Climate Change Education?

“There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.” — Mark Twain


a factory

When it comes to climate change, I have to admit that I don’t really know what’s going on. I know that both sides are cocksure and have incentive to promote their positions, meaning that neither should be trusted out of hand. It seems that more experts believe that the climate is changing than not, but that’s only so helpful to me, as I’ve worked with university faculty, and have seen firsthand how impressed with their own infallibility they can be, and how rarely they change their mind once it’s made up. There’s good reason for the saying that science advances one funeral at a time.

The way I see it, the climate change issue is really a series of three questions, all of which must be answered affirmatively for dramatic action to be warranted:

  1. Is the climate really changing?
  2. If so, are we causing it?
  3. If we are, is it worse for us than de-industrialization would be?

While I’m no climatologist and don’t claim to know for sure, I expect the answer to the first one is probably yes. I realize there are some issues with the data that are used to support this theory, but given that the climate has always been dynamic, it’s not so difficult to believe that the average global temperature is on an upswing.

I can also believe that the second one is at least partially yes. The long list of species that we’ve hunted to extinction show that humans can affect the environment to its detriment. If there are enough of us, we don’t even need advanced technology to do it — ask a woolly mammoth.

I think the third one is a lot more iffy, though. Many of the apocalyptic predictions are based on worst case scenarios, and computer models rather than direct observation. I work with computers, and one thing I know is that the problem with them is that they always do exactly what you tell them. Unless the model is strikingly accurate, there’s always that cause for uncertainty. Moreover, whatever negative consequences there may be should be weighed against the benefits that have come from industrialization, like average lifespans that are decades longer now than they were when we first started burning coal. I’m fine with moving to an economy that uses less carbon, but in the meantime do we really want to do without modern technology? If we tried, how many people would die earlier than they would otherwise?

I’m thinking about all this today because of a piece I read in The Hill saying that Todd Stern, the top climate negotiator for the U.S., is calling on scientists and policymakers to orchestrate an educational effort to change the public’s perception about climate change. Regardless of what the answers to those three questions are likely to be, is it really the government’s place to tell people what to think? Clearly not. But even if it is, would it do any good? Natural selection has been taught in American schools for a century, yet a recent Gallup poll shows that four in ten Americans believe that Creationism is literally true, and that only one in six Americans believe that humans evolved without divine intervention. With ignorance like that, what chance is there to educate the American people on a scientific topic that’s so complex there is still reasonable uncertainty about important details?

One Comment

  1. Comment by CWE:

    Some social scientists study ‘herding’, which is the tendency of individuals to follow the consensus of their colleagues. The Appeal to Popular Sentiment is the foundation of ‘relevance’ in research. If your work bucks conventional wisdom, you probably are a crank. Additionally, studies that yield negative results – as in “We find no evidence in support of…” – are much harder to get published in professional journals than studies that purport to have found something, however elusive, fanciful, or even wrong. Remember, also, that the reviewers of journal articles typically are individuals whose work has been published previously in those journals. In other words, the watchmen watch the watchmen. Especially nettlesome is causation; even if you do find something, you could misidentify the cause; the safe route is to assume the same cause as everyone else. Thus, the field is tilted in favor of those who purport to have *found* something that is ’caused’ by whatever the Big Names say causes it. If the consensus is that anthropomorphic global warming is a clear and present danger, and you report that you find no evidence to support this, the herd likely will bleat back, “You didn’t look hard enough,” and your work will not see the light of day. If you post your rejected papers your website, it serves only to confirm what a luz3r you are as a scientist; good luck getting promotions and winning grants.

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