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September 07, 2008

The New Religion - Discussion

In response to my post claiming that the NY Times is surprisingly criticizing Sarah Palin for lack of faith in its editorial which complains "She has questioned whether humans are responsible for climate change," reader Tim O'Reilly posted this comment which deserves at least a post to reply to:

"Tom, I think you're misrepresenting the facts here. Global cooling and nuclear winter were never the subject of a serious scientific consensus in the way that global warming is today. This is more like tobacco companies questioning the link between smoking and cancer. I'd also point out that Sarah Palin didn't say she questioned the science. She said she didn't believe the science. She also thinks that creationism should be taught in high school biology as an alternative to evolution. Is that also appropriate "questioning" in your opinion?"

So, point-by-point:

Tim is right that there was no UN-sponsored consensus on nuclear winter nor did the concept enjoy either as much popular attention or scientific support as "global warming" has today. Maybe I should have used the preCopernican "scientific consensus" that the sun and stars go around the earth as an example but I wasn't around for that. However, even if there were unanimity on every point of anthropogenic global warming theory (which there certainly isn't), the importance of the issue make relentless questioning, testing of hypothesis, rewriting of models etc. essential. Since the predicted consequences of global warming (according to some credible predictors and some not-so-credible) are catastrophic and the expense of all known remedies is also immense and the effect of each proposed remedy unknown, the more likely you think continued global warming is (man-made or not), the more you should want to question and study (as well as act). Today, for example, there is a CNN story on a report "written by scientists with NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration" that short-lived particulate pollution from burning – among other things – biofuels like wood and cow dung may be a more significant cause of warming than previously thought. Should we ignore that because we already "know" what causes global warming and shouldn't question this wisdom?

I was quoting the NY Times article in saying that Sarah Palin questioned anthropogenic global warming, not quoting Sarah herself. My post was about what the editorial revealed about the NY Times, not about the Vice Presidential candidate. But perhaps that wasn't clear.

I don't think creationism should be taught as an alternative to evolution because evolution is a scientific theory and creationism is not; creationism is an article of faith and not subject to disproof so isn't science. I do think students should be taught to question all theories. Ever since Darwin (and a few others) introduced this brilliant explanation of speciation, the theory has been constantly improved by those who questioned it, not by those who treated every word that Darwin wrote as gospel.

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