I have a friend who is a global warming naysayer. Actually, he was one of the best men in my wedding, so he is not just any friend! He is also well educated, traveled and read, which has made his stance on this issue all the more puzzling to me, until today.
In times past we have jousted over global warming facts and invariably ended up playing right into the hands of the media. They create sides by brilliantly identifying unscrupulous individuals on both sides of the fence, and promoting them incessantly as ambassadors for their respective groups. Then we enter the debate and do exactly what the media want, we search the web for evidence of our respective positions and fling links back and forth. Who wins?
Today I asked him a simple question. If you had a serious medical condition and was told to take a particular medication, how would you decide whether to take it? His answer – almost without hesitation – was to ask his friend who is a surgeon of his opinion. Even though his own doctor may well have all the evidence to convince him, he still would reach out to someone he trusted for counsel. I think we all do this, don’t we?
When we are hard pressed to make decisions on something we really care about, we seek out people we know and trust for help. We put our faith in people, not institutions. And we hope that the people we trust know what they are talking about. Which of course leads us back to how anyone knows anything, and the thorny issue of who we trust when we don’t have a close friend who is a climate change scientist.
A few years ago, 250 members of the (US) National Academy of Sciences wrote a letter to the esteemed Science magazine regarding Climate Change and the Integrity of Science. In the letter they say that nothing can be proven, but that evidence is overwhelming that climate change exists and we should do something about it. Interestingly, a rebuttal letter – Does Science Never Absolutely Prove Anything? – from individuals at the Institute for Regulatory Science disagree. They site many things like the moon rotating around the earth and the earth around the sun as fact. But they also suggest that we should classify what we know about something like global climate change as proven, evolving and borderline science. And that the science about an issue should be separate from the public policies that flow from it.
I now understand a bit better the world of the global warming naysayer. Such beliefs flow from a media that loves to stir the pot, largely using borderline science and promotion of individuals that are not representative of the body of scientific knowledge. And often naysayers opinions – I think in the case of my friend – stem more from public policy debates about what to do about it than actual science.