By David L. Brown
Global warming/climate change deniers are strange fellows indeed. Despite the overwhelming evidence that human-caused global warming is real and may seriously harm our planet, they continue to raise doubts. One of their arguments is that most scientists refuse to admit that global warming has been absolutely, positively proven once and for all. Well, if that’s the case, then obviously there’s a lot of room for doubt, right?
Well, not really, because you see nothing in science is absolute. A scientist can absolutely believe that any theory is correct, but the very nature of science is to question. That’s why centuries after Galileo and Newton the theory of gravity is still being examined, studied, tested and refined. It doesn’t mean that scientists deny the force of gravity, but that they constantly seek to advance knowledge about it.
Science, unlike so many other things, is not based on assumptions and “faith,” but only upon that which can be demonstrated over and over again. Just as Einstein moved our understanding beyond that of Newton, the enormous Large Hadron Collider now being ramped up at CERN has as one of its most important challenges to find something called the Higgs Boson, a proposed exotic particle that may hold the secret of gravity. Gravity is not absolutely, positively proven and as a scientific theory it never will be because that is the very nature of science.
So no responsible scientist will state that anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is absolutely, positively, 100 percent proven. It’s just not the way science works. Asking a scientist to state otherwise is like asking a husband if he has stopped beating his wife yet. There is no proper answer, because it is an inappropriate question that’s being asked.
So we can conclude that all responsible scientists believe there is a small chance that AGW is wrong. A very small minority of serious scientists think there are real problems with the theory, of greenhouse warming and that’s fine because they are acting in the true tradition of science. However, the vast majority are virtually certain it is a valid theory, and that’s where the deniers get their chance to confuse the issue. “Virtually certain” and “absolutely certain” are not the same thing. If the uncertainty is extremely small, chances are that it will be assumed to be true, and that’s where we stand with most climate scientists today. But if you pinned down an astronomer to state with absolute certainty that the Sun will rise in the East tomorrow, he or she must of necessity hedge the answer., no matter how slightly. We don’t know how, why, or whether it’s possible that event might not occur, but the uncertainty exists, even if it’s one chance in a centillion (that’s 10 to the 303rd power, or 1 with 303 zeros after it).
This reminds me of the paradoxes of the ancient Greek Zeno of Elea who jerked his fellow philosophers around by arguing that Achilles, no matter how fast he ran, could never catch a tortoise in a race. He explained that each time Achilles reached the point where the tortoise was, the tortoise would have already advanced further, leaving Achilles behind.
This kind of reasoning fits the logic often used by climate change deniers. They say that since the theory has not yet been proven, then it must be false. Their tortoise moves ahead of every argument, and since the experts are held to the rigor of the scientific process it appears to the uninitiated that the deniers have a point.
They love to remind the general public that AGW is “only a theory,” without explaining that the definitions of “theory” in science and in everyday life are quite different. A scientific theory is a model that has been rigidly tested and challenged and continues to be refined, like the theory of gravity. An everyday theory such as you might hear in a corner bar or from the mouth of a denier is just about anything you can imagine, no matter how unlikely or counter intuitive. There are those who believe the Earth is flat, and they stand by their opinion to the bitter end.
Finally, here’s some eye candy to add to the argument that deniers come from a strange place, an editorial cartoon from USA Today:
What indeed if we create a better world, and all for nothing. What a tragedy that would be.