Category Archives: Science and Politics

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.

Science Is Not On Anyone’s Side—Because It Has No Conscience, No Politics, No Religion, No Heart, and No Soul

Some problems are difficult to solve. So many factors come into play, so many unknowns are…well…unknown. Private interests and preferences exert their influence. Entrenched social identities—class, race, gender, etc.—determine in advance which proposals get a hearing. Interminable arguments ensue with no obvious path to clarity and consensus in sight. Better to stay out of such quarrels.

However, some seemingly difficult problems have very simple solutions. And I want to deal today with one such a problem: Advocates of all sorts of causes claim that science is on their side. People on the other side are anti-scientific. They ignore the “facts,” and don’t follow the path charted by science. The solution to this problem is hiding in plain sight: in title of this essay. Science is not on anyone’s side! Because science has no conscience, no politics, no religion, no heart, and no soul. It supports no causes.

Allow me to use words I wrote a few years ago to explain why science doesn’t care about your causes—or mine:

Natural science seeks to make understandable the relationship of one set of empirical phenomena to another set of empirical phenomena by means of law-like generalization(s) or postulated causal relations or some other theoretical mediation. All of these mediating principles may be reduced to patterns of empirical phenomena. Or, if the theory refers to unobservable entities, these entities are still physical and manifest themselves in observable phenomena. This is the nature and the limit of natural science, whether physics, chemistry, biology, geology, or paleontology. Natural science studies the relationships within the created world among empirical phenomena, that is, the perceptions or sense data received through the five senses (The Faithful Creator, 2015).

Natural science does one thing. It describes and explains the empirical world in empirical terms. It speaks no other language and understands none. It adheres to no morality and supports none. It treasures no policy preferences and cares nothing for ours. It contemplates happiness or sadness, war or peace, and love or hate with equal indifference. Its methods and goals are the same whether studying the effects of poison or medicine. It can produce weapons of mass destruction or seek ways to feed the world’s hungry with equal efficiency. It doesn’t care. Science can count how many people die this year from infectious diseases and explain how, but it does not care in the least. It does matter to science how long you live, how happy you are, or how virtuous you become. Saint or devil, science makes no distinction. Why? Because it doesn’t care about anything! It can’t. Caring is not part of the scientific method. Its goal is to explain, not to heal or kill. comfort or torture.

So, get clear on this: whoever you are, whatever your cause, however passionate your devotion, science is not on your side. Because science doesn’t take sides! If you want to explain one set of empirical data with reference to another set of empirical date, science can help. But if you have a moral, political, religious, or esthetic question, don’t look to science for answers. It would be like asking a freeway sign whether you ought to vacation in Los Angeles or Miami. It won’t work, because…

Like freeway signs, science has no conscience, no politics, no religion, no heart, and no soul!