I may lose some friends out there, but I have to speak up about a phenomenon I’ve noticed over the past few years. It came to the fore for me with the recent story about the battle between the TV meteorologists over stripping the American Meteorological Society certification from any weatherman who expresses skepticism about the degree to which global warming can be blamed on human activity.
My intention here is not to do battle over the facts of global warming, so please don’t leave me comments listing all the reasons why it is or is not an environmental catastrophe. I am less a global warming skeptic than a global warming agnostic — I am not convinced yet either way, but I’m open to the data.
My concern is that global warming has become on par with religious dogma. When anyone, including legitimate scientists, dares to present contradictory data or a different interpretation of current data, they are attacked and harassed. It is assumed that they have evil intentions or are shills for the oil industry. Anyone who does not toe the global warming party line is considered akin to Holocaust deniers. Any data that deviates from the established doctrine is dismissed as biased or not worth looking at.
This is a problem. Science should not be politicized. A particular interpretation of the data should not be taken as the gospel from on high. Our knowledge of science evolves over time. Just a few decades ago, scientists were concerned about the catastrophic effects of global cooling and the coming Ice Age. Going even further back, to the 1630s, Galileo was convicted of heresy by the Church for supporting the radical Copernican theory that the Earth revolves around the sun, rather than the other way around. We should not be subjecting scientists to another Inquisition because they do not agree with commonly accepted ideas. Science does not advance without people who are willing to challenge the dominant paradigm.
While there is some consensus among scientists, there is a huge degree of uncertainty in the models that are being used to predict the future. Meteorologists can’t even predict the weather for next week accurately. To speak of global warming as something that is definitely happening is going way beyond the limits of the data. When everything that happens with the weather is attributed to man-made global warming, the credibility of the claims start coming into doubt. But “maybes” don’t make good news stories.
I have no doubt that most people who are concerned about global warming are well-meaning individuals who want to do the right thing for the planet. I don’t intend this as an attack on those who believe that global warming is a problem we need to address, but rather those who “believe in” global warming as if it were a religious doctrine that cannot be challenged.
I see a parallel with the dogma around evolution — on both sides. Some fundamentalists who reject the scientific version of how life evolved accept as creed that the Earth is about 6000 years old and that dinosaurs lived at the same time as humans before the great flood. I’ll give them a pass on being dogmatic, though — this is their religion, after all. But many evolutionists cling just as tightly to Darwinism, despite the fact that there are holes in the fossil record and big gaps in our knowledge about exactly how life evolves. Until we understand better how evolution works and how to answer some of the remaining questions, we should not assume that Darwin is necessarily the final word on how life came to exist, though it might be the best model we have right now. And why can’t the Bible and science co-exist? MIT-trained nuclear physicist Gerald Schroeder has written some amazing books that use quantum physics and the theory of relativity to reconcile the two precisely.
Similarly, there are things people on both sides of the global warming debate should be able to agree on, even if they do so for different reasons. Changing our energy consumption habits and taking care of the environment are goals that most people can get behind. In any case, I don’t think that the specter of global warming is immediate or concrete enough to get most people to take action to prevent something that may or may not happen in a hundred years or more. It’s just too big of a problem for an individual to feel that they can make an impact. But show people how they can save money by conserving energy, reduce their dependence on foreign oil by driving a hybrid, keep humans and wildlife healthy by reducing pollutants… this could get people motivated to act.
Scaring the public and silencing dissenters is not the way to bring about effective change. If only our leaders could put the same energy into solving the problems people face right here and now in terms of disease, poverty, and violence, we would all be better off in the future whether or not the climate eventually changes for the worse.
One thing is certain: what we know about the science of climate can and will change over time. The most shortsighted thing would be to close our minds to evidence that might bring us closer to the objective truth, whatever it happens to be.