Saturday, June 30, 2012

Climate Change

Not much has been said about this topic in Australia or around the world so I thought it was time I did a blog entry to raise its profile. It looks like could really be important.

A Facebook friend of mine (John Lord) posted a very interesting status and I thought it worth repeating. John has stated he has little science background, however I think this post is a good read for scientists and non-scientiists alike.

Climate Science ‘A Layperson’s Dilemma’

During the last federal election campaign I tuned onto the ‘7.30 Report’, the night Kerry O’Brien interviewed Tony Abbott about the coalitions ‘Broadband Policy’. During the interview, Abbott who was totally out of his depth appealed to O’Brien not to ask questions of a technological nature because he simply did not understand it. As a voter, I was appalled that anyone with ambitions to become Prime Minister should know so little about his own policy. (Mind you, he could not introduce his party’s economic policy either, but that is another matter)

What occurred to me on reflection was that if Abbott knew so little about the science of the internet, how could he have developed such an insightful knowledge of climate science as to be able to dismiss it as crap? This in turn prompted me to question my own comprehension.

I had to admit that although I followed the debate rigorously and considered myself well informed. I in fact like many others knew little of the science itself. Frankly, I have enough trouble with the pop up toaster.

Ask me about literature, art, political and religious philosophy, music, sport and I can handle myself adequately but science no. Ask me to explain how an atom is split, how carbon dating works, how science takes us to space, advances in medical science, how a mobile phone system works’ D&A, genetics or electricity is produced then I would be hard pressed to explain. In fact, I could not and the reader will understand I have only minutely touched on some branches of science.

So as a layperson, where does this leave me? Whom do I believe? Well for me it is a no brainer. I come down on the side of science. In the last few years, I have under gone a number of operations. I have had a heart attack and bowel cancer. When confronted with these issues never once (when consulting with surgeons) did I question the diagnosis I accepted that scientific research had given my doctors the knowledge to perform whatever procedure was necessary.

Therefore, it goes that I cannot explain how many things function or occur. I simply know that science through reasoned, rational enquiry, evaluation and testing proves that they do.

For the life of me, I cannot understand people who accept science in fact and use it every day somehow become brain dead when it comes to climate science. However, lay people like me who believe in the existence of climate change cannot honestly claim to know the veracity of the science for ourselves but are happy to delegate this task to climate scientists. Laypeople simply do not have the knowledge to adjudicate on the issue.

On the other hand the, those who deny the overwhelming scientific consensus seek to justify their belief by attaching themselves to a minority of science skeptics with obscure qualifications or worse to right wing shock jocks and journalists with no scientific training what so ever. These people (like you and me) have no way of evaluating the volume of data produced by the various scientific institutions. One of the most outspoken skeptics (Andrew Bolt) has recently been found guilty of deceptive lying in that he defamed some white skinned aboriginals. One has to wonder how many he has told when writing about his favorite topic climate change.

If I do not support the 95% of scientists, every major scientific institution and the research that is constantly peer evaluated I am obliged to accept the alternative. That is that I should take seriously the likes of Andrew Bolt, (A journalist) Alan Jones, (I’m not sure how you would describe his contribution to society) Lord Monckton (A discredited something who was once a lobbyist for the tobacco companies) Nick Minchin and Tony Abbott. (Both politicians). In fact, Minchin is on the record as saying that climate change is a left wing conspiracy to replace communism. None of the aforementioned people has a background or expertise in climate science.

Now that’s not to say that they should not have a view and that that view should not be considered as should any laypersons if they are of that ilk. But surely, we must respect the science otherwise; you put into question all science.

As to which way is the best to tackle the problem in Australia this is more open for the layperson to investigate. In this country, we have two propositions. One is to tax the major companies responsible for the pollution with a carbon tax and use part of the tax to compensate households and business for increased charges. A market approach would be normally supported by conservative governments and was liberal policy prior to Tony Abbott being elected opposition leader.

The other is a direct action policy where taxpayer’s funds are given (repeat “are given”) to the polluters to clean up the mess they have created without any guarantees they will do so. In all my research, this method has no credence among professionals. Indeed, Abbott has not produced one economist in support of direct action. Treasury has qualitative evidence to suggest his plan will cost twice as much as they have committed. It is a shame, indeed sad to see shadow minister Greg Hunt who wrote his university thesis (with honors) in support of a carbon tax now trying to defend something he obviously does not believe.

In conclusion, for me as a layperson it seems logical to support the evidence the scientists have produced. I think all the people of this earth and our planet deserve the benefit of any doubt.

Alternatively, when science discovers a cure for cancer do I just say crap?

This issue is about science communication. Scientists are not, generally, good at it. There are recent  exceptions of course: Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brian Cox, Sheldon Cooper and Karl Kruszelnicki come to mind. There are others from the past that impacted me: Julius Sumner Miller and Carl Sagan were early influences.

Even though we are not doing a great job, I found John's summary quite refreshing - when push comes to shove he does trust science, as do most people - but for some reason not in the case of climate change.