Friday, March 19, 2010

Science Skeptics

I have had the rare occasion recently to discuss "controversial" science with non-scientist skeptics (read: family). I generally avoid politics and other such topics (the old "no politics or religion" plan), but naively thought that I would be safe discussing global warming. I was wrong.

Now, perhaps I should first comment that in some ways it's good that people are skeptical. It shows an engaged mind unwilling to be brainwashed. The family I was talking to have read up in great detail (more than I have, certainly) on global warming and know all the "arguments" against believing that it's human-caused. They've probably even read some "scientific" papers on the subject, and are generally unwilling to believe that something is true just because a newspaper says so (something that would have been welcome during the "there are WMDs in Iraq" era). And because they do take the time to learn about such topics, they don't fall victim to some of the more ridiculous anti-science theories (ahem: vaccines). But in the case of global warming, their skepticism isn't serving truth.

Why not? I believe the main reason is because of the scientific complexity of the issue. I certainly can't understand, in great detail, all of the arguments making the case that human actions are causing global warming. And I'm used to reading scientific papers. Obviously then, it's much harder for a non-scientist to understand the arguments. And how can you believe something you can't understand? Of course, politicians and oil companies (and politicians paid off by oil companies) are all preying on this to try to convince the world (non-scientist) public that those scientists are making everything up.

So what can we do? I'm actually glad that I stumbled into this argument, though it goes against my policy of "no politics or religion" with family. I think it's important that, as scientists, we stand up for science. Science needs better PR, and a good way to start is for all of us to take the responsibility of confronting the skepticism of people who already trust us.

13 comments:

Anonymous Rex said...

I'm confused about one point. On the one hand, you say "And how can you believe something you can't understand?" while on the other, you want scientists to stand up for other science they don't understand?

Anonymous said...

Two very good resources about global warming/and skeptics are:
http://www.skepticalscience.com/

And also:
http://www.realclimate.org/

--Sariel

sorelle said...

Anonymous Rex - Ha! I suppose that is sort of contradictory. What I'm trying to say is that it's our responsibility to learn enough about global warming science so that we *can* defend it honestly. Say, as much science as is on the sites that Sariel mentions (thanks Sariel!). In the absence of that I suppose we can defend it by explaining something about the peer-review process and the unlikelihood that so many papers would survive that and all be incorrect.

By the way, especially note the (free) iPhone app in the first link Sariel points to... I definitely wish I had had that when I got into my discussion. If you're not willing to put in the time before you find yourself in such a debate, you could use it as a crutch at the time.

Adam said...

"I certainly can't understand, in great detail, all of the arguments making the case that human actions are causing global warming."

I'm curious then how your opinion of (anthropogenic) global warming was formed.

Anonymous said...

If we are going to be scientific about this let's start by defining what we mean by "global warming". The term is used to describe anywhere from a "partially anthropogenic global warming of a fraction of a degree" to "solely human based global warming of 3-4 degrees C" to, as stated in a global warming documentary "New York will be under water by 2050".

I also wonder like the previous anonymous why *you* believe in global warming? have you read any of the scientific papers? how about others who also support global warming?

Scientists on occasion do exaggerate. I can think of at least three well known cases where the scientific consensus was a bit past where reality ended being. How do we know if global warming is not one more of these in which the phenomenon is real, but the dire predictions are perhaps a bit off?

sorelle said...

To my last two commenters - you seem to be implying that you *don't* believe in global warming. Perhaps you are similar to the people I was originally writing the post about? I encourage you to go and look at the websites Sariel points out.

I believe in global warming because it exists and is backed up by science. It may not be my scientific community, but it's still scientific consensus.

Anonymous said...

you seem to be implying that you *don't* believe in global warming.

Exactly where is that implied? Questioning something is proper scientific practice, not sign of disbelief. Sorelle, do not fall for a simplistic partitioning of us v. them in the global warming discourse.

Here's the key sentence in my post:

Scientists on occasion do exaggerate. I can think of at least three well known cases where the scientific consensus was a bit past where reality ended being.

An exaggeration presumes that what is at the core actually exists, it is just the magnitude that has been misrepresented. Hence I must believe in anthropogenic global warming to claim that is consequences have at times been exaggerated. I'm a strong supporter of CO2 emission reductions btw.

It is just that I have been doing science long enough to know that on occasion we scientists have got it wrong. Here are some examples of predictions that turn out to be wrong, some flat out so, some in terms of magnitude:

- strong AI predictions in the 1970s
- US based AIDS epidemic numbers projections
- population growth projections
- carrying capacity of the earth projections

Have you even considered the possibility that anthropogenic global warming is both real and exaggerated?

Anonymous said...

I should add that while there is unanimity by scientists on anthropogenic global warming, the predictions as to the magnitude and its consequences are all over the map. Projections range from a fraction of a degree to several degrees C.

Anonymous said...

BTW, this week Economist:

http://www.economist.com/displayStory.cfm?story_id=15720419

Spin, science and climate change

Action on climate is justified, not because the science is certain, but precisely because it is not.

Ville said...

The notion of not understanding some scientific topic in detail level brings back memories from my grad school days. Just for fun I took a math education course, which turned out to be a lot of fun and particularly interesting. The point professor wanted to make is that you CAN teach real math to grade schoolers (by that he meant proofs). His proposal was to have a layered approach, where for each age group you teach the proof in such a way that it is believable to them, adding details as they advance in grades and obtain more knowledge in mathematical technology.

He lamented that the whole Finnish primary school mathematics curriculum had only one proof.

Same applies to science PR, IMHO. Public has no need to understand all nitty gritty technical details, but they need to understand basics of natural science phenomena.

JC said...

More recent research suggests that the effects of co2 on temperature are logarithmic, not proportional.

This blows most of the accepted wisdom out of the water.

Anyway, the tone of your post suggests that you've already made up your mind, or had it made up for you, rather than examining the very mixed evidence for yourself.

I agree we need to promote science, but you seem to prefer dogma and ideology. Good luck with that.

sorelle said...

I certainly agree that there can be (and is) reasonable debate about the extent and particulars of climate change. It's its human-cause existence that that I think is a PR problem instead of a scientific one. So I'm not making a claim one way or the other about the "exaggeration" of global warming, but rather its existence.

Anonymous said...

It's its human-cause existence that that I think is a PR problem instead of a scientific one.

I agree with that.

Have you considered though that your relatives might be responding with a healthy (although in this case misguided) dose of skepticism to what to them is but one more of a barrage of chicken little predictions?

Here we are not talking about shrill "skpetics" who are paid by corporations to deny global warming, but normal regular folk who are not buying it.

A claim of authority "because we scientists say so" won't instill much confidence in them. A more successful approach is "this is what we know, this is where we are making an educated guess, this chicken little scenario is a possibility, perhaps even a strong one, but things are more uncertain, and here is why even if things turn better than we thought we should still act on this".