Climate change and how science works
Days ago the earth’s atmospheric carbon dioxide levels reached 400ppm, a level unknown for 2.2 million years, since a time when the seas were up to 40m higher than today and our ancestors lived solely on the East-African savannah, just beginning to discover how to use stone tools.
This should have sounded an alarm bell across the globe, with people crying out for reductions in our emissions; for the brakes to be applied on this train before it’s too late. This couldn’t seem further from the truth however, with the Obama administration recently publishing it’s strategy for exploiting the oil reserves being uncovered by newly thawed arctic ice, the UK slashing investement in renewable energy whilst giving fracking companies tax breaks, and universities across the country opening new research facilities for discovering how to drill deeper for oil, we seem intent on increasing our emissions rather than cutting them.
What is going on? There seems to be a huge level of global cognitive dissonance, one that acknowledges the rising levels of carbon whilst feeling that we are somehow impervious to its effects.
This may be in part due to the conspicuousness of those who seek to decry climate change as some scientific conspiracy. Due to the media’s desire to give balance and controversy to every story, conspiracy theorists frequently find themselves given an equal platform with scientists on such matters. Even if their ideas are truly ridiculous such people are lent credibility simply by being given a platform, given power simply by the oxygen of publicity, even though to borrow Richard Dawkins’ analogy it is akin to having a TV debate on childbirth between a midwife and an advocate of the stork theory.
And so despite a wealth of scientific evidence backing it up, only 54% of Americans and 56% of Britons believe climate change is caused by humanity. If there is such little consensus among the public on the causes of climate change it is hardly surprising that politicians aren’t keen on combating it-it’s simply not a vote winner, and so not a priority.
Despite scientists claiming that we are causing climate change and must take actions to mitigate against it, the public regularly hear voices shouting from the sidelines that this is all a ploy by scientists to make more money from a phenomena that simply doesn’t exist, sowing mistrust and apathy.
The notion that this is all a plot by scientists is an interesting one however, and one that I would like to tackle as it seems to stem from the generally poor idea the public have of how science works (which is one of the reasons I started blogging in the first place).
Science is often seen as a large, single, organised and closed entity, a community that can quite possibly act simply in its own self-interest. This is quite far from the truth however; if anything we’re a group of disparate smartarses constantly trying to one-up each other. Trying to organise scientists has been compared to herding cats, although perhaps particularly sarcastic ones. New ideas are ruthlessly picked at by fellow scientists, trying mercilessly to find holes and logical flaws. Whilst this may seem impolite it is truly necessary, as the number of possible explanations for any phenomena is inevitably far higher than the amount that can actually prove to be true. Only by carving away the exterior of false ideas can the beautiful statue of truth be unveiled, or something.
As such we are trained to be hugely critical to any ideas we come across, whether our own or somebody else’s. Before scientific research is published it must run a gauntlet of scrutiny, and once out in the wider world every scientist reading it then attempts to mentally tear it apart. Any scientist managing to find fundamental flaws in a theory then gleefully publishes a refutal, keen to add ‘being the one to successfully harpoon a high-profile idea with my logical prowess’ to their CVs and egos. With all of this critical thinking your average group of scientists couldn’t collectively concoct a decent conspiracy before immediately tearing it apart, even if you covered their heads in tinfoil and forced them to smoke weed constantly for the rest of their lives.
And yet in spite of this immense group of ruthless know-it-alls, anthropogenic climate change is the consensus amongst a huge number of fields: from meteorologists to glaciologists, from physicists to botanists, almost all agree that humanity is causing climate change, and that we are responsible for trying to stop it. That such an immense group of experts, numbering many tens of thousands, almost all agree on something, is remarkable. A recent study found that 97% of research on climate change came to the conclusion that it was caused by mankind. If any one respectable scientist broke ranks and managed to credibly disprove anthropogenic climate change, publishing their findings accordingly, they would be a media sensation, and the prestige they gained from such an achievement would make their career set for life.
Yet it hasn’t happened. To me this in itself speaks volumes. But still, for some this is simply a symptom of the conspiracy being so far-reaching.
In which case, we may ask, at what point do aspiring scientists get let in on the secret? If all of these fields are in agreement, we must assume that they are all in on it after all. Do they get told it whilst they are in university? As they are already learning critical thinking and the scientific skills needed to debunk global warming, it would be the most sensible time to let them in on it, before any harm can be done. And yet over 93,000 students graduated with biological and physical science degrees in 2012 in the UK alone. Even if not all were let in on the secret that’s a whole load of potential whistleblowers worldwide, and yet none seem to come forward. Surely at least one would have the conscience to lift the lid on such a heinous plot?
And yet they don’t, because the notion of it being a conspiracy is of course absolute nonsense. Such a vast, far-reaching conspiracy, purely for the tiny pot of cash that science receives, is completely implausible.
Still, these misguided notions persist, causing humanity to stand around with its hands in its pockets, ignoring the consequences of our actions. This is why scientists must be more vocal and open with the public. There is no conspiracy; no reason for inaction. The need to face up to the consequences grows more urgent every day. And so as we scientists do with all uncovered fallacious scientific notions, we must do our duty and collectively harpoon this one in the face.