Believing Scientists?

Some suggested that if people believe science when it comes to eclipses and hurricanes, they ought to believe science when it pronounces on climate change as well. Speaking as one who does not deny “climate change,” I think these folks misunderstand the nature, rhetoric, and politics of science.

In the first place, believing what scientists say about eclipses costs almost nothing. Believing what scientists (well, at least the weather people on TV) say about the latest hurricane, can cost a bit more if you find yourself in its path. Believing in climate change has a huge cost for many. For some, the cost will come in having to change their way of life. Once one becomes a true believer in climate change (and the ancillary point that it’s a bad thing), one will have to cut out the private airplanes (and flying altogether, most likely), downsize one’s house, change to a more fuel-efficient vehicle, and other things to lower one’s carbon footprint. If having the luxury of private flight, a large house, or a large vehicle is central to one’s life, then becoming a believer in climate change will have a high cost. This assumes, of course, that one is a true believer, and not just one who gives lip service to orthodox beliefs in this area.

Second, there is a political cost. If I am part of a community whose approval I seek, and that community takes a particular position regarding climate change, I will maximize my position in the community if I agree with that position. If I cross the community on that point, I will lose status in group. Some are happy to pay the price – others won’t. When it comes to eclipses, the communities that disbelieve are relatively few, and usually small in number.

In addition to cost, time is also a factor. Earth experiences many eclipses a year. They are timed exactly, and mapped to specific locations. If you go to a location at the right time on the right day you can see the effect of the eclipse in a matter of minutes. It’s light, then it’s dark. One doesn’t need (or so one thinks) a complicated theory of instrumentation to judge that, yes, the scientists were right: there is indeed an eclipse right here right now. We never hear of eclipse predictions not panning out.

Climate change happens on a different time scale. We see the change in weather, from day to day and month to month. We notice that each year is somewhat different from other years, though each follows a basic pattern. Whether any particular event or phenomenon (or degree thereof) is an effect of climate change is expressed as a probability. It’s not like before climate change there were no hurricanes – or no devastating hurricanes – but now there are.

It’s also hard for ordinary people to go against the deliverances of their senses, though scientists are required to do this on a regular basis. Most people pick up that science is “evidence based,” that it is empirical. They hear about “theories,” but they usually think a “theory” is close kin to a “guess” – which is not how that word functions in science. With a bad understanding of “theory,” they commonly lack adequate understanding of how theory and observations (the deliverances of the senses) connect.

Now it might be that we’d be better off, assuming climate change is as horrible as some say, to treat it as a dogmatic religion. The priests (Scientists) have spoken, and we should believe them. Though that rhetoric may get us the desired results, more believers, it is a fundamentally anti-scientific strategy.

So, no, I’m not surprised when I see ordinary people failing to universally believe everything the scientific community (if we can assume there really is such a unified thing).

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