Climate Change as a Philosophy of Science Case Study
Climate change (what used to be called Global Warming) provides a test case on whether a scientific consensus is reliable or authoritative.
A minority of scientists, most being strict Darwinians, rule a majority of their fellow human beings who believe in creation. A similar situation exists in “climate change” theory, where the scientific elite are frustrated that ordinary citizens and governments balk at accepting their opinions. Though off topic for Creation-Evolution Headlines, some comparisons may be instructive on how to evaluate the consensus about Darwinism.
The more inclusive “climate change” term evolved by punctuated equilibrium (or, as some might have it, by intelligent design) after years of warnings by scientists about “global warming.” But global warming carries no political baggage unless it is human caused – the source of most of the conflict about “anthropogenic global warming” and what should be done about it.
The scientific consensus is still adamant that humans are guilty of setting our planet on a dangerous course via industrial emissions of greenhouse gases. In recent years, their force of presumptive authority led to global summits and promises by governments to take draconian measures as penance. Some still do. The wind seems to have gone out of the scientific sails recently, though. Reasons include lingering damage from embarrassing exposures of fraud and flawed statistics, inconsistent claims, growing doubt about the validity of the data, governments that are figuring that cutting their own emissions puts them at an economic disadvantage, and a public reluctant to accept the “sky is falling” message.
“Climate change” has become something of a catch-phrase that stands for too much and thereby means too little. For instance, just when the layman has learned to watch his carbon footprint, New Scientist tells him to watch out for his nitrogen footprint, water footprint and phosphorus footprint. How can John Q. Public avoid stepping all over himself?
In addition, some of the warnings and advice appear downright nutty. National Geographic, for instance, seriously reported a proposal to put sunscreen in the sky. The environmental impact of pumping many tons of titanium oxide into the atmosphere has not been evaluated, for sure. What will happen to the coral and endangered species, including humans? Even if deemed safe, application could be decades away (too little too late), whether or not the EPA decides what SPF factor Mother Earth needs to put on.
A number of reports about past climate change undermines today’s doomsday prophets. “Climate change led to collapse of ancient Indus civilization” reported Science Daily this week. Clearly, whatever climate catastrophe might be correlated with their demise was not anthropogenic so long before the Industrial Revolution. Sometimes the response of scientists is to warn that today’s threat is greater than any historical climate change. Many onlookers find that unconvincing. If ice ages and warming periods happened before, don’t blame us, they think.
Another sign of the changing political climate appeared on Science Daily this week: “Public Apathy Over Climate Change Unrelated to Science Literacy.” This implies that skeptics of anthropogenic warming are not stupider than climate scientists who promote the consensus view. The skeptics may have different cultural values, but are just as able to comprehend the science, according to a study just published in Nature Climate Change. The article tried to divert attention to matters of public bias or the persuasive abilities of scientists, but the results must have been discomfiting to the journal editors and to the National Science Foundation that funded the survey.
Whether the consensus is correct regarding global warming or not, it’s an issue with parallels to the evolution controversy: a scientific consensus bucking heads with a recalcitrant public. It shows that science is not “out there” as some ideal entity, but is necessarily a human enterprise. Elitists or not, scientists have to get down and dirty in rhetoric, politics, and reputation in messy relationships with their fellow human beings who don’t always buy into their right to tell them what to do.
It doesn’t help science’s reputation when commentators like Daniel Sarewitz write in prestigious journals like Nature on May 9, “Beware the creeping cracks of bias: Evidence is mounting that research is riddled with systematic errors. Left unchecked, this could erode public trust,” the article began. Though the context was different (medical research), the principle is the same. Arguably, a problem of bias in medical research, something more accessible and short-term than climate change, could erode public trust even more with talking about longer-term theories like global warming or evolution.
Like the Darwinians, the climate-change people own the media, the schools and the U.N. The Darwinians had better be shaking in their boots about the possible collapse of global warming theory. Even though a collapse by itself would not justify the climate skeptics – it could be discounted as a rhetorical loss by the “right” side – it would demonstrate that scientists cannot pretend to be a global oligarchy.
The real issue relates to philosophy of science: how do scientists know what they know? If the consensus collapses from within, if a new consensus emerges that discards the old one, say, and warns that humans are causing a new ice age or whatever, it will demonstrate Kuhn was right. By parallel evolution, Darwinism will be relegated to a currently powerful paradigm that may some day give way to a new paradigm based on intelligent design.
Darwinians are in a Catch-22 situation. They cannot simultaneously preach scientism (“science is the path to Truth”) and argue that evolution produced the human mind. If it’s Truth they want – a Truth that can allow a minority to persuade and direct a majority – they can’t posture themselves as argumentative apes (see previous entry). An embarrassment about climate change will only illustrate their fallibility. What are the Darwinians going to say if their critics mock them, saying, according to their own assumptions, evolution caused their demise? It’s just survival of the fittest. Q.E.D. Stuff happens. The climates, they are a-changing. That’s what you get for founding a belief system on chance and contingency.