A recent episode of the excellent podcast This American Life explored why the discussion has stalled, and perhaps why so many remain polarized on the issue – unfortunately, though the podcast attempted to highlight people on both sides looking to make reasoned progress, it was more about former skeptics now trying to convince the dumb rural farmers and conservatives who still doubt.
I think that there are reasons why certain subjects are controversial in the scientific arena:
- There are financial and political impacts that hinge on the conclusions of the science
- There are ethical, moral, and ideological impacts that hinge on the conclusions or implementation of the science
- The science is sufficiently complex or there are real counter indications, so that both sides can provide convincing data to believe or doubt
- The science is sufficiently complex that computer models must be used, often with vast assumptions that can be manipulated to generate the desired outcomes
In the case of global warming, all are true. Here’s how it plays out.
- Finances and Politics – On one side, you’ve got the petrol companies who want you to continue using their products. On the other, those like Al Gore who have invested in newer energy technologies, and who can, without any risk, borrow huge sums of money from the current administration to build their fortunes attempting (often unsuccessfully) to generate viable ‘green’ commercial energy products.
- Ideology and Ethics – On one side, you’ve got skeptics saying that we are wasting huge sums of money attempting to reduce what is likely a harmless, if not helpful gas (CO2), while ignoring known and uncontroversial dangers to the environment and humans, like real pollutants of water and air, not to mention nutritional and medical needs around the world. In addition, skeptics note that those pushing for CO2 reduction are often pushing for expansive government regulation schemes that spend taxpayers moneys and hurt the economy. Of course, GW supporters claim that the danger is real, and that a sizable scientific-political consensus has formed, and to do nothing in the face of a potential cataclysm is insane. Shouldn’t we be safe rather than sorry?
- Complexity and Ambiguity – When the science is simple and there are few if any counter indications or outliers, there is typically no reason to doubt. But in the case of GW, there are historic patterns of heating, cooling, and CO2 levels that don’t match the current GW scenarios. And even GW supporters admit that many factors play into the temperature cycles of the earth, not least of which is the sun.
- Computer Models – Since the scope of the system is global, and the factors and mechanisms involved are not completely understood, scientists make use of models to attempt predicting outcomes of current trends. The problem with models is that they are only educated guesses based on assumptions, often unproven. Add to that the skew of the politicization of modern science, and the historic failure of such Malthusian predictions, and you start to see why doubt exists. Remember global cooling?
Now, these aren’t necessarily reasons to doubt, but only to be circumspect, aware of our own biases and those of the leaders on all sides. And this is also reason to be a little generous and kind to those on the opposing side, esp. if your side currently has the political power to shove its position through the Congress.