Have a little faith

August 11, 2010 / Science, Showcase, Writing / 12 Comments /

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.

credit: xkcd store

credit: xkcd store

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 And your ability to read one book (a publication from 1970 that has long since been superseded by current research) qualifies you to dismiss the work of the thousands of climate scientists who have been researching the subject for the past forty years?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.



12 Comments

  1. Angelica

    August 12, 2010
    / Reply

    Long live science indeed.
    People like you make me happy. You also make me wish I understood science better.

    • Ask Auk

      August 12, 2010
      / Reply

      I wish I understood science better too. :-)
      Let's both keep learning.

  2. Angelica

    August 12, 2010
    / Reply

    I whole heartedly agree.
    Have you seen these "letters from Science" on blogspot? They are really very funny. http://sciencedigestive.blogspot.com/

  3. Ask Auk

    August 13, 2010
    / Reply

    Yes! I've just had another look and had to respond to the latest post.

    I noticed he's used the same "Science. It works" image to illustrate one of his posts. Something must be in the ether ... A very scientific ether of course.

  4. Anna

    August 13, 2010
    / Reply

    Thank you so much for this blog Miranda. It is extremely inspiring to read that having faith in what you believe in is worth hanging on to...even when you can't always see/prove it. I totally concur!

    Anna

    • Ask Auk

      August 13, 2010
      / Reply

      Thank you, Anna.

      I'm not sure that's quite what I was advocating though ... Maybe I'm more for a little well-researched and peer reviewed faith? ;-)

  5. Lizzie Wilberforce

    August 13, 2010
    / Reply

    ‎Great piece! "Doubt everything or believe everything: these are two equally convenient strategies. With either we dispense with the need for reflection." Henri Poincare

    • Ask Auk

      August 13, 2010
      / Reply

      What a great line, I may have to nick that for a future blog piece.
      Thank you!

  6. Calum

    August 14, 2010
    / Reply

    Good piece of writing.
    I struggle to understand why there is even debate about "climate change"... our climate has been constantly changing since this planet began life as a planet.
    Regarding your article... You are quite right, in this day and age of Wikipedia and the like, one needs to be a little careful about believing what they read. Everybody is a self-proclaimed 'expert'.

    I am a little cautious about handing my "faith" to the scientific community. The recent "climategate" is an example. Selectively presenting data to strengthen one's argument is not good science, and does occur.

    Science; in the pursuit of the one truth. Is there one truth?

    • Ask Auk

      August 14, 2010
      / Reply

      I guess I should have qualified that as "human-induced" climate change. But yes, I agree, Calum. People have difficulty seeing beyond living memory, or more than a couple of generations back.

      We're all doomed anyway, so why bother with any kind of conservation? For me, it's because green space, clean seas, clean air all make life that little bit better. Conservation decision are all subjective and based in large part on our own ideas of what's "right". Those ideas change from one generation or one culture to the next. Last year it was wild daffodils, this year it's bluebells. Next year, who knows.

      As for climategate. Well, therin lies the problem. People are inherently unscientific creatures. I can't fault the ideal of scientific rigor, peer review, etc., but it only takes one individual or group to bugger up the whole thing and break any trust engendered to that point.

      Science rocks. People suck.
      (But I still like them both.)

  7. Dean Burnett

    August 15, 2010
    / Reply

    I happened to find out that man-made climate change is indeed real, and being done deliberately by a surprising group

    http://sciencedigestive.blogspot.com/2009/10/how-i-accidentally-got-bnp-to-confess.html

    Funny what people will admit to.

    • Ask Auk

      August 15, 2010
      / Reply

      Wow. That's extraordinary.
      Mind you - from a sustainability point of view, maybe they have the right idea. We sustainability types do all argue for locally sourced supplies, and for natural materials, like cotton, that aren't chemically synthesised. Changing the UK climate so we can produce these materials within our own island could arguably help mitigate climate change?

      Okay, that circular logic is making my head spin.
      I need a cup of tea.
      Locally grown, of course.


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