Sunday, September 20, 2009

Global Warming and Evolution as Political and Religious Topics

In my last post about civil discourse, I talked about having an open mind and its importance to the character of a discussion/argument. When it comes to science, however, there are some limits on what an open mind must consider as pertinent. In particular, arguments predicated on someone's beliefs rather than on evidence or logic is beyond the boundaries of what I consider to be worthy of consideration in the discussion.

For example, many people I know, including some folks who wear the label "meteorologist" find it easy to discard the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and say they just don't buy into the notion that humans are responsible for a significant part of the observed increase in global temperature. [I'm not going to touch on the notions of those who go still further, to deny that the global temperature is rising - they're already well beyond the pale of science.] The IPCC report was created by a large number of specialists in climate research and the content of that report contained essentially no minority opinions because they were more or less unanimous regarding the main conclusion that the evidence supports the hypothesis that anthropogenic climate change is real and significant. Most of the disbelievers like to point out that not all climate change scientists agree on this point. Surprise, surprise! There are very few aspects of science to which all scientists agree. So there are some scientists out there who don't accept the consensus view of the IPCC report. On that basis, the disbelievers among the folks I know are willing to discredit the consensus without actually understanding the scientific issues. I'm a meteorologist, but I'm not a global climate change researcher. I believe it would be rather arrogant for me to reject that consensus simply because I heard of some scientists who don't believe in that consensus or because it violates my personal beliefs.

What gives those who are not global climate change scientists the idea that they can reject the consensus without having any direct evidence of their own? That idea, in my opinion, stems from the fact that global climate change has been transformed into a political issue. In politics, one opinion is pretty much at the same level as any other. You can embrace or reject political opinions at will and you need not muster a shred of evidence or logic to support that stance. Your beliefs are sufficient. In science, some interpretations are at a higher level than others because they're based on stronger evidence and/or more compelling logic. Scientific issues aren't decided on rhetoric alone. Not all scientific opinions are equal.

Why has global climate change become politicized? Because if we are to respond to the potential threats posed by global warming, it will have considerable economic and social impact! Mitigation of anthropogenic climate change requires decisions to be made in the political sphere. The people in a democratic nation would have to show their support for any decision to be made by electing politicians they believe would vote on those political issues the way the voters want. The majority rules, so the politicians want to read the pulse of the voters to know in which camp to throw their support. After all, the primary motive for a politician is to get into and stay in public office. Anything else is optional, at best.

Which way should the citizens lean on a politicized scientific issue? Is consensus science always right? No, of course not, but would it be sensible to base a decision that has far-reaching societal impact on the opinions of some maverick scientist well outside of the consensus? Only if that maverick was correct. But how does a non-participant in the science know who's right and who's wrong? The IPCC consensus has emerged from the best evidence that a large cross-section of the world's climate change scientists can muster. The IPCC was formed with the explicit purpose of informing political decision-makers which way to lean on the issue of anthropogenic climate change. Some politicians don't like the IPCC consensus because it threatens their political agenda.

Does it make sense to reject that consensus without knowing much of anything about the global climate change science that has formed that consensus? Most voters won't ever be able to make informed decisions about most scientific issues because most voters aren't specialists in those scientific areas. Does it make any sense, then, to decide to reject the IPCC consensus on the basis of what amounts to political opinions? I think not. Although I know more about meteorology than most voters, I have no evidence of my own to deny the validity of the IPCC report. I know some of the participants and I trust their science. That trust doesn't make them infallible, but it's not based on a personal whim, either. I don't comprehend how people who know less than I about atmospheric science can take a position opposed to that consensus, except because of either a purely political opinion, or an innate mistrust of any authority (so a maverick appeals to them despite having no basis for deciding the validity of that maverick viewpoint).

Note that most of meteorological debate on scientific issues stays within the scientific community. There's no political fall-out from the ongoing argument about using vertical wind shear or storm-relative helicity to understand supercells and tornadoes. So the media aren't covering that topic, and the political parties haven't got a shear versus helicity plank in their platforms. It's not something that can or should be settled in the media. The argument goes on between the advocates without any press conferences, intergovernmental panels, etc. The issue eventually may be settled in some fashion but those participating in the argument won't be appearing in media interviews to attack their scientific colleagues, or to respond to attacks in the media by their colleagues. In other words, without the attention of the media and the politicians, science will go on as usual - issues will be decided on the basis of evidence and logic, not opinion. The consensus isn't dogma - it changes all the time, but on a rational basis - not according to personal whims and beliefs.

It's a real shame that societally important scientific issues apparently can't be decided in the proper way - I refuse to participate in an argument where my opponent in the discussion has a closed mind about the inadmissability of his/her beliefs in the discourse.

It's much the same about the apparently widespread belief in the religious dogma about a supernatural origin for life. It's not an open mind that rejects the position of consensus science regarding the overwhelming evidence in favor of evolution as opposed to religious creationism. Rather, it's a thoroughly closed mind - closed to the logic and evidence that supports evolutionary biology. Supernatural explanations can have no place in science regardless of their possible validity in other magisteria. Someone who embraces the notion that supernatural causes are a scientifically valid "explanation" for life is dogmatic in the extreme.

Why is there creationist biology, but no theist severe storms meteorology? Because the sacred texts of the world's deist religions have virtually nothing to say about storm dynamics! If these sacred texts offered an extensive description of how their deity creates tornadoes, then perhaps we'd be having theists calling for alternative explanations in scientific textbooks, and radical theists disrupting school board meetings to impose creationist tornadogenesis theory in schools. Since no such text appears, the theists feel no threat to their beliefs from severe storm science.

Anyone who believes in their religious version of creation in preference to evolutionary biological science is outside the domain of a reasonable discourse. Science rejects dogma in favor of evidence and logic. If you dispute scientific consensus, then you must present extraordinarily good evidence to support such an argument. If you have none of your own, then you really have nothing to offer in a rational discourse. I don't have to open my mind to your nonscientific belief system. My mind isn't closed to rational argument, but you have nothing of the sort to present. Further discourse is impossible, and the best we can hope to do is to agree to disagree.


Heather said...

Very good points! I often get frustrated with my peers because they debate issues based on belief and "feeling" rather than logic and facts. It's amusing when I look at it from the outside, but it's easy to get caught up in trying to teach them another way of looking at things... which is about as effective as beating your head against a brick wall and expecting to make a door. Then again, sometimes I bait them just for the fun of it. *shrug* Their reactions can be somewhat spectacular and make for great stories later.

Aaron Kennedy said...

I was recently cornered by a Jehovah Witness lady while working outside. Suprisingly, she was on the pro anthropogenic climate change side. Of course her "proof" was some vague scripture in the bible about humans who damage the earth will cause destruction or what not.

I also managed to bring up evolution. At that point,our points differed although I got her to admit that animals can adapt to their surroundings over time. Hmm...

I apparently did a good enough job that now she's continuing to visit on the weekends. At the very least it should provide a bit of break from the housework and perhaps some ammusing dialogue. At some point I'm will need to cut her off (unless the ND winter does first).