Climate science no place for fundamentalists

We accept the laws of physics, even if we don’t understand them. Flickr/Jayt

Many people rule out the seemingly extraordinary claims of climate scientists. Are the sceptics fools or is there reason in their madness? The history of science gives grounds for scepticism but not for denial.

How certain can we really be?

Climate change is complex, and explaining it to the public is fraught. Issues of balance and lack of journalistic understanding make it even more difficult.

But perhaps key to the misunderstanding of climate science is the public perception of science as the pursuit of certainty. In fact, scepticism plays a critical role in science, and uncertainty is a vital part of how science is done.

But that is an unpopular and disquieting thought. The public prefers the security of an outdated but attractive fundamentalism: a blind faith in the certainties of science.

Contrast that with the opinion of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that human actions are “very likely” to be the cause of global warming. It rates the probability at 90%; surely grounds for scepticism as long as the certainty account of science prevails.

Based on the “certainty view”, politicians such as Senator Steve Fielding say that we don’t have enough evidence for human-induced climate change saying it still “needs to be scientifically proven”.

The answer to this public paralysis is not to bang the science drum more loudly but to promote a more realistic image of science.

History will tell you: science can get it wrong

The history and philosophy of science reveals both fallibility and subjectivity at work.

Such a view supports those who question the evidence for human-induced global warming. But it also saddles us with the responsibility for making timely decisions based not on certain proofs but on the best available evidence.

History is littered with scientific theories that were “known” to be true and subsequently overturned.

Ptolemy’s universe was earth-centred before Copernicus came along. The Newtonian world was absolute before relativity arrived.

Ptolemy’s earth-centred universe was propped up in the face of contradictory observations by introducing more assumptions. For 1400 years it was continually renovated as historical need arose.

The Copernican view eventually prevailed, not because a sun-centred system simply explained the facts but for reasons ranging through politics, religion, personal alliances and an appeal to simplicity.

In the words of Max Planck, the Nobel prize winning father of quantum theory, “new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it”.

Yes, the sceptics keep good company in asking hard questions of the current scientific consensus and not kowtowing to political correctness.

But the hope of certainty in science is naive and threatens the planet. Having recognised the complexities of the methods and outcomes of science, it is in vain that we wait until things are “scientifically proven”.

Scientists are humans too

Most of us know how to ride a bicycle. But few of us know what it is that we know. And even if we could describe the laws of physics governing bicycles, it would be no use to a four year old astride a bike for the first time.

Whether it’s bike riding or recognising mother’s face, in the words of scientist and philosopher Michael Polanyi, “we know more than we can tell”.

Scientific discovery is also driven by everyday intuitions, passions and judgement calls.

At 16 Einstein was dreaming of flashlights and moving trains. Convinced that his intuitions were correct, it took him years to put mathematical flesh on the bones of relativity theory. He knew more than he could explain, and driven by passionate belief, he persevered to convince the scientific establishment.

Despite the stereotype in a white coat, scientists are not disinterested observers pursuing only the ideal of truth. Like the rest of us, they live by faith, another word for that confident belief which we prefer to call knowledge. And most are passionately committed to their work, for better and at times for worse.

According to some who observe scientists at first hand, science is often more like trench warfare than polite debate between principled profs: a battle where the spoils of victory are prestige, research funding and citations in academic journals.

An overstatement perhaps, but one sometimes true and one that highlights the very human pursuit that science is, dependent on the judgement of fallible human beings.

Scepticism makes sense; denial doesn’t

The thoughtful sceptic is no fool for questioning current consensus. Science is more complex and less certain than we would like to believe.

Climate science in particular is dependent on a diverse army of specialists as well as complex computer modelling techniques. It is impossible for any one person to survey the whole field: each scientist is dependent on the web of trust that is modern science.

But scepticism is not denial and discretion is surely the better part of valour when the future of the planet is at stake. Certainty is an illusion that we cannot afford to entertain.

The majority of scientists agree and the time to act is now.