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December 23, 2016

Believers and Deniers

Which of these statements is scientific?

  1. I believe in creationism exactly the way the story is told in Genesis.
  2. I believe that species did evolve from each other but there must be some sort of intelligent guidance to account for wonderful constructs like the eye.
  3. I believe that species evolved randomly guided only by natural selection as described by Charles Darwin in Origin of Species.

The right answer, of course, is “none of the above”. Scientists don’t “believe”; scientists postulate; scientists think that a preponderance of evidence indicates; scientists think that a particular theory appears to be consistent with known facts. “Belief” is the enemy of skepticism; and skepticism is a necessity in science.

In fact, Darwin’s theory of species evolution is wrong. No, I’m not a creationist or even a proponent of the theory of intelligent design. It’s easier to prove that something is wrong than prove that it’s right. The fossil record, now that we can analyze it much more thoroughly than Darwin could, does not support his description of a smooth and gradual evolution from one species to another. The current theory of evolution is one of “punctuated equilibrium”. More exactly that the rate of mutation appears to be constant but mutations have a higher chance of being beneficial when there’s been a change of circumstance. So evolution happens in bursts after events like whatever wiped out the dinosaurs.

That’s still a theory; I’m sure it’ll be refined (if not disproved). It does make a lot of sense because, if there’s a period without change, species will evolve to fit each niche very well. There will be no niche left for someone or something which is different. But, if it is suddenly a lot colder, then more fur makes more sense. If the relatively furless have been frozen out of their niches, there’s lots of room for hairy mutants to move into.

In the current era of liberal intellectual intolerance, it is heresy to say Darwin was wrong. But, if someone hadn’t pointed out the inconsistencies of Darwin’s original description of natural selection and the points where it diverged from the fossil record (including the annoying lack of intermediate species), we wouldn’t have been able to redefine the theory and better understand the world we live in. That’s why skepticism is necessary in science.

Now which of these statements is scientific?

  1. I believe in climate change.
  2. I believe in an anthropogenic (man did it) cause for climate change.
  3. I don’t believe in climate change.
  4. I don’t believe in a significant anthropogenic effect on the current rate of climate change.

Right. None of the above. They all have the “b” word in them. Technically the beliefs in one and three are respectively a tautology (a statement which contains no information) and an oxymoron (a statement which is self-contradictory) since the study of climate is the study of change.

Evidence seems to be that climate change is not smooth over time; it often happens in bursts. It’s not inconsistent that these bursts coincided with bursts of evolution or waves of species migration or both. We are well adapted both physically and in the infrastructure we’ve built (right up to the edge of oceans, for example) for the climate as it’s been recently. When it changes, we will no longer be well-adapted. Something will have to change. Climate change is a fractal. Temperatures and/or water levels and/or other environmental factors might change much more quickly than many people can adapt (let alone evolve). Or they may not change significantly for a while.

The study of climate change is crucial because our species is dangerously dependent on the exact climate we live in today.

Right now the study of climate change is severely inhibited by those who “believe” they know this or “believe” they know that. In the last few decades, climatologists who want tenure have had to concentrate on theories and studies of anthropogenic causes of climate change. They have been encouraged to report evidence that it’s all our fault; they have been discouraged from saying there are other causes. That’s been bad for science. Climate changed long before man was around. We need to know more of the why. We need to know how those causes are affecting us today.

There is now a danger that the opposite belief system will rule. Climatologists will be denied grants if they do study anthropogenic effects on the environment. A new series of models “proving” that all climate change is natural and unavoidable will dominate the media (OK, that’ll take a while but not as long as you think).

We don’t get any closer to science by denying the significant possibility that we are causing significantly adverse changes in climate than we do by the ridiculous assertion that we understand the chaotic complexity of climate well enough to say with certainty how many parts per millions of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will lead to how many degrees of global warming.

I’m an optimist. I’m hoping the pendulum will stop in mid-swing between one unscientific belief system and another. I’m hoping that we can have unfettered inquiry into climate past, current, and future.  I’m hoping that scientists will be able to state their theories as disprovable hypotheses rather than canons which divide us into believers and deniers. And I’m hoping that we can have a reasoned political debate even though these theories will continue to evolve.

At least that’s what I want for Christmas.

More posts in the climate change series:

“Dissent is not a crime” – Except to the New York Times

Combating Climate Change - The Nuclear Option

Natural Gas vs. Climate Change

Past Climate Change - The Pictures

Solar and Wind Need Natural Gas

 Natural Gas and Fugitive Emissions

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