Making Up Your Own Science

Why do so many people believe they’re more qualified on the topic of climate change than the climatologists themselves?

Visit Youtube, the editorial page of a newspaper, or even the blogosphere. All over places like these, where opinions can be expressed freely, there are countless people who

1) have little to no scientific training,

2) rely solely on the popular media for information on climate change,

3) are obviously unfamiliar with elementary principles of climatology, such as the Milankovitch cycles, El Nino and La Nina, or the importance of long trend lines in graphical measurements. (Sorry, not all of these sources are that high up on our credibility spectrum, but their citations are great.)

But, most importantly,

4) They seem to believe that their opinion of the forcings and mechanisms of a complex system such as climate, as well as its basis in physics and chemistry, is more noteworthy than the opinions of the professional scientific organizations at the top of our credibility spectrum.

In simpler terms, “It doesn’t matter what the scientists say. I’m smarter than all of them put together.”

Why you need science

Climatology is not as simple as you might expect after watching An Inconvenient Truth. The folks at NASA don’t just look at two graphs that are both going up and automatically assume that they’re correlated.

Climatology is every bit as complicated, thorough, and dry as any other area of science. In fact, it is deeply entrenched in the physical sciences. As an over-eager student who is trying to understand more aspects of climatology than I have the scientific foundation for, I continually run into this entrenchment.

For example, the exact process of how a CO2 or CH4 molecule absorbs infrared energy and thus acts as a greenhouse gas involves quantum chemistry that I haven’t learned yet. I’m still puzzling over the difference between the direct cooling effect of aerosols versus the cloud albedo effect. I hear all the time that climate change is based on the Laws of Thermodynamics, but I have yet to find out what those laws are.

It’s not easy stuff. It’s not something just anyone could grasp entirely in an afternoon. It’s something that requires years of study.

If I told you that parts of the Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets were thickening, chances are that you’d think, “More ice = cooling, therefore the world is not warming.”

In fact, these thickening ice sheets are a sign of warming. The thickening areas were previously so cold that the air could not hold enough moisture for significant precipitation. With warming, the air has more capacity for humidity, and precipitation falls in the form of snow. But it’s still too cold for that snow to melt, so it builds up and thickens the ice sheet.

It’s not as simple as temperature = climate. You have to look at changes in humidity and precipitation over time. You have to use a lot of maps. You have to factor in wind and ocean currents.

You have to know what you’re doing to make an accurate analysis of climate data. If you haven’t studied physical geography, atmospheric physics, or climate modelling at the post-secondary level, chances are that you hold misconceptions and assumptions that are skewing your interpretation.

I know this is true for me. I don’t pretend to know everything about climate change. I have an awfully long way to go. I’m just a student.

The more I learn about climatology, the more I realize how little I know.

So please, have some humility. Realize that it might be wiser to trust the experts than to try to analyze it all yourself. Don’t automatically assume that NASA, IPCC, the 32 national academies of science that endorsed the IPCC, and every other professional scientific organization on the planet are completely wrong just because somebody said they were.

Chances are, there are satisfactory explanations for whatever objections you may hold to their methods. Yes, they are making sure the sun is not responsible. No, they weren’t all saying an ice age was coming in the 70s. Yes, they are aware carbon dioxide is plant food. These are smart people. Accept that they might know more about climate change than you do. It’s not such a terrible thing.

To conclude, there are many things in life, such as fashion, political beliefs, and spirituality, where all opinions are equal, and nobody is justified to tell anybody what they should believe.

Science isn’t one of them.

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5 thoughts on “Making Up Your Own Science

  1. I’m also enjoying your blog and look forward to reading more of it. I think you hit the nail on the head when you point out that climatologists don’t seem to be credible if discussions on blogs are anything to go by. It is mind-boggling at times.

    • Thanks for reading – I hope you’ll keep coming back, I have a lot planned for future posts! The blogosphere and YouTube is a crazy place when you’re trying to work out climate science. There’s all sorts of rubbish out there. Check out the post “The Credibility Spectrum”, if you haven’t already, to see which sorts of sources you can trust.

  2. Very smart post. My favorite part is the final paragraph, where you point out that some people really are qualified to tell us what to think about science.

  3. One of my favorite quotes of all time:

    “What one fool can do, another can.” Ancient Simian Proverb

    Or if you like, Richard Feynmans version:

    “What one fool can understand, another can.”

    My point: don’t be discouraged by the complexities. I recently started reading “Introduction to Atmospheric Chemistry,” an undergrad level textbook. I am going to have to review a lot of physics and chemistry in order to understand it. The more you want to learn the more you have to learn.

    Cheers

  4. The reason everyone is looking at the science, whether they understand it at all/completely or no, is that climate change is ultimately political (unless there’s some technological miracle that’s going to solve all of our problems, which I don’t believe for a moment). And, as you know, the detailed science is very, very complex involving a myriad of scientific fields – so us lay people rely on others to interpret it for us. What interests me most is how the science is interpreted in the popular media – because that is the only source of most peoples’ information. Most of us are fundamentally lazy (I include myself in that assessment) we haven’t the time/energy to track down the original sources, especially if the original source is a paper which a) you can only access the abstract, b) you only partially understand/goes right over you head because your knowledge of thermodynamics/fluid dynamics/atmospheric chemistry… is pretty hazy, so we rely on the popular media – but many of them either exaggerate/blame everything on climate change or there’s the opposite extreme telling us that climate change is one big hoax. Since this subject isn’t of academic interest to us but has profound political implications – that’s when the fun part really begins!

    Seems like the house is in danger of catching fire, and one side are debating how high the flames will reach whilst the other side are ignoring any possibility of danger and begrudging spending the money on maintaining a fire brigade, meanwhile the rest of us are wondering whether the best option is to take out insurance, spend that money on an expensive sprinkler system or buy several different types of extinguisher and we’re all arguing amongst themselves.

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