I am NOT a scientist but I have two brothers who are. My father was a phycsics professor. I even admit to knowing and liking folks who are in the sciences, regardless of their reputation among certain politico-business factions in America. In the interest of dialogue, I present, unedited, a recent email from a smart and serious scientist who's been my friend for over four decades. Yeah, we're old, but that makes us wilier. You know, like Dick Cheney.
My friend teaches in a large university with numerous students struggling to meet their breadth requirement, and destined to become voters and loan payers in America:
"I am struggling with a Climate Change class for 125 non-science students. It means about 15 contact hours a week (12 in lab and 3 in lecture) and a real struggle with what to teach and how. It has occupied a large part of my waking hours. In any case, I have spent a lot of time struggling with what we know and how do we know it.
"It’s a more or less free country and people believe whatever they damn well please (as long as they keep it to themselves). The rejoinder, 'You have no right to be so stupid' is often correct and rarely effective at changing minds. High intelligence is often employed in defending silly opinion. Belief routinely triumphs over fact. The corruption of reason is the rule. But truth is hard to come by. In the long run, it is sometimes possible to identify truths. Most agree that the earth does orbit the sun. Sometimes physical reality does impact human well-being and it is helpful in those cases to act on the facts. Sometimes we do not have generations to puzzle out the reigning physical facts. Climate change may be such a case. We may need to choose the explanation for the recently observed warming and take action quickly. What do we say or do in this case? I say that the scientific narrative has the best chance of being right.
"It seems to me that a certain type of human intelligence has been adaptive over the generations. Humans are good at narrative. When looking at the paintings in Kakadu, I imagined that the aborigines survived thousands of years by passing down narratives concerning the biology of their ecosystem that helped each successive generation remember what to do in order to find food 52 weeks out of the year for 40,000 years.
"The defining characteristic of the scientific narratives are the methods by which they are established. These may be discipline specific but in general involve the publication of methods and observations, the testing of explanations with observations, the repetition of experiments or observations as the means of verification, and rules of publication that exclude identifiable fallacies. Recently the Scientific Assessment has been added to the process. It seems to be a real thing and a way to respond to the need of policy makers for coherent scientific input. You get a large inclusive, diverse panel of experts and they winnow and summarize the literature for the policy people. (WMO-UNEP Scientific Assessments of Ozone Depletion and IPCC Assessment Reports are examples.) There is a large social component to obtaining and disseminating scientific knowledge, but the knowledge goes beyond the social networks and applies in the real world. It is provisional of course. Scientific knowledge is always provisional. Tomorrow’s discovery is potentially paradigm shifting. The methods passed through the scientific disciplines are learned by each generation and provide the best view of nature available to us. Of course, nature is vast and we always understand a small bit of it. The trite is true: “The more we know, the more we know there is to know.” In the real world, absolute certainty is hard to come by.
"Thirty years ago, some thought that another ice age was in the distant future. Now we are concerned about the prospect of warming. The question is, “So what have we learned in the last 30 years?” The answer to that is outlined in the 1000 pages of the IPCC 4th Assessment Report (www.ipcc.ch). Those pages in turn refer to thousands of papers in the refereed scientific literature. In addition to the full assessments, there are technical summaries and summaries for policy makers. This mass of evidence is its greatest weakness. As soon as a scientist descends into the details, the public’s eyes glaze over. Faced with this mass of evidence, some deniers shrug and say that they simply don’t believe it. Belief is a wonderful thing and the final arbiter. Others claim the primacy of the free market over nature. The fallacies that peer reviewers are asked to detect and exclude from the scientific literature are deployed as tactics by the deniers in their arguments. Plato warned us in the Gorgias.
"Unable to marshal the facts concisely enough for the deniers, the scientific community appeals to authorities such as The National Academy of Sciences, The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, The American Geophysical Union, etc., etc.. This appeal elicits conspiracy theories. The very tools employed by the disciplines to validate scientific statements are accused of excluding the real truths. This is life among the humans. If reproductive success was determined by ones fitness at evaluating science, then future generations might be better off in this regard. But it looks like the wealthy will survive the coming round of survival-of-the-fittest (which they have in fact sponsored). It is unlikely to be pleasant for anyone else. The betting human should bet on the science (or find a service job in a wealthy household).
"But what if the narrative is wrong? What if the current decadal heat wave moderates because of some unrecognized climate cycle hiding out in intrinsic, internal climatic variability? If I am alive at that time, I will find that to be really interesting and wonder if I can shed some light on it with the measurements that I make. Proposals will be written and science will go on. If we tried to mitigate climate change and were mistaken about its reality, then we will have more efficient cars, homes and food systems. Maybe a little less golf will have been played and more taxes paid. Poor policies taken in the name of climate change (eg. corn ethanol) will kill innocent humans whether or not the science is correct. What if science is right and the deniers wrong? Heat, drought, increased severity of storms etc., etc. (see IPCC). I expect the difficulty to extend to resource and food wars and global chaos. But if I was that smart, I would be rich."