Hopefully, one of the things you will observe as this blog grows is that there are a fairly significant number of things that make me angry. Very near the top of the list of rage-inducing subjects is public misunderstanding or ignorance of science.
Now, as a student of Biology, if I’m not a scientist then I do a damn good impression of being one. What frustrates me more than anything is the unwillingess or inability of other scientists – you know, the kind that actually do the research – to make their work well-understood and accepted by the public. I’ll get onto Creationism, which is just about top of the pile of Things That Piss Me Off, in later posts (I promise). But climate change, one of the greatest threats to humanity (providing we don’t all blow each other up before it gets really serious, of course), is what I want to focus on here.
I have often wondered what makes people so vehemently deny the scientific consensus on climate change. It would be nice to think that it results from the same sort of paranoid delusions that cause people to claim that the Moon landings were faked, or that 9/11 was an inside job, or that the Holocaust never happened, or that Barack Obama was born in Kenya rather than Hawaii. But the truth is, the real enemy here is public ignorance, a lack of understanding of the scientific issues at stake. Yes, you will always get the hardcore minority who will believe that the whole thing is a scam, regardless of the evidence. But I believe that the majority of people are intelligent enough to think for themselves – it’s just a matter of getting the relevant information out to them. That’s the great thing about ignorance – unlike dogma, it can be cured.
Climate change – global warming, whatever you want to call it – is happening. And we, as a species, are responsible for most of it. These are facts, and they are accepted by the vast majority of people who have an education in vaguely relevant fields. Myself, I’ve recently been delving into some archives for research into an essay on how plants have contributed to climate change in the past, which has also brought up some interesting papers on human-driven global warming in the present. The evidence is there, and the conclusions are seriously robust.
I got an email alert in my inbox earlier from the guys at Media Lens, who have done an excellent job of exposing the mainstream media’s skewed coverage of climate change. In particular, the recent blowing-out-of-all-proportion of the so-called “Climategate” emails from the University of East Anglia goes to show that even if climate change sceptics have long since lost out in the field of peer-reviewed science, they are certainly able to win the propaganda war. Media Lens quoted James Hansen, a leading NASA scientist:
The media have done a great disservice to the public. This mess should be cleared up in the next year or so, although the damage may linger a while, because some people who paid attention to sensationalism may not bother with accurate explanations of the truth.
Fundamentally science struggles to get its message across to the public, whereas there are those who actively oppose the scientific consensus – for whatever reason – who are far more PR-savvy than your average climate scientist. The result? The real science stays confined to the journals, whereas the politically-motivated pseudoscience gets smeared across the pages of your average newspaper. Eventually this will get to the stage where popular pressure is such, politicians can’t deal with the very real problems posed by climate change because of public backlash – or, worse, a new generation of scientifically illiterate politicians get themselves elected and set the whole process back.
Good science is about questioning authority, but only if your questions are well-formed and backed up by the evidence. In general, where errors are found in scientific work, they are acknowledged and corrected – if not by the scientists who propagated the errors, then at least by the majority of the rest of the scientific community. Contrary to the myth spread by the popular press, errors in science do not tend to be preserved for the satisfaction of some preconceived gain: see, for example, RealClimate’s discussion of purported “errors” in the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
RealClimate is one of those excellent, but sadly rare, examples of real scientists trying to escape the mire of bad PR and provide a very public counter to the assertions of the climate change deniers. For anyone who wants to learn about the facts of climate change outside of the largely imagined “debate” that goes on in the mainstream media, that website is as good a place as any to start.
The take-home message from all of this is, as with any subject, it’s a good idea to know your facts before you start spouting off about them. Informed criticism is acceptable. Uninformed ranting is not.