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How “Climategate” Exposed Our Ambivalence About Science

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:

 

SOURCES:

http://www.usatoday.com/NEWS/usaedition/2010-03-11-1Awarming11_CV_U.htm?csp=34

http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/2005-06-12-global-warming-cover_x.htm

http://www.usatoday.com/tech/science/environment/2009-05-20-global-warming_N.htm

http://www.foxnews.com/scitech/2010/01/28/scientists-climate-gate-scandal-hid-data/

http://www.skyranchlodge.com/

 

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79 comments

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11:46AM PST on Feb 17, 2012

We tend to mix evolution with adaptation. Adaptation gives varieties within a species. Evolution gives a new species. Something we have yet to see or prove.
Who ever thought that the power of science would never be misused? Power is what goes untrusted. When science became the new political high priest, it moved down the road of distrust.
Indigenous people, the Dog Tribe for one example, know quite a bit about the Galaxy. Ancient megalithic people knew math, and displayed skills that amazes us today. I think we're missing something here.
Science works with what it can prove. Everything is not provable, or even repeatable.
We humans tend toward singularities in our acceptance of things. But the universe is extremely diverse. Are we superior because we don't fit in very well? Because we exploit creation? Because we have two eyes and keep one shut?
With all of the power of science, can it stop encroachment? Reverse the twenty years it takes today's hydrocarbons to reach the upper atmosphere? Reassemble Nagasaki? Give us 35mph by 2050?
Scientists are hired flunkies. Shame on you. I hope you do something about this.
Our country, and our world, resemble the political structure of Hell more and more every day.
By the way, thanks for the naked pictures of my grandmother at the airport.
ps: She really liked the dude with the hands!

4:49PM PDT on Apr 10, 2010

"Climategate" - i love it....

6:34AM PDT on Apr 10, 2010

Very interesting, thank you!

7:05AM PDT on Apr 3, 2010

I think they should all stop talking about Global warming before someone comes here and finds me standing in my flower bed in winter,, looking at my flowers, and I really do like my super long summer but I have feelings of remorse wondering who got my weather.. poor souls, all that snow and ice, although I do miss skating .. oh well I can live with that..

1:40AM PDT on Apr 3, 2010

thanks for the post

7:10AM PDT on Apr 2, 2010

There are many, many branches of 'science'. A nuclear physicist looks at what is 'real' and 'provable' through nuclear physics. An evolutionary biologist looks at what is 'true' and 'real' and 'provable' through his field. Etc.
So in the end which and what are the 'real' and 'true' facts about the universe or life or humans etc.?

The theory of evolution may be true for the evolution of BODIES. But regarding humans, what if a human is more than a body? What if he isn't even his body? Maybe YOU have a different 'evolutionary' track or 'time track' different than what your body has had back along it's evolutionary past?
It's all fine and dandy perhaps for non-human organisms but is a human simply the same thing as a monkey or tree or mouse? (even if he has a better brain)
Science says "Prove it!" But science changes and if not able to prove something today, it may be provable tomorrow. Also science deals with physical things, says ALL is matter, religion and spirituality deal with non-physical things.


7:52PM PDT on Apr 1, 2010

Right on the head. Thanks!

4:20PM PDT on Apr 1, 2010

thanks for the post!

4:20PM PDT on Apr 1, 2010

thanks for the post!

11:08PM PDT on Mar 31, 2010

Since its publication a century ago, the Theory of Relativity (both parts) has been relentlessly tested (as all theories should) - and has never failed one. Virtually every prediction has been born out (it is only a matter of time before gravity waves are detected). Relativity (along with quantum mechanics) defined modern physics.

So too, the Theory of Evolution revolutionized the biological sciences. It has provided extraordinary insights into life on Earth - and is consistent with observation, as any valid theory must be. People with a particular ideological bent continue to expend a great deal of energy attempting to "prove" that evolution is a myth. (Einstein had his professional detractors too; they were [mostly] members of the Nationalist Socialist Party of Germany that came to power in 1933.)

As for climate change, it is as real as relativity and evolution, as is the human contribution. The Associated Press reported as much this morning in a copyrighted article that begins, "LONDON (AP) -- The first of several British investigations into the e-mails leaked from one of the world's leading climate research centers has largely vindicated the scientists involved." You can read it for yourselves at http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/C/CLIMATE_HACKED_E_MAILS?SITE=AP&SECTION=HOME&TEMPLATE=DEFAULT

Rising atmospheric CO2 is also acidifying the oceans, which will lead to a collapse of its entire food chain.

Inconvenient? Very.

Truth? Without a d

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Lindsay Spangler Lindsay Spangler is a Web Editor and Producer for Care2 Causes. A recent UCLA graduate, she lives in... more
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