On Truth, Fact, Values, Climate Change, and Doughnuts

On Truth, Fact, Values, Climate Change, and Doughnuts

The ongoing brouhaha over the misuse of science in the political process - especially around controversial issues such as stem cells, evolution, and climate change - results from a conflict between facts and values, and persists because of a fundamental misunderstanding of science. Science is a process, not an end point. For those looking for absolute truths, we are more likely to find them in faith, religious teachings, or political ideology.

What does this mean for the difficult issue of climate change? While the vast majority of scientists seek knowledge to expand understanding, the few climate change "skeptics" seek only evidence that supports their worldview. It is this conflict between evidence and preconceived notions that motivates these skeptics, driving them to point to the hole in the doughnut to prove there is no doughnut.

One such doughnut hole is what climate change skeptics call "consensus science." They argue that just because the vast majority of serious climate scientists believe in the greenhouse effect - that humans are causing the earth's climate to change in unprecedented ways – the consensus doesn't make climate change "true." Indeed, consensus doesn't make something correct. But the theory that humans are causing unprecedented climate change is nevertheless a better explanation than any competing theory to explain the growing mass of evidence – coming from dozens of disciplines of science and millions of different observations. Such consensus among scientists is a tremendously powerful thing, for it indicates the strength of a theory.

Skeptics point to another doughnut hole, uncertainties, as evidence for the imperfection of climate science and they use these uncertainties to confuse the media, public, and policymakers, and to delay policy. Scientists love to prove each other wrong – it is how they make advances and bolster their reputations – and it usually works to the benefit of our knowledge and understanding. Climate contrarians, however, misuse this tool of the scientific process to confuse people into believing that the debate about climate change should somehow be resolved, all uncertainties laid to rest, and the “truth” discovered – before policymakers act in the public interest. The proper response is to insist that the skeptics produce a reviewable, replicable scientific theory that can provide a plausible explanation for the mass of the evidence on climate change without invoking human interference. No climate skeptic has ever been able to produce such a theory.

Another fundamental difference between supporters of real science and pseudo-science is that real scientists are willing to change their minds in the face of sufficient and compelling contradictory evidence. Changing their minds is something supporters of creationism and intelligent design, or skeptics of climate change, seem unable, or unwilling, to do.

An example of this rigidity occurred this year, when one of the few remaining pieces of observation evidence that seemed to contradict global warming was thoroughly and convincingly debunked: climate scientists discovered errors in the interpretation of satellite data that appeared to show no warming, in contrast to thousands of surface measurements. When those errors were corrected, the satellite data strongly confirmed, rather than refuted, global warming. Climate deniers have clung to this one slim bit of uncertainty for over a decade, as a drowning man clings to a thin piece of wood. They are now searching for a new piece of debris to try to keep their skepticism afloat.

The question of climate change is further complicated by the fact that much of the financial support for many climate skeptics comes from the fossil-fuel industry, which of course has a vested interest in denying the link between its primary waste product – carbon dioxide – and the greenhouse effect. Skeptics argue that this funding is not the cause of their arguments, but rather the result of their arguments, which strains credulity given the strength of the countervailing evidence of climate change. Ironically, they also try to argue that government and university research funding is no more independent than corporate funding – an argument that is as laughable as it is self-serving.

These skeptics are locked into a certain way of seeing things, a world view that clouds their vision when presented with evidence that contradicts their beliefs and leads them to twist their interpretations and manipulate facts. When this happens, the skeptics are no longer arguing about science, but values. As Thomas Kuhn noted decades ago, a “question of values can be answered only in terms of criteria that lie outside of normal science altogether.” There are plenty of value judgments and difficult policy questions that must be addressed before we have a hope of tackling the difficult questions climate change raises, but we won’t even begin to discuss them until we distinguish good science from bad, and separate fact from fiction. Pass me the doughnuts please.

Dr. Peter H. Gleick is president of the Pacific Institute, a MacArthur Fellow, a member of the Water Science and Technology Board of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and an expert on water and climate issues.

This column has been reprinted courtesy of Environmental News Network. It was first published on Dec. 29, 2005.