Saturday, January 17, 2009

Nicotine, Evolution, Global Warming and the Politics of Faith

As I watched the swearing in of our new President and listened to his inauguration speech, I was struck by one line in particular.

"We will restore science to its rightful place"

One of the hallmarks of the administration of George W Bush and many Republicans is a willingness to deny science in deference to beliefs, often irrational beliefs.

For years through the 60's and 70's and in some cases into the 80's many conservatives denied the clear science that demonstrated that cigarettes were both addictive and deadly. Their beliefs were supported by scientists paid for by the cigarette companies. Somehow they succeeded in making science, not a matter for debate over the facts, but a political issue, a debate between liberal and conservative.

Those who would deny the addictiveness and lethality of cigarettes were wrong. Science was right.

The theory of evolution, the concept that natural selection, is the dominate mechanism for species to change and for the creation of new species, is only a theory. But its a theory that best explains the available data. That's what science is, evaluating the data and creating or refining a theory that best explains the data. That is what we should be teaching, science. There are those, mostly conservative Christians, who don't believe in evolution. They reject evolution as a valid theory, not because they have a theory that better explains the data, but because its not a perfect explanation and because they believe that the Biblical story of creation and the theory of evolution are incompatible. They reject science not because their theory better explains the facts, but because they chose to reject the facts.

And now, incredibly, there are those who deny that the average surface temperature of this planet is increasing, they deny that its increasing at a dangerously fast pace, they deny that human activity is driving the pace of increase in temperatures globally.

They look at a study that looked at over 900 studies of changes in global climate and found not a single study that contradicts the theory that human activity is causing/accelerating this increase in temperature. And they reject it.

I have been told that mankind could not possibly be the source of the increase in temperature. Expressed emphatically. A belief. No science to support the belief.

I have been told that using tree ring studies and ice core studies don't yield good data because these studies are imperfect. No acknowledgement that tree ring studies are not used by them selves. Ice Core Studies are not used by themselves. These tools are used in concert with written histories. They are used in concert with the geologic record. But since these studies are imperfect, the deniers reject them, not because they have better theories, but because they have their beliefs.

I have been asked how we know what the temperature was 1000 years ago because the thermometer hadn't been invented yet. They deny sciences estimates of temperatures not because they have better theories, but because they have their beliefs.

I have been told that we don't know what the temperature was 100 years ago because thermometers were not as accurate as they are now. As if old thermometers were not just less accurate but just plain wrong. Either reading high or low all across the world. Not science, just belief.

So they deny that human activity is causing global warming. They don't put forward a competing theory to explain the data. The closest they get is solar cycles, which could well be a factor in the current warming, but isn't significant enough to be causing it, which doesn't explain the clear relationship between atmospheric concentrations of Methane and CO2 and increases in temperature, and which doesn't explain the long term trend in temperatures since the 1850's.

It comes down to belief.

They don't like the theories, they don't have better theories to explain the facts, so they just deny the theory or even deny the facts. Based on belief.

And now our President promises to ". . .restore science to its rightful place." It can't happen too soon.

Those who denied the addictiveness and lethality of cigarettes were free to keep smoking and they get to die sooner as a result.

Those who reject the theory of evolution can believe what they want as long as they don't try to teach their beliefs as science.

But those who deny that human activity is driving global warming are harming more than just themselves. Their denial of science and their opposition to the measures necessary to address the problem have made addressing the causes of Global Warming even harder and more urgent.

Based on their beliefs.

I look forward to a return to science as a basis for policy.

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