Time To Shut Up And Act

Posted on Friday, March 07 at 12:50 by C.M. Burns
March 7, 2008
by C.M. Burns

We are not scientists
I am not a scientist and you are not a scientist. In the real world, the density of scientists is quite low. On the web, where real science can be found, the density increases significantly but in the worldwide climate-change-debate-o-sphere the density approaches zero. Science is not debating the big conclusions. Scientists are complaining about the media scare-mongering, individual findings are debated, methodologies challenged and the magnitude of predictions are doubted but not that greenhouse gases are responsible for most of the observed increase in global warming over the last 50 years. Read that last part carefully because that is the core of the IPCC consensus. Don't let anyone fool you into believing that there is some other scientific consensus - there isn't. Any stories you've heard about any other scientific consensus on AGW are the result of science illiterates doing the reporting or worse.

Unfortunately, most of the contributors to the online wars are not scientists - they may like to think that they are, just like they prefer to think that they are attractive and witty and slim but are not. The attractive, slim and witty of the world are not at home on a Saturday night, penning venomous posts about  how the anomalous cold of 2007-08 wipes out one hundred years of global warming. We like to think that we understand science and when we can follow a well written article or two about climate science we think we are prepared to wade in on the subject. We aren't. In Canada, where I live, adults appear to be struggling with science literacy (and Canada ranks in the top five). Researchers performing international comparisons estimate that fewer than 20% are scientifically literate[1][2]. In the USA, the amount is fewer than 7% for adults[3] (a bit better than Romania and Bulgaria - no offense). We think that we understand science but the fact is we don't – not really. A person who posts or defends the argument that the strange weather of the last year wipes out the effect of global warming barely understands a simple arithmetic average, let alone science. When it comes to science, unless you are a scientist, you necessarily have a naive view of science. The ability to understand something scientific does not make you nor I a scientist – it does not even mean that we are scientifically literate. You may have taken some basic science courses at the university level but you are not a trained, working, contributing scientist.

Yet for years now we have been copying and pasting scientific sounding arguments in online forums that deny climate change and we quote scientific figures around the water cooler in defense of C02 reductions. Yes, we have the natural ability to understand a logical argument but we do not have the training or experience necessary to recognize when a premise or condition is just plain false. We haven't published any papers, we certainly don't understand complexity or chaos, we haven't got a clue how climate is modeled, we haven't made a single climate observation on our own and, to be perfectly blunt, most people couldn't even tell you what climate actually is. In point of fact, we have nothing at all of any value to contribute to a real scientific debate about climate change and it is time for us to shut up and act. I know it's going to be hard to drop out of one of the great debates of our time but it's for our own good.

An example
One of the more infamous denier claims is the 'U.S. Senate Report: Over 400 Prominent Scientists Disputed Man-Made Global Warming Claims in 2007'. One of the scientists on the list, Physicist Dr. Gerhard Gerlich, claims, "... the formulas of cavity radiation are used inappropriately." Does anyone doing battle in the forums understand this criticism? Hint: it has nothing to do with your toothache. For a non-scientist, thinking that you've punched a few holes in a theory that you're not capable of fully understanding is... well, let's just say that it's understandable.

It's all a hoax!
Now, there are many out there who do not argue the science of climate change because they know it is a hoax and so they post or blog about this. Most will not admit their belief in a hoax publicly for fear of ridicule. They will waste our time and their money pointing out the truth that only they know at every online opportunity, these opportunities are much more available and have fewer consequences than those in real life. Where is their evidence? The very best that they have to offer are quotes from a few handfuls of real scientists who are skeptical about one aspect or another of the science; the worst they can offer are outright lies from paid deniers. Where are the documents describing the betrayal? Where are the whistleblowers? The hoax/conspiracy proponents have no smoking gun, no bullet, no blood trail and no body, ergo no crime.

While it may be technically possible for such a hoax to exist, a few quick back-of-the-envelope calculations will demonstrate the improbability of a hoax or conspiracy. How many climate-related scientist and technologists are there in the world? They will all have to be bought off or threatened and their projects and emails and publications watched until the day they die. More than 2,600 scientists contributed to the IPCC report and, back at the lab, there are two or three other scientists and a few supporting technologists. It doesn't take long before the number of scientists hits 10,000 and beyond. How many science professors are there? They too, will need to be brought into line. The science text-books would have had to have been manipulated for many decades into the past. Then there has to be a hoax-management process in place and it, too, would have had to have been in place for decades. They will need IT staff to track their progress, their accounts and their HR files. They will need support staff and parking spaces and coffee machines and a health plan. Even if there are only 10,000 doing the basic science who need to be monitored it means at least 10,000 must be found to do the dirty job of surveillance 24/7/365. And just where do the watchers get their expertise to decide when a scientist has crossed the line?

The Data
The real proof of the improbability of conspiracy lies in the data. All those reports are based on observations that have been made over many decades of climate related science. These data not only have to be self-consistent but they must also agree with observations made by scientists not party to the conspiracy as well as to the foundational sciences like Math and Physics. Gigabytes of data and millions of pages of documents would have to be consistent with the goals of the hoax. The probability approaches zero quite quickly.

Those who are still looking for a fight will say that there is no conspiracy, rather the process is corrupt or at best broken. They say that the scientists producing the climate change papers are just doing what they have to do in order to keep their research grants rolling in. This brand of denier claims that all the scientists are either greedy or cowards and that they are perpetrating this massive fraud just to keep their jobs.

As Dr. Phil is so fond of saying, the best way to predict future behavior is past behavior. The actual history of science is chock full of contrarians who fought the scientific fight and prevailed. Galileo, Copernicus, Newton, Einstein, Darwin, Pasteur and Lister, just to name a few. How then do these deniers claim any basis for their theory when history disproves their thesis? They can't - and it's not even a theory, it's conjecture at best and irresponsible ranting at worst. They deserve not one second of our time.

Let the conspiracy theorists and hoax proponents rant and post and blog to their hearts' content. Freedom of speech is a beautiful thing and so is the freedom to not read or click ‘post reply’.

Cui bono
'Who benefits?' is the last question that needs to be addressed. Who does benefit from accepting the validity of anthropogenic global warming and climate change? Is all this being done just to support a fifteen or fifty dollar per ton tax on carbon? Any government in the world could implement this tax with much less trouble than a conspiracy would require. Does anyone in the Military Industrial Complex benefit? It sure isn't doing anything for Lockheed Martin, Boeing or BAE System's bottom lines (the top three global defense contractors). It certainly doesn't benefit big oil. Climate change hurts their share value. So who actually benefits? The earth? Definitely, but not even I am willing to push the Gaia hypothesis that far!

So what's a person to do? Given the complete lack of evidence of fraud, conspiracy, hoax and corruption, the only reasonable alternative is to accept the conclusions of the people actually doing the science. Follow the same rules that judges use: base your decision on the preponderance of evidence. Listen to what the scientists are saying. For many scientists the so-called consensus does not exist; they think the IPCC assessment is a dangerously watered-down version of the science. Then think of the risk we run for ourselves and our children if we do not act and weigh that against the benefits of a cleaner, cooler planet.

Should we be able to discuss climate change intelligently? Absolutely! But that's a far cry from what goes on today. Every adult in the world would be better off by improving their science literacy. But even if we are more scientifically literate we will still need to put in the time, from the bottom up, reading, researching, discussing and one day, hopefully, truly understanding what science is and is not, and what climate change is and is not.

In the end, reversing climate change will require effort and change from all of us. We will have to drive less and walk more; eat more local veggies and less imported grain-fed meat; we'll have to make smarter choices about how we live. What's bad about that? We will also have to admit that we do not hold the moral high ground and that we can't expect lesser developed nations to remain have-nots while we have so much more. This will be very difficult.

First, we have to stop arguing and start learning and then acting. Call your government representatives and demand legislation that penalizes greenhouse gas emitters. Demand that revenues from those penalties go towards lessening the impact on those with low incomes. Demand more funding for research into mitigating the effects of climate change in your country and region, and less for war and defense. Hold your elected representatives accountable and let them know you are watching their every move.

Today, not tomorrow. Now is the moment to decide what our history will be.


[1] Miller, J.D., R. Pardo, and F. Niwa. 1997. Public Perceptions of
Science and Technology: A Comparative Study of the European Union, the
United States, Japan, and Canada.
Chicago: Chicago Academy of Sciences.

[2] Miller, J. D., and R. Pardo. 2000. Civic scientific literacy and
attitude to science and technology:
A comparative analysis of the European Union, the United States, Japan,
and Canada. In Between understanding and trust: The public, science, and technology,
edited by M. Dierkes and C. von Grote, 81–129.
Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers.

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