“I Believe in Science”
On my daily walk I pass by two houses with signs in front that list the values of the home owners. According to their advertisement, they believe in love, freedom, and other good things. But today I am thinking about one line that asserts, “We believe in science.” Every time I see it, I cannot help but read it with the emphasis on the word “We.” We—as opposed to Others—believe in science. We are rational, educated people unlike that group that does not believe in science.
Leaving the boastfulness aside for a moment, seeing these signs always prompts me to ask, “What does it mean to “believe” in science?” Does it mean to believe in the scientific method? Or, are they speaking of particular applications of the scientific method, say, in chemistry or physics? Do they intend to assert that the method of empirical science can discover all truth and solve all problems? Or, are they merely confessing their trust in scientific experts?
I cannot be sure, but here is what I think they mean: They seem to be asserting that they accept the consensus of climatologists on the issue of climate change, its facticity, its causes, its effects in the present and those projected as future. To move forward in our thinking, let me make an assumption about these neighbors. I doubt that they are experts in even one of the sciences that make up the field of climatology. Like me and most of you, they are not in a position to use expert judgment on the issues of climate change, also known as “global warming.” So, what are they doing when they put up a sign in their yard that says, “We believe in science?” As far as I can tell, they are signaling their identity in the educated/progressive class and their allegiance to a political coalition that has placed environmental concerns at the heart of its political platform.
In my estimation, affirming a scientific theory because of its popularity in your social class or because it is an effective tool to gain political power is a very unscientific thing to do. And yet what is a non-expert to do? We cannot do the scientific research for ourselves. And even if we read the research, we will not understand it well enough to make a critical judgment. Moreover, we cannot know for sure that all the experts agree. Are dissenting voices being silenced, cancelled, and rejected for publication? Such things happen all the time. Most of what we non-experts hear about climate change comes from politicians and the media. Politicians are notorious liars and most of us choose to listen only to media that tell us what we want to hear.
And yet, unlike some obscure research in physical chemistry, we must form an opinion about its soundness! For on the one hand, we are told that the very survival of humanity is at stake. If we do not drastically change the way we live we will drown or fry. Wars and mass migrations will change the face of the planet. On the other hand, we are told that human-made global warming is a hoax, the latest and greatest artificial crisis concocted to empower governments to centralize control over every aspect of our lives.
What is a Non-Expert to Do?
Again, I ask what is a non-expert to do? I mean here a non-expert who wishes to follow reason rather than emotion or some other irrational motive. The climate change package includes (1) fact claims, (2) causal explanations, and (3) empirical effects, present and projected. Let’s examine each one, asking how a non- expert, but rational thinker would evaluate them.
(1) With regard to fact claims, either the average temperature of the earth has increased in the last hundred years or it has not. Either the percentage of the atmosphere comprised of Carbon Dioxide has increased since the beginning of the industrial age by a certain amount or not. These empirical fact claims can in principle be confirmed or disconfirmed with the appropriate scientific instruments if used properly by experts. And these are the easiest scientific judgments for a non-expert to understand and accept or reject.
(2) With regard to proposed causal explanations, even the non-expert can see that we have moved into a completely different area. Mathematical measurements are one thing, causal explanations are another. If the average temperature of the earth and the level of Carbon Dioxide have indeed increased over the last century, what caused it? The model I hear presented in the media and by politicians designates human activity, specifically the production of “greenhouse” gases, as the exclusive cause. Specifying the cause is vital to devising a plan to mitigate its negative effects. If certain human behaviors caused the increase, altering those behaviors may slow, stop, or reverse the effect.
How can the non-expert evaluate such causal explanations? First of all, common sense usually warns us against accepting simple explanations for changes in complex systems. You do not have to be a climatologist to see that the climate on planet earth can be affected by many factors, perhaps many that are unknown to scientists. Non-experts, then, may be wrong, but they do not have to sacrifice reason to be somewhat skeptical of the standard explanation for global warming. And when the cost of the proposed plan of mitigation is taken into account—trillions of dollars in expenditures and a radically lowered standard of living—common sense wants more clarity and certainty.
(3) The claimed present and projected future effects of the temperature increase on the climate and human life are the most controversial of all the climate-change theory assertions. Non-expert common sense raises its eyebrows when politicians and media personalities point to every heat wave, storm, flood, tornado, hurricane, and blizzard as evidence of climate change caused by man-made global warming. Even non-experts can understand that scientific theories must propose conditions under which they can be falsified. If every significant weather event confirms the current theory of climate change, then no weather event confirms it; for it shows itself unfalsifiable.
Non-expert common sense strains credulity to accept projections way into the future based on simplistic theoretical models. Skepticism is especially heightened when we hear that climate change models project only negative climate changes, disastrous for humanity. Common sense expects there to be upsides as well as downsides to almost any analogous change. Common sense asks, “Are there no advantages to the increase in global temperature?” Non-experts may be wrong, but they are not stupid and evil to ask such questions. What is the alternative? Shall we trust whoever claims to have science on their side? No, this is not a rational stance. Non-experts have a right and even a duty to use the resources they have, including of course expert opinion, to make their own assessment. If non-experts do not exercise this right, science will be completely politicized; politicians will determine what counts as scientific truth.
One last point, common sense instinctively rejects extremes. Extremes are usually based on emotions, desires, wishes, delusions, need for attention, or some other irrational motive. Sound judgment is cautious, patient, balanced, humble, and realistic. I think the non-expert using common sense can reasonably reject the “pure hoax” theory. It makes no sense to argue that human activity has had and will have no effect on the climate. On the other hand, climate extremism is also implausible to common sense. Worst case scenarios are just that, worst case. Hence non-experts who value reason and common sense will probably chart a moderate course in the credence they give to the climate change theory and hence accept only gradual, cautious changes in response to it.
Professor, Religion and Philosophy Division
Seaver College Pepperdine University