April 19, 2016 26/3/14: Big money, big smoke, big warming…

By Mike Johnson

It’s hard to accept things we don’t want to accept. There is an old joke to the effect that you will have a hard time convincing somebody that something is true if that somebody’s salary depends on the assumption that it is not true!If your salary depended on you believing that the earth was flat, you’d pretty soon become a believer.

Research has suggested that we find arguments we do not agree with more difficult to follow than those we are predisposed towards.

A mental resistance sets in. Especially when belief systems are threatened. I have noticed that the most fervent believers in unrestrained free enterprise and ‘free trade’ are very reluctant to accept that their actions have moral and environmental consequences. That’s often because they are making money by not facing those consequences.

Since starting this blog a couple of people has asked me if we really can be sure that humans are causing global warming. It’s all in the word really, really, but the answer is that we can be as sure that we are creating global warming as we are that cigarette smoke is causing cancer.

Overwhelming statistical evidence.

Sometimes the kind of certainty we crave just doesn’t exist. Even the certainty that the sun will come up tomorrow is based on a massive statistical probability. The tobacco industry has fought a rearguard battle against statistical evidence by claiming there is no direct link established between tobacco smoke and cancer, and pretending that this is good science. To establish that direct link you would have to follow a molecule of nicotine through into the lung and show it sparking off a cancer. Impossible. So millions must die of nicotine poisoning because there is no final ‘proof.’

Not only does the same apply to climate change, but the same PR company that has been defending tobacco is also attacking climate science on the same grounds. No direct ‘proof.’

This is a gutless, arid, self-serving argument, whether it applies to cancer or climate change.

It strikes me that as a culture we are developing a cavalier attitude to evidence, and the empirical method, which is the painstaking gathering of evidence and careful drawing of conclusions from that evidence. As a culture we had to fight hard for the establishment of the importance of evidence against the ravages of religion and superstition. Church elders refused to look into Galileo’s telescope and branded it an instrument of the devil. Some Republican Senators have said that they’d like to see climate scientists publicly flogged or put in stocks, using a kind of language that deliberately recalls the bad old Middle Ages before the age of science.

From the late 13th to the 17th Century the ‘Enlightenment’ took place in Europe which allowed science to take root and for the empirical method to flourish.  Empiricism is not the Grand Answer to Everything; it is just a part of the mosaic of our understanding of the multiverse (as the universe used to called), but it does keep us grounded. Keeps us in the real world.

Peer reviewed science is not infallible, but it is the nearest we have to certainty in an uncertain, contingent world. The fact the 97% of climate scientists agree is itself remarkable. It’s a same kind of massive consensus that we see around the dangers of smoking.

There’s a notion around that ‘evidence based’ thinking can somehow be weighed in the balance against ‘faith based’ thinking. An example of faith based thinking, apparently, is that climate change can’t be happening because God told Noah that there would be no more floods (as predicted because of sea-level rise).

If we’re going to put that kind of ‘thinking’ up against verifiable climate science, I know where I’m putting my money.