For the Conservation Curious

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Defending Science May 7, 2010

Filed under: Science,Uncategorized — newdomino @ 2:39 PM
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Thanks to the Climate Progress blog for alerting me to the following (Climate Progress is, by the way, an excellent blog on all things climate change related).

Tomorrow the journal Science publishes a remarkable Lead Letter supporting the accuracy of climate science.  The must-read statement, “Climate Change and the Integrity of Science,” is signed by 255 of the world’s leading scientists. 

Here is the letter in its entirety (I have highlighted some items I think especially worthy), with my thoughts to follow:

Climate Change and the Integrity of Science

We are deeply disturbed by the recent escalation of political assaults on scientists in general and on climate scientists in particular. All citizens should understand some basic scientific facts. There is always some uncertainty associated with scientific conclusions; science never absolutely proves anything. When someone says that society should wait until scientists are absolutely certain before taking any action, it is the same as saying society should never take action. For a problem as potentially catastrophic as climate change, taking no action poses a dangerous risk for our planet.

Scientific conclusions derive from an understanding of basic laws supported by laboratory experiments, observations of nature, and mathematical and computer modeling. Like all human beings, scientists make mistakes, but the scientific process is designed to find and correct them. This process is inherently adversarial—scientists build reputations and gain recognition not only for supporting conventional wisdom, but even more so for demonstrating that the scientific consensus is wrong and that there is a better explanation. That’s what Galileo, Pasteur, Darwin, and Einstein did. But when some conclusions have been thoroughly and deeply tested, questioned, and examined, they gain the status of “well-established theories” and are often spoken of as “facts.”

For instance, there is compelling scientific evidence that our planet is about 4.5 billion years old (the theory of the origin of Earth), that our universe was born from a single event about 14 billion years ago (the Big Bang theory), and that today’s organisms evolved from ones living in the past (the theory of evolution). Even as these are overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, fame still awaits anyone who could show these theories to be wrong. Climate change now falls into this category: There is compelling, comprehensive, and consistent objective evidence that humans are changing the climate in ways that threaten our societies and the ecosystems on which we depend.

Many recent assaults on climate science and, more disturbingly, on climate scientists by climate change deniers are typically driven by special interests or dogma, not by an honest effort to provide an alternative theory that credibly satisfies the evidence. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other scientific assessments of climate change, which involve thousands of scientists producing massive and comprehensive reports, have, quite expectedly and normally, made some mistakes. When errors are pointed out, they are corrected. But there is nothing remotely identified in the recent events that changes the fundamental conclusions about climate change:

(i) The planet is warming due to increased concentrations of heat-trapping gases in our atmosphere. A snowy winter in Washington does not alter this fact.

(ii) Most of the increase in the concentration of these gases over the last century is due to human activities, especially the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation.

(iii) Natural causes always play a role in changing Earth’s climate, but are now being overwhelmed by human-induced changes.

(iv) Warming the planet will cause many other climatic patterns to change at speeds unprecedented in modern times, including increasing rates of sea-level rise and alterations in the hydrologic cycle. Rising concentrations of carbon dioxide are making the oceans more acidic.

(v) The combination of these complex climate changes threatens coastal communities and cities, our food and water supplies, marine and freshwater ecosystems, forests, high mountain environments, and far more.

Much more can be, and has been, said by the world’s scientific societies, national academies, and individuals, but these conclusions should be enough to indicate why scientists are concerned about what future generations will face from business-as-usual practices. We urge our policy-makers and the public to move forward immediately to address the causes of climate change, including the un restrained burning of fossil fuels.

We also call for an end to McCarthy-like threats of criminal prosecution against our colleagues based on innuendo and guilt by association, the harassment of scientists by politicians seeking distractions to avoid taking action, and the outright lies being spread about them. Society has two choices: We can ignore the science and hide our heads in the sand and hope we are lucky, or we can act in the public interest to reduce the threat of global climate change quickly and substantively. The good news is that smart and effective actions are possible. But delay must not be an option.

I don’t want to get too into the specifics about climate change here, as I am not a climatologist and only know what I do from following blogs and reading scientific publications.  What I do want to talk about is the impact the assault on climate scientists may have on other scientists.  For if we open the doors to attack a scientist’s character, morals and ethics, as if they were an elected public official or Hollywood celebrity, we discourage scientific inquiry and the dissemination of scientific information to the public. 

Scientists do not typically go into their careers expecting to grace the cover of Science or Nature magazine.  They intend to work in their labs, hover over their computer screens and teach undergraduate level courses.  They work for knowledge, not fame (or notoriety).  But now many are being dragged into what is deemed a “street fight,” where they have to defend their actions and findings with politically-motivated television hosts.  This is not unlike the brouhaha surrounding evolution, and not so unlike what happened to Galileo when he argued that the Earth was not the center of the universe (how did that work out for him, by the way? Oh yeah, he was put under house arrest for the duration of his life).  Going against a strongly-opinionated foe (the creationists, the geocentrists, the birthers, etc.) is not something the reclusive scientist relishes, but in today’s highly-charged environment it may become a necessity.

What can we, the general public, do to aid scientists in their quest for knowledge?  Why should we even care whether or not scientists are being grilled before a pseudo-Inquisition?  Because as I have written in previous blog posts, science is knowledge, and the more knowledge we have on a subject, the more readily we can find solutions to even the thorniest of problems.  We must support scientists at all levels to do their jobs and expand human knowledge.  We can appreciate our planet and the universe we inhabit by understanding as many of its intricacies as possible.  Those that want to block scientific inquiry for religious, political or economic reasons fail to see that scientific discovery can benefit all of those subsets and more.  Evolution shows us the beauty, resilience and diversity of our planet and its species, while reacting to climate change will create new technologies and jobs.  Those are all things that anyone, whether Democrat, Republican, or independent, can come to appreciate

I will leave you with one last thought, and yes it is a little more politically-motivated and climate change-based.  Dick Cheyney, certainly not a very liberally-minded thinker, once said that if there is a 1% chance of a terrorist attack you should act to prevent it.  Shouldn’t we also look at climate change under the same light, especially since the majority of scientific literature says that the chance of negative climate change impacts is many times more likely than a 1%?  Is it not better to be proactive than to suffer the consequences later, when it may be too late?