Climate Change, the Culture of Experts, and the Common Person

“I Believe in Science”

On my daily walk I pass by two houses with signs in front that list the virtues of the home owners. According to their advertisement, they believe in love, freedom, and other good things. But today I am thinking about one line that asserts, “We believe in science.” When I read it I always want to read it with the emphasis on the word “We.” We—as opposed to Others—believe in science. We are rational and educated people unlike that group that does not believe in science.

Leaving the arrogance and boastfulness aside for a moment, seeing these signs always prompts me to ask, “What does it mean to “believe” in science?” Does it mean to believe in the scientific method in general? Or are they speaking of particular applications of the scientific method, say, in chemistry or physics? Do they intend to assert that the method of empirical science can discover all truth and solve all problems? Or are they merely confessing their trust in scientific experts?

Here is what I think they mean: They seem to be asserting that they accept the consensus of climatologists on the issue of climate change, its facticity, its causes, its effects in the present and in the future. To move forward in our thinking, let me make an assumption about these neighbors. I doubt that they are experts in even one of the sciences that make up the field of climatology. Like me and most of you, they are not in a position to use expert judgment on the issues of climate change, also known as “global warming.” So, what are they doing when they put up a sign in their yard that says, “We believe in science?” As far as I can tell, they are signaling their identity in the—for lack of a better term—educated/progressive class and their allegiance to a political coalition that has placed environmental concerns at the heart of its political platform.

In my estimation, affirming a scientific theory because of its popularity in your social class or because it is an effective tool to gain political power for your side is a very unscientific thing to do. And yet what is a non-expert to do? We cannot do the scientific research for ourselves. And even if we read the research, we will not understand it well enough to make a critical judgment. Moreover, we cannot know for sure that all the experts agree. Are dissenting voices being silenced, cancelled, and rejected for publication? Such things happen all the time. Most of what we non-experts hear about climate change comes from politicians and the media. Politicians are notorious liars and most of us choose to listen only to media that tell us what we want to hear.

And yet, unlike some obscure research in physical chemistry, we must form an opinion about its soundness! For on the one hand, we are told that the very survival of humanity is at stake. If we do not drastically change the way we live we will drown or fry. Wars and mass migrations will change the face of the planet. On the other hand, we are told that human-made global warming is a hoax, the latest and greatest artificial crisis concocted to empower governments to centralize control over every aspect of our lives.

What is a Non-Expert to Do?

Again I ask what is a non-expert to do? I mean here a non-expert who wishes to follow reason rather than emotion or some other irrational motive. I have some common sense suggestions:

The climate change package includes (1) fact claims, (2) causal explanations, and (3) empirical effects, present and projected.

(1) With regard to fact claims, either the average temperature of the earth has increased in the last hundred years or it has not. Either the percentage of the atmosphere comprised of Carbon Dioxide has increased since the beginning of the industrial age by a certain amount or not. These empirical fact claims can in principle be confirmed or disconfirmed with the appropriate scientific instruments if used properly by experts. And these are the easiest scientific judgments for a non-expert to understand and accept or reject.

(2) With regard to proposed causal explanations, even the non-expert can see that we have moved into a completely different area. Mathematical measurements are one thing, causal explanations are another. If the average temperature of the earth and the level of Carbon Dioxide have indeed increased over the last century, what caused it? The model I hear presented in the media and by politicians designates human activity, specifically the production of “green house” gases, as the exclusive cause. Specifying the cause is vital to devising a plan to mitigate its negative effects. If certain human behaviors caused the increase, altering those behaviors may slow, stop, or reverse the effect.

How can the non-expert evaluate such causal explanations? First of all, common sense usually warns us against accepting simple explanations for changes in complex systems. You don’t have to be a climatologist to see that the climate on planet earth can be affected by many factors, perhaps many that are unknown to scientists. Non-experts, then, may be wrong, but they do not have to sacrifice reason to be somewhat skeptical of the standard explanation for global warming. And when the cost of the proposed plan of mitigation is taken into account—trillions of dollars in expenditures and a radically lowered standard of living—common sense wants more clarity and certainty.

(3) The projected effects of the temperature increase on the climate and human life are the most controversial of all the climate change theory assertions. Non-expert common sense raises its eyebrows when politicians and media personalities point to every heat wave, storm, flood, tornado, hurricane, and blizzard as evidence of climate change caused by man-made global warming. Even non-experts can understand that scientific theories must propose conditions under which they can be falsified. If every significant weather event confirms the current theory of climate change, then no weather event confirms it; for it shows itself unfalsifiable.

Non-expert common sense strains credulity to accept as rationally sound projections way into the future based on simplistic theoretical models. Skepticism is especially heightened when we hear that climate change models project only negative climate changes, disastrous for humanity. Common sense expects there to be upsides as well as downsides to almost any analogous change. Common sense asks, “Are there no advantages to the increase in global temperature?” Non-experts may be wrong, but they are not stupid and evil to ask such questions. What is the alternative? Shall we trust whoever claims to have science on their side? No. Non-experts have every right and even a duty to use the resources they have, including of course expert opinion, to make their own assessment. If non-experts don’t exercise this right, science will be completely politicized; politicians will determine what counts as scientific truth.

One last point, common sense usually rejects extremes. Extremes are usually based on emotions, desires, wishes, delusions, need for attention, or some other irrational motive. Sound judgment is cautious, patient, balanced, humble, and realistic. I think the non-expert using common sense can reasonably reject the “pure hoax” theory. It makes no sense to argue that human activity has had and will have no effect on the climate. On the other hand, climate extremism is also implausible to common sense. Worst case scenarios are just that, worst case. Hence non-experts who value reason and common sense will probably chart a moderate course in the credence they give to the climate change theory and hence accept only gradual, cautious changes in response to it.

7 thoughts on “Climate Change, the Culture of Experts, and the Common Person

  1. HAT

    Does common sense expect there to be upsides to ANY change? Even … say, nuclear war? Something along those lines? Less drastic, might not be too hard to think of examples where asserting the upsides seriously is morally repugnant. Say, the slave trade, e.g. This point seems to me to need qualification.


      1. HAT

        If your point is to raise the question of how non-experts ought to process the claim that human-induced climate change, and its [alleged] attendant consequences like the melting of the polar ice caps, is as catastrophic as nuclear war … I am not entirely sure it doesn’t. A lot depends on whether we (more or less collectively) think we are dealing with the kind of alarmists who make a crisis out of everything, or with the kind of alarmists who make a crisis out of a crisis. Chicken Littles or Cassandras, so to speak. It’s not clear to me that the Cassandras failing to identify “the positives in the situation” is a point against them, or one those of us trying to discern the true character of our informants can rely on.


  2. Dr Jonne Smalhouse

    Hello Ron.
    Some folks think a lot and are very good at it, other folks are challenged by thinking and the processes of thought, but they either have a fair go at it or can at least see it as advantageous, other folks don’t think.
    Caves and churches, schools and supermarkets, aeroplanes and theatres, homes and hospitals, armies and colleges are filled, like all societies, with these three types of people. God loves them all.
    Some of us try to have a relationship with God, and in that relationship, as complex and varied as it can possibly be, we both talk and listen. When God speaks, it benefits us Christians to listen and believe what is said! In that sense, i might say ” i believe God”.
    There is a difference between a relatory belief, and “believing in … something”. I definitely don’t ‘believe in God’- that would be to try and bring Him into existence from my “belief”; when quite clearly, my opinion is somewhat meaningless to our immanent God. I will leave that idea there, in case folks try to over-think it. Suffice it to say, can i “believe in science”? As a non-relatory thing or process, if you mean a ‘validity’ then yes, within the strict precepts of not converting this belief to anything like a religion, again, then yes. We are dealing with truths and untruths.
    What type?
    Science proper, from “con scientia” simply means to adopt an approach with thought and mind, possibly logic. If we want to achieve anything valuable, useful, and good, then we should apply our thoughts (see above) if we have any, to seeking the truth. In essence, we exercise our ‘conscience’.
    Hope this helps. There’s a lot in the bible about truth and ambition, power and honesty, respect and responsibility.
    Our planet’s climate.
    There are so many different trends, signs, measurements (data), ideas and concepts, or in general, factors which link in as many different ways, to our climate that anybody could legitimately claim to be confused. No-one can see the wood for the trees?
    That’s a big part of the problem. Every year somebody discovers something we didn’t know that is a ‘Prime Factor’ in the process of climate. It changes models and theories in all directions. I believe the latest discovery is a kind of hitherto uknnown deep ocean bacteria/ algae which can absorb dissolved methane-significant because we simply don’t know how much is natural, and how much man made CH4 will tip the balance over the “edge”.
    Now. Most folks will understand that any process, in balance, functions (it continues to work) with certain factors that work together to make the whole.
    If i’ve lost anyone- then think about a factory production line making cakes, or bread if you’re on a diet.
    We all know that that production line is a process which needs control to work properly. If Doris doesn’t ensure the paper case hopper is full, the dough splodges onto the belt. If Peter doesn’t fix the thermostat on the oven, no cake just dough!
    Irrespective of how many clever factors scientists discover to input their climate control models ( the gravitational pull of Jupiter, and solar maximum are two of my favourites) we can be sure of one thing- upon which we should not argue either way.
    It comes down to something called statistical “hunting”. It’s the way we decide if a process is working in balance, properly as it should, and if the cakes are burnt one day, and uncooked the next. The nett result is what we call ” out of control” or out of control limits.
    You don’t need to be a cake expert, or a manager at Ford, or a nuclear scientist to see that our planet’s climate is beginning to hunt.
    When you’re cruising along the freeway with a trailer, relaxed, your speed creeps up, a slight crosswind catches it and go get that first ‘wobble’. Then a draw, then a noticeable vibration, a snake and you know what’s going to happen as those sideways vibrations continue. You’re out of control.
    Finally, when statistical scientists testify ( in court) that a genetic fingerprint test is good for one in ten million, we think we understand the validity of that reasoning, and we judge accordingly. Then we should open our eyes, however sceptical about factors and non-factors, to the fact that when a weather phenomena is classified as once in every 200 years– but it happens twice a year! Yup. You guessed it, our climate is hunting. Our trailer is snaking.


  3. Dr Jonne Smalhouse

    I think it’s best if i give up now.
    I’ll get my own coat (not that i’ll need it).
    Prayers and very best wishes.



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