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On Monday, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the sixth assessment report and by Monday evening, the news cycle was ramping up with its dire content.
The findings were not news to anybody who follows this issue. In a sentence: the climate crisis is happening now; the human-caused drivers have not abated and may be accelerating; the associated damage and injustice is increasing and we (especially we wealthy western countries) need to act with boldness and urgency to mitigate the worst of it. The sixth assessment is notable for the added urgency it communicates for the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, move away from fossil fuels, and work towards mitigation.
I am reading the report inbetween the stuff I need to do for promises I’ve made (like blog posts). But this is a déjà vu experience. Every time a report like this is released, it’s lagged by a chorus of voices essentially trying to diminish the science and scientists behind the report. I am not a climate scientist, but I know a few of them and I use their science and have lived professionally with them in the world of academic and government-sponsored science for more than 25 years.
Science twitter was abuzz with despair, anger, lament, and exasperation. I am feeling all of it. I am especially raw because in my own circle this summer I have needed to confront anti-science ideas about young-earth creationism, climate crisis denial, and anti-vaccine nonsense.
If, as commonly taught in Christian circles, nature is the “second book” whereby the Creator is revealed, then science is the set of eyeglasses which gives clarity to the text. Let me say this plainly: doing and understanding science rigorously and taking it seriously is a practice of faith.
Science is a profoundly conservative enterprise. Its goal is to identify new knowledge reliably. Armies of scientists labor, mostly in obscurity, pushing mightily at the boundaries to identify potential new incremental bits of knowledge. Once found, a new bit of knowledge must be submitted to a skeptical group of peer experts who demand transparency on the data, the study design, and the analysis supporting it. Even having passed peer review, the new bit is only tentatively accepted as new knowledge. Other scientists test its veracity and reliability in different contexts and with competing explanations all with their own peer review.
It’s only when the new bit survives this long process that it can be admitted into the hard-won canon of what scientists consider reliable knowledge. It relies on a consensus by skeptical people whom other scientists recognize as experts in the field – often one’s competitors. There are layers of safeguards and the system places a premium on shunting unreliable knowledge to the dustbin. Bad science gets published and even promoted for a time, to be sure, but it also gets moved to the margins rapidly.
Consequently, the idea of an independent under-appreciated genius contrarian who knows or discovers something that other specialists are unaware of is mostly a Hollywood myth. Even game-changers like Charles Darwin or Watson and Crick had competitors who “were nearly there” in terms of getting to the discoveries that made the famous scientists famous. Moreover, their work depended heavily on the work of other scientists as starting points – and had to survive the process outlined above.
Reliable scientific knowledge resides in peer reviewed scientific journals and is communicated to the public sphere reliably only by people (e.g. in climate science: Dr. Katherine Hayhoe, Bill McKibbin) and public press aggregators (I like The Guardian) who understand and respect the process. Hence if your favorite contrarian is presenting themselves as a put-upon “outside-the-mainstream” scientist and is making their argument “against the establishment” and outside of peer review its likely nonsense. It doesn’t matter if you found them opining on YouTube, FaceBook, the New York Times, the National Enquirer or the Hoover Institute.
And if you cherry-pick your contrarians to make a public policy point about creationism, climate crisis, the value of masks, the nature of the pandemic, vaccinations, chronic wasting disease, the population biology of wolves, etc., it says more about your own confirmation bias, your ignorance about (and disrespect for) how science works, and your desire to make a science-based questions into an ideological battle.
The IPCC report is an extreme and sober example of rigor in this process, designed to recognize the urgency of the climate crisis in all its dimensions, to faithfully evaluate the entire body of research on these questions, and then to communicate responsibly what that a collective body of research says and means. The sixth assessment builds on the fifth which builds on the fourth and so on, illustrating how scientific knowledge is both iterative and cumulative. Hundreds of scientists from around the world volunteer their time to do a complete review of the scientific literature with layers of peer and public review built in. In the interest of full transparency, one can read about the process in granular detail.
If you intend to care for Creation, you should pay attention.