Part 1 of a series of 5 for NextGen Journal.
What’s wrong with these statements?
- I believe in global warming.
- I don’t believe in global warming.
- We should hear all sides of the climate change debate and decide for ourselves.
Don’t see it? How about these?
- I believe in photosynthesis.
- I don’t believe in Newton’s Laws of Motion.
- We should hear all sides of the quantum mechanics debate and decide for ourselves.
Climate change is a scientific phenomenon, rooted in physics and chemistry. All I did was substitute in other scientific phenomena, and the statements suddenly sounded wacky and irrational.
Perhaps we have become desensitized by people conflating opinion with fact when it comes to climate change. However, the positions of politicians or media outlets do not make the climate system any less of a physical process. Unlike, say, ideology, there is a physical truth out there.
If there is a physical truth, there are also wrong answers and false explanations. In scientific issues, not every “belief” is equally valid.
Of course, the physical truth is elusive, and facts are not always clear-cut. Data requires interpretation and a lot of math. Uncertainty is omnipresent and must be quantified. These processes require training, as nobody is born with all the skills required to be a good scientist. Again, the complex nature of the physical world means that some voices are more important than others.
Does that mean we should blindly accept whatever a scientist says, just because they have a Ph.D.? Of course not. People aren’t perfect, and scientists are no exception.
However, the institution of science has a pretty good system to weed out incorrect or unsupported theories. It involves peer review, and critical thinking, and falsifiability. We can’t completely prove anything right – not one hundred percent – so scientists try really hard to prove a given theory wrong. If they can’t, their confidence in its accuracy goes up. Peter Watts describes this process in more colourful terms: “You put your model out there in the coliseum, and a bunch of guys in white coats kick the s**t out of it. If it’s still alive when the dust clears, your brainchild receives conditional acceptance. It does not get rejected. This time.”
Peer review is an imperfect process, but it’s far better than nothing. Combined with the technical skill and experience of scientists, it makes the words of the scientific community far more trustworthy than the words of a politician or a journalist. That doesn’t mean that science is always right. But, if you had to put your money on it, who would you bet on?
The issue is further complicated by the fact that scientists are rarely unanimous. Often, the issue at question is truly a mystery, and the disagreement is widespread. What causes El Niño conditions in the Pacific Ocean? Science can’t give us a clear answer yet.
However, sometimes disagreement is restricted to the extreme minority. This is called a consensus. It doesn’t imply unanimity, and it doesn’t mean that the issue is closed, but general confidence in a theory is so high that science accepts it and moves on. Even today, a few researchers will tell you that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, or that secondhand smoke isn’t harmful to your health. But that doesn’t stop medical scientists from studying the finer details of such diseases, or governments from funding programs to help people quit smoking. Science isn’t a majority-rules democracy, but if virtually all scientists have the same position on an issue, they probably have some pretty good reasons.
If science is never certain, and almost never unanimous, what are we supposed to do? How do we choose who to trust? Trusting nobody but yourself would be a poor choice. Chances are, others are more qualified than you, and you don’t hold the entirety of human knowledge in your head. For policy-relevant science, ignoring the issue completely until one side is proven right could also be disastrous. Inaction itself is a policy choice, which we see in some governments’ responses to climate change.
Let’s bring the whole issue down to a more personal level. Imagine you were ill, and twenty well-respected doctors independently examined you and said that surgery was required to save your life. One doctor, however, said that your illness was all in your mind, that you were healthy as a horse. Should you wait in bed until the doctors all agreed? Should you go home to avoid surgery that might be unnecessary? Or should you pay attention to the relative size and credibility of each group, as well as the risks involved, and choose the course of action that would most likely save your life?