Listen To Article
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.
Thanks so much (unfortunately!). Science, like your writing, employs precision and accuracy.
Thank you for your work and writing! I appreciate your perspective and passion for the wonders revealed in Creation.
A thought on this issue from a relatively open-minded – in my own humble opinion 😊 – nearly 60-year old guy who stands firmly right-of-center politically and is not a climate-change “denier”.
The point that “your favorite contrarian is presenting themselves as a put-upon “outside-the-mainstream” scientist . . . is likely nonsense”. Is well taken, but also implies that all the mis-information is coming from the ‘denier’ side of the equation. Here’s why people like me are a little skeptical about when we hear about impending doom:
+ when I was in elementary and middle school, I recall reading that the world was cooling and we were headed into an ice-age and there were serious proposals to spread coal dust over the polar ice caps to mitigate the problem. Turns out that wasn’t quite right.
+ when I was in college, Paul Ehrlich (The Population Bomb) was predicting with certainty (and much agreement from the other experts and professors) that the world would descend into chaos by the late 1970’s due to over-population, the resultant shortages of everything, and the wars that would ensue in fighting over the few resources that remained – it was already too late to address the problem. Turns out that the reverse happened – population continued to increase but poverty has significantly declined world-wide.
+ had 2006’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ been accurate, the polar ice caps would already be gone and San Francisco would be underwater. This is only one example among many of attempts to frighten the public into action by make bombastic claims (claims that most serious climate scientists probably wince because they know they are gross exaggerations).
My point is NOT that climate change is not happening; rather, that we are frequently bombarded with doomsday scenarios that are certain to happen if we don’t’ DO SOMETHING. And, that DOING SOMETHING always involves handing more power to our government (more of the ‘collective action’ that Allison VanderBroek advocated a few days ago). I would argue that those on the ‘pro-climate’ side have done more damage to public opinion on this issue than have the ‘deniers’ because they have been equally dishonest.
(please note that I am not aiming that accusation at you).
A short response to your comments (longer responses are possible, but I will spare you all.)
1. The “drifting into an ice-age” theory was a side excursion promulgated largely by a single influential scientist. It was never accepted as main-stream climate science, it generated no community studies such as the IPCC reports, and there were no serious science proposals to alter the artic climate. As Tim points out, the larger scientific community looked at this theory and rejected it. That’s how it is supposed to work. So please don’t drag this red herring out as a counter example. It is not.
2. It is not my intention to defend Paul Ehrlich. He can take care of himself. While the dire predictions of the population bomb did not occur, we did fight wars over resources (fossil fuels, not food) and warped our foreign policy and national economic well-being for a half century to feed our insatiable demand for more fuel.
3. You obviously didn’t read Al Gore’s book carefully. Nor should the scientific community be held accountable for a popular presentation. Please look carefully at the projections of rising global temperatures put forward in the early IPCC reports. Our current trends follow these projections with striking, and scary, fidelity. Sea level rise is not yet here – it takes a long time to heat water – but it is coming and it will not be pretty. You and I don’t have to worry about it, but our children and grandchildren will.
It is easy, and fruitless, to argue that the “other side” is more responsible for the situation in which we find ourselves. Where we find ourselves now is that the evidence of changing climate is everywhere around us and the need to take action now is irrefutable. So, if you are open-minded and think that climate change is happening, what are you willing to do about it? Instead of spending time complaining about the past,, maybe you could try to convince your elected representatives to take immediate and serious action.
Fair points all. And thank you for the civil engagement.
First-cooling: If you are nearly 60, its been nearly 50 years since the cooling hypothesis you cite. The mechanism of human-caused climate warming because of increased atmospheric CO2 was proposed in the 1800s with contemporary science showing up in the 50s and 60s and famously (Keeling curve) in 1971. This means that there were at least 2 models/hypotheses competing models of climate change among professional scientists when you were a student. Since then, we’ve gained 50 years of empirical observations and developed remarkably better scientific tools (e.g. remote sensing, computer capacity, statistical modeling) for measuring, modeling, and evaluating. Consensus has turned decisively in the direction of warming.
Second-Ehrlich: He’s an influential scientist but individual scientists get stuff wrong and its easier to be wrong about a specific endpoint (as you point out) than to be wrong about a trend. He never attempted and therefor never achieved the level of rigor in the IPCC process; hence his point of view never achieved the degree of consensus that we see in the IPCC reports.
Third-Gore: Gore’s may have erred on the side of being overly dramatic and therefore choosing to show worst-case scenarios where there was more uncertainty. The IPCC is much more careful about communicating the various levels of uncertainty in the topics they review. Also, its worth noting that polar ice has declined dramatically in recent years and sea levels are rising. Gore may have been accurate on that point but imprecise on timing.
Fourth-Dr. Vander Broek: Say she’s right about the need for collective action. I believe she is and that a scientific approach to the human social dimension could be used to make that inference. But, say she’s right for the sake of argument. One’s political preferences don’t change that.
I think you kind of missed my point. I wasn’t arguing that because Paul Ehrlich was wrong, then climate change is not happening. (I would just add, re him, that he wasn’t just wrong about the endpoint, he was completely wrong in almost every way, mostly because he ignored human ingenuity).
My point is that given the history of scare-tactics and exaggeration on a host of “threats”, including climate change, it’s not surprising to me that reasonable people are skeptical about the degree of the problem. It’s equally dangerous to cry wolf when there is no wolf as to say there is no wolf when he is at your door.
Action will not happen until the majority of people agree on the threat, and that won’t happen based on how the discussion has gone, and it’s not just the right-wing talk radio nuts that are the problem. I would appreciate, and trust, a few more voices saying that no, we aren’t all going be either on fire or underwater by 2030, but that it’s still a serious threat that needs to be addressed.
Some favorite lines:
“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.”
Keep up the good work!
All together now, please join me in one of my favorite (though not one of the catchiest) protest call and response chants, one we used at a March for Science in 2017 8n Grand Rapids, when most of the qualified climate scientists at the EPA had just been fired.
Leader: What do we want?
Crowd: EVIDENCE-BASED SCIENCE!
Leader: When do we want it?
Crowd: AFTER PEER REVIEW!
All should read “Unsettled” by a noted physicist and climatologist, Dr. Koonen.His open minded approach to “settled science” may enlighten many of us.
With all due respect, this is a perfect example of what Tim describes about the scientific process. Steve Koonin is a respected physicist. He is not a climate scientist and, to my knowledge, has never published a peer-reviewed journal article on climate science. His book was published by a small publisher located in Texas and was not in any way reviewed by the science community. While I haven’t read this book, I have read other articles by Koonin and have spoken with him on a couple of occasions. From the opening pages of the book (which I have read) and reviews (e. g., https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-new-book-manages-to-get-climate-science-badly-wrong/), this book continues the scientific distortions and cherry-picking of his past work. So, whom do you choose to believe: a consensus report, written by more than 200 climate scientists and reviewed by at least 5 times that number, that builds on 5 previous reports by the community OR a single book written by a single author with an axe to grind and reviewed by no one?
Chronologically, nature would be God’s first book. Solomon studied nature and God used nature in God’s response to Job. All creation praises God and the heaven’s declare God’s glory. You don’t need to read to know God and understand what God has done, is doing, and will do if you have the eyes & ears of faith. On climate change and the latest IPCC report, consider Prov. 27:13, “The prudent see danger and take refuge, the simple keep going and suffer for it.”
Tim, thanks so much for this post. It is well written and exactly right about the way in which modern science progresses. Please keep making time for you blog posts!
This post is so helpful. Thank you.