.
We followers of science place our faith in a number of lesser deities – Einstein, Newton, Mendel, Darwin, Hawking, Feynman, et al. – and all those unnamed giants who have carried out the primary research and contributed building blocks to our ever-growing tower of scientific knowledge.
We place our faith in peer review and standardised research methods.
In Science We Trust.