How “Climategate” Exposed Our Ambivalence About Science
While on a recent vacation in the Southwest, I came across an article in USA Today about the repercussions of “Climategate” (the “scandal” involving stolen -– stolen! — emails regarding one researcher’s questions about global warming data). It would seem that this ONE batch of debatable emails from this ONE scientist is all the naysayers need to confirm their suspicions that this whole crazy fuel-rationing, lifestyle-altering global warming hysteria is nothing more than a left-wing hoax. I read the article in my hotel room in Sedona: a gorgeous room on the canyon rim overlooking the city lights, the soaring red rock formations and dazzling sunsets. Well, I was overlooking where the sun was supposed to be setting because in fact, the weather was a bizarre combination of snow, rain, hail and thunder. It was, as a friend of mine wintering in Stockholm characterized the strange weather there: “global weirdness.”
The point I’m trying to make here is that we Americans have a convoluted relationship with science (I use the word inclusively to encompass technology and math). On one hand, we revere the idea of science. Mathematics is the cornerstone of standardized testing, the primary way we choose to measure the achievements of our students against all others. The world-altering list of things and capabilities that science has given us — from the incomparable Mel Brooks’s nomination of Saran Wrap™ as the most important invention of the last two thousand years, to the Internet to mass transportation to antibiotics to images from the edge of the universe –- is nearly infinite.
When science means doing – essentially utilizing the physical world for tangible products and services — then we’re all for it. I mean, who can argue with a washing machine? There is something essentially human about the urge to control our environment, to ease our labor. And to my knowledge only homo sapiens make tools. However, when science means accepting –- offering a reality of laws, principles, processes that are, perhaps, less accessible, less human-centric, less comfortable than certain belief systems –- some of us are all too ready to hop on that fast train to denial.
This antagonism has existed throughout history, manifesting itself in all manner of attacks from Galileo’s trial to witch-hunts to repudiation of evolution to the current “controversy” surrounding the very existence of global warming. What is it about the nature of belief that is so susceptible to threat?
Simply put, science and belief are separate ways of knowing. In essence, science involves the investigation of theories, based on observable (or predicted) data, in order to come up with a set of results that can then be duplicated by someone else. Science is a collective system of laws and principles built upon a foundation of facts that can evolve as new instruments and observations lead to new paths of interpretation. In constant flux, as our abilities to detect and measure expand, science is a kind of physical history; scientific facts might not be immutable but in their appropriate contexts they work.
At its heart, belief is based on the unseen, the un-provable, the unverifiable. Belief is meaning grounded in, and interpreted by, inner experience (either direct or as the result of religious teaching). Personal beliefs can change (or disappear) but they don’t depend upon outside judgment. Nobody can tell you, “No, you don’t believe that.” Many people, in many ways, believe in God. If God descended from a cloud, a golden throne, or whatever symbolic perch from which S/He watches His/Her children and made His/Her presence evident on earth, there would no longer be the need to believe: God would be a fact. Religion would become science.
The above is, of course, a vast oversimplification. Nevertheless, to confuse the two is a recipe for disaster. When I think of the debate surrounding evolution, I imagine that the reluctance some people feel to accept that creation manifests through the deep unfurling of time. It has something to do with how our understanding of the universe, and our place in it, is slipping away from anything vaguely resembling human scale. Try reading about string theory –- four dimensions of time, eleven dimensions of space, yikes! The ancient Greeks considered ‘man’ (excuse the gender bias) to be the measure of all things. Now we know there is a vast universe about which we simply cannot — physically cannot — know. It’s depressing.
When it comes to global warming, the stakes are far higher than in the battle about evolution: natural selection will tick on regardless of what school boards decree.
First, a note about the scientist whose stolen emails fed the deniers’ fire. If you’ve spent any time in academia, you know (at least) two things. One, academics guard their turf. They have been known to belittle and/or suppress others’ research in favor of their own. Second, academics are prone to extreme caution. They are like expert witnesses who, when asked if it is ‘out of the question’ that a frozen raspberry smoothie from Mars could have been the murder weapon, will respond, “Anything is possible.”
The ugly truth about the climate change debate is that those who refute its existence, who are willing to “trust” one skeptic in the face of thousands of other experts whose hard data demonstrates that global warming is real, are increasing, are a result of human activity, must be curtailed, and aren’t really honoring belief over science. Their objections are rooted in self-interest and the profit motive.
The trajectory of the public’s understanding of the climate change story, as documented in USA Today, is a cautionary one. In 2005, the rag noted that the condition was established as fact. In 2009, it reported that global warming was proving to be, in fact, worse than predicted. Now, in 2010, we learn that the fallout from Climategate is causing a reversal of efforts to slow the changes, some of which, as Al Gore noted, are highly inconvenient, unsettling, and require sacrifice. Change often does.
Students need to be taught that science and belief can, and do, coexist. They need to be taught the difference. If wishing could make undesirable facts go away then I’m more than willing to believe that my portfolio didn’t lose a cent in the recession.
The physical world offers its truth, as does the human heart. Knowledge and meaning should inform each other as each rules its domain. If what we believe determines how we judge the evidence the ‘real’ world presents, and the actions we choose to take, then we are very likely to F-Bomb up our functional and meaningful, divinely beautiful and heartbreakingly human, life on earth.
Please enjoy some Mel Brooks: