We Know Enough To Act

Imagine you are attending a banquet where thousands of people come to eat and drink to their desire. A waiter then crashes the mood of the scene and holds up a bill. Not surprisingly, some of the diners begin to deny that it is their bill and one diner even suggests that the man may not be a waiter and is only trying to get attention for himself or to raise money for his own projects. Finally, the group concludes that if they simply ignore the waiter, he will go away.

This is where we stand today on the subject of global warming. For the past 150 years, we have been dining on the energy stored in fossil fuels, and now the bill is due. Yet, we have sat around the dinner table denying that it is our bill, and doubting the credibility of the man who delivered it. Unfortunately, nothing is free in the world we live in, and we have experienced prosperity in natural resources unmatched in human history. It is not surprising that many of us are in denial. After all, we didn’t know who would be willing to pay the bill or what would be on the bill.

Now we do know. The bill includes rising global temperatures, acid rain, the ozone hole and the damage produced by DDT. These are the environmental costs of living the way citizens of the wealthy, developed nations have lived since the Industrial Revolution. Now we either have to pay the price, change the way we do business or both. No wonder the merchants of doubt have been successful. They’ve permitted us to think that we could ignore the waiter while we haggled over the bill.

To convince the doubters saying that global warming is false, we need undeniable evidence proving that doing nothing will lead to global warming and that doing something could prevent it. However, the parties involved can deny any evidence and it is hard to prove anything about the future, so we take the wait and see approach. So the question becomes, why do we expect “undeniable” evidence in the first place? History clearly shows that science provides the consensus of experts, based on the organized accumulation and scrutiny of evidence. Hearing both sides of an issue makes sense when debating politics in a two-party system, but there is a problem when that framework is applied to science. When a scientific question is unanswered, there are many competing hypotheses, which are then investigated through research. Research produces evidence, which in time may settle the question. After that point, there are no “sides” but rather accepted scientific knowledge.

Although there may still be questions that remain unanswered, there is simply a consensus of expert opinion on that particular matter. That is what scientific knowledge is. The problem is that most people don’t understand this process. If we read an article in the newspaper presenting two opposing viewpoints, we assume both have validity, and we think it would be wrong to shut one side down; but often, one side is represented only by a couple of  “experts.” When it comes to global warming, it is funny to observe how a handful of “expert” doubters of global warming are contrasted against the collective wisdom of the entire Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an organization that encompasses the views and work of thousands of climate scientists around the globe.

An interesting part of our human behavior is that we trust other people to do things for us that we cannot or do not want to do ourselves. If we do not trust others or do not want to relinquish control, we then do things for ourselves. We can cook our own food, clean our own homes, wash our own cars and so on. However, we cannot do our own science. We must trust our scientific experts on matters of science, because there isn’t a workable alternative. We need to pay attention to who the experts actually are by asking questions about their credentials, their past and current research, the venues in which they are subjecting their claims to scrutiny and the sources of financial support they are receiving. If the scientific community has been asked to judge a matter or if they have self-organized to do so, then it makes sense to take the results of their investigations very seriously. It does not make sense to dismiss them just because a group of dissenters, somewhere, do not agree.

Sensible decision-making involves acting on the information we have, even while accepting that it may well be imperfect and our decisions may need to be revisited and revised in light of new information. Even if modern science does not give us certainty, it does have a proven track record. We sent men to the moon, cured diseases we thought were untreatable and invented new technology all on the basis of modern scientific knowledge. While these practical accomplishments do not prove that our scientific knowledge is true, they do suggest that modern science gives us a pretty good basis for action, which is why global warming should be taken seriously.

Kevin Phan is a fourth-year biological sciences major. He can be reached at phankt@uci.edu.