Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Climate debate

Scientific illiteracy may not destroy the world. Scientific literary in nuclear physics is more likely to do that. But if we dumb down our world to the point that no one knows how to use nuclear weapons any more, the planet could still fry.

The British Royal Society last week put out this Climate science statement 11/24/09 emphasizing the urgency of addressing climate change:

As three of the UK’s leading scientific organisations involving most of the UK scientists working on climate change, we cannot emphasise enough the body of scientific evidence that underpins the call for action now, and we reinforce our commitment to ensuring that world leaders continue to have access to the best possible science. ...

The 2007 Assessment Report of the UN’s climate change panel (the IPCC) – made up of the world’s foremost climate scientists – provided unequivocal evidence for a warming climate, and a high degree of certainty that human activities are largely responsible for global warming since the middle of the 20th century. However, the IPCC process is based only on information already published and even since the last Assessment Report the scientific evidence for dangerous, long-term and potentially irreversible climate change has strengthened significantly:

  • Global carbon dioxide concentrations continue to rise, and methane concentrations have started to increase again after a decade of near stability;
  • The decade 2000-2009 has been warmer, on average, than any other decade in the previous 150 years;
  • Observed changes in precipitation (decreases in the subtropics and increases in high latitudes) have been at the upper limit of model projections;
  • Arctic summer sea ice cover declined suddenly in 2007 and 2008, prompting the realisation that this environment may be far more vulnerable to change than previously thought;
  • There is increasing evidence of continued and accelerating sea-level rises around the world. [my emphasis]

Meanwhile, crackpot eccentrics that we still generously call conservatives and cynical industry flaks are promoting the notion that, "Aw, these here scientists don't know what they're talkin' about. Heck, it don't say nothing about global warning in the Bible unless it's one of them thar strange things in Revelations so it must be part of a plot to turn America over to Kenya."

Unfortunately, the flat-earthers seem to be gaining some advantage in the American political debate. Their latest hobby-horse is a pseudo-scandal about scientists e-mailing each other, as explained by Bradford Plummer in How Important Are Those Stolen Climate E-mails? The New Republic 11/25/09.

The late astrophysicist Carl Sagan in Demon-Haunted World - Science as a Candle in the Dark (1995) was already concerned about the dangers of insufficiently widely-spread knowledge of science. With particular reference to the US, he wrote:

... the consequences of scientific illiteracy are far more dangerous in our time than in any that has come before. It's perilous and foolhardy for the average citizen to remain ignorant about global warming, say, or ozone depletion, air pollution, toxic and radioactive wastes, acid rain, topsoil erosion, tropical deforestation, exponential population growth. Jobs and wages depend on science and technology. If our nation can't manufacture, at high quality and low price, products people want to buy, then industries will continue to drift away and transfer a little more prosperity to other parts of the world. Consider the social ramifications of fission and fusion power, supercomputers, data "highways," abortion, radon, massive reductions in strategic weapons, addiction, government eavesdropping on the lives of its citizens, high-resolution TV, airline and airport safety, fetal tissue transplants, health costs, food additives, drugs to ameliorate mania or depression or schizophrenia, animal rights, superconductivity, morning-after pills, alleged hereditary antisocial predispositions, space stations, going to Mars, finding cures for AIDS and cancer.
Without some basic scientific literacy, industry lobbyists and superstitious fanatics can point to a phrase like that in the Royal Society report above, "a high degree of certainty that human activities are largely responsible for global warming", and say, look: these scientists can't say for sure that this is true, they just say they think that's the way it is. And then arguing for taking another 50 years to "study the issue" have greater plausibility than they should.

As Sagan went on to explain, pseudoscience is easier to make arguments with than science is, because it's not so constrained by having to deal with discomfirming reality. In addition, "The standards of argument, what passes for evidence, are much more relaxed." This makes it "much easier to present pseudoscience to the general public than science."

He also notes that wishful thinking is part of the appeal of pseudoscience. And that goes as well for the global warming denial. It would be more pleasant to believe that is was all a big goof, or a scam by a cabal of scheming evil scientists, that we are melting the polar icecaps. And that tremendous consequences ensue from that.

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