Category Archives: science

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 Marches On…In the Streets

My Sunday morning newspaper placed on the front page a picture of Saturday’s “march for science” in downtown Los Angeles. As I read the story I said to myself, “There is something strange about people protesting in the name of science.” Science presents itself as a disinterested search for truth. But protest is a political act for the sake of justice; this is a march for science. What does that mean? While I am a great lover of modern natural science I am somewhat suspicious of taking its cause to the streets. It raises the question of the nature and limits of science and its enmeshment within culture and politics. Since I wrote about this in The Faithful Creator: Affirming Creation and Providence in an Age of Anxiety (pp. 166-168), allow me to respond to the march for science by quoting myself:

“Modern natural science is greatly valued in our culture and scientists are held in high esteem. Why? Clearly, the main reason for science’s social prestige is that science has produced technology that people desire. Human beings want to enjoy health and long life, wealth, exciting entertainment, comfort and leisure, and, of course, military power. Some people are curious about the world and for that reason are interested in what science discovers. Others mistakenly think science will confirm their metaphysical or religious beliefs. But overwhelmingly science is valued for its material benefits. In their most idealistic moments, scientists may attempt to convince themselves that they pursue science for knowledge alone. Whatever the scientist thinks, however, the culture has another end in mind. There is no other way to account for the vast sums of money governments and businesses spend on research and development and individuals spend on technology. People today do not crave salvation or concern themselves with their God-relation. For many people science has replaced God as the source of well-being and the scientist has replaced the priest as the means of access to the source of good. A kind of mindless worldliness and thoughtless sensuality pervades the consumer culture the scientist serves.

“Natural science possesses no natural birthright to the cultural power it holds today. As I indicated, science is held in esteem because people want the things science provides. But science cannot provide everything people need. Science cannot tell you what is right or wrong or make you wise or good. Science cannot endow your life with meaning or make you happy. It cannot give you love or show you how to love. Science cannot forgive your sins or give you hope for eternal life. It cannot give you contentment in life. It cannot give you a genuine identity. It can’t tell you whether there is a God or what God thinks of you or what God wants of you. It has no comforting words to prepare you for death. It cannot change the laws of nature or control the future. Science must remain silent or speak foolishly in relation to the existential dimension of humanity. Science is not God. Science is human through and through; it derives from the power of our reason to figure out the laws of nature and use them for our ends. It gives the impression of being superhuman for the same reason that governments give that impression: it is a communal undertaking transcending the individual in power and longevity, but it does not transcend humanity as such. Science possesses all the strengths and weaknesses of humanity in an exaggerated form. At the risk of sounding unappreciative of science, it must be said that natural science cannot answer a single one of the top five or ten most important questions we ask or achieve anything of lasting significance. At the end of his Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant gave his list of three most important questions pressing on human existence: “1. What can I know? 2. What ought I to do? 3. What may I hope?” One could extend that list a long way before one gets to “What is the atomic weight of Iron?” Or, as Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) concluded, “We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered, the problems of life remain completely untouched” (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus ).

“We must consider one more extra scientific factor when evaluating science. The scientist is an existing human being. The scientist is not a machine completely absorbed in the objective world of nature. She/he is a subject, a body, an individual, fallible, mortal and needy, anxious, jealous, hopeful or despairing, optimistic or pessimistic. Science exists only in the minds of scientists. Science can’t do scientific research. In addition to being founded on metaphysical and epistemological presuppositions and directed toward social and political ends, science is conditioned by the subjectivity scientists bring to their task. A person can be driven to engage in science by curiosity, love of discovery, love of beauty, desire to serve God, desire to benefit humanity, adherence to a philosophy of nature, desire for wealth or fame, hatred and envy, pride or shame, and many other human motivations. Scientists can be virtuous or vicious, honest or dishonest, caring or cruel. This is true not only because scientists sometimes falsify data or take short cuts or plagiarize but because these subjective factors affect what presuppositions they favor and to what ends they direct their research. Even at the levels of observation and interpretation subjective factors play a part, for good or ill.

“As these observations make clear, even if the inner workings and the material findings of modern natural science are strictly limited to the empirical, these empirical findings do not stand alone or interpret themselves or put themselves to use. Because science is nestled between epistemological and metaphysical presuppositions and cultural ends and is conducted by subjects, there is plenty of room for conflict and dialogue between what scientists claim as the significance of their empirical findings and other interpretations of reality.”

Ten Things Natural Science Cannot Do

One of the most insidious falsehoods perpetuated in contemporary culture is the idea that natural science is final arbiter of truth and the ultimate hope of human salvation. Below I have listed ten things natural science cannot do. This list demonstrates that human beings cannot live a human life by natural science alone. It’s far too narrow, and it aims way too low. We need access to a truth science cannot supply and contact with a reality science cannot touch.

  1. Natural Science cannot answer a single important question—not even one. Science cannot establish the worthiness of anything it does.
  1. Natural Science cannot establish the validity of its methods or the truth of its theories. Science cannot demonstrate that it is doing anything more than organizing our empirical experience into meaningful patterns.
  1. Natural Science cannot prove the rightness or goodness or beauty of its activities.
  1. Natural Science cannot give you a reason to become a scientist or even to live another day.
  1. Natural Science cannot make a single moral, aesthetic, metaphysical or theological statement. Science is limited to describing, explaining and predicting the empirical structure and behavior of things in terms of physical causes, spatial and temporal relations, quantitative relations, organic functions, etc.
  1. Natural Science possesses no competence speak about existential meaning or purpose.
  1. Natural Science has nothing to say about to you as a person. It cannot tell you who you are, why you are here or what you are supposed to do.
  1. Natural Science cannot guide itself toward ends. Science has no mind or heart or soul; it cannot love or hate or feel. It cannot do anything or feel anything or think anything. It cannot read or write or speak. Science exists solely in the minds of scientists and is a wholly human enterprise subject to the same error and sin as are such other human enterprises as politics and economics. If human reason is limited, science is correspondingly limited. If human goodness is limited, science is limited accordingly.
  1. Natural Science cannot give you hope for the future or reason to love others or others reason to love you.
  1. Natural Science cannot forgive your sins, raise you from the dead or give you eternal life. It cannot tell you God loves you. It cannot give you the power to live a good life. It cannot comfort you at the graveside of your loved one or in your own dying hours.