Apr 9th 2014

Why Facts Matter: Science Is Not an Opinion

by Jeff Schweitzer

Jeff Schweitzer is a scientist and former White House Senior Policy Analyst; Ph.D. in marine biology/neurophysiology

In a recent tweet, Donald Trump threw out this witticism: "In New York, March was the coldest month in recorded history - we could use some GLOBAL WARMING!" The capital letters and exclamation point are his, so sure is he of his deep insight that he must shout it out to the world.

Opinion, Fact, Climate and Weather

Oh, Donald. As soon as the temperature hits freezing, we hear with the regularity of an atomic clock from Trump and his ilk cries of indignation that global warming must be a farce. After all, how could the world be warming if freezing temperatures are gripping most of the nation? Likewise, every winter we see newspaper editors across the country trot out the old and tired cartoon of the global warming group meeting cancelled due to snow and ice. A laugh riot; and it would be funny if not so sad a barometer of the gross ignorance that endangers our planet.

We have come to a sad state of affairs in which expertise is simply self-declared in the absence of any credentials or experience. Everybody is now a meteorologist -- except they are not. And therein we find the problem: Opinion and fact are not equivalent, but this distinction has been lost. Everybody is an expert. That is why Trump and his friends can confuse climate and weather without losing credibility with their listeners. The opinion that a cold snap belies any global warming can only be taken seriously if we ignore the fact that climate and weather are not the same. Opinion trumps fact, even when the facts are clear:

Climate describes atmospheric behavior averaged over long time periods of decades and centuries across large geographic areas. Weather describes actual local atmospheric conditions over short periods of time, from hours to days. Weather is all about the actual state of the atmosphere with respect to wind, temperature, moisture, pressure, cloud cover and other instantaneous measurements. Climate is a composite of weather conditions averaged over many years. Think of weather as a single datum point and climate as a large collection of those data. Better yet, think of weather as a one-night stand. Then climate would be raising the kid resulting from that night for the next two decades. One immediately leads to the other, but the two are completely different phenomenon. And that is why we have two distinct fields of study: meteorology and climatology.

The distinction between weather and climate becomes critical in understanding global warming. Let's look at what is happening now. This winter a persistent high pressure over the Arctic acted like a big boulder in a fast moving river, causing the Jet Stream to flow south deep into the United States. With that big dip in the Jet Stream came cold Arctic air. So we are all froze our fannies off. But that has absolutely nothing to do with global warming. We can see catastrophic effects of climate change with an increase in average global temperature of just 2 to 3 degrees. If the arctic air warmed from minus 70 to minus 67 degrees, you would still freeze when that air blew south, but the impact on the global climate would nevertheless be profound over time. Weather is right now, the need to put on a thick winter coat to stop that cold arctic air from nipping off a limb from frost bite. Climate is the fact that the arctic air is warmer than expected, even if still cold enough to kill. Arctic air will always be brutally cold even in the most extreme cases of global warming. Snow and ice will always be a winter reality. So stop already with the embarrassing nonsense that climate change can't be real because it is cold outside. Nobody ever said climate change meant the end of winter. But that absurd notion takes hold in a world in which fact and option are treated as equally valid.

Another favorite from deniers is the old canard that global warming is nothing but a sign of natural variation in climate. That claim is fascinating on two levels. First, the idea implies that scientists themselves never thought of the idea that the earth's climate varied over the past 4 billion years. Second, and this one is steeped in irony, the deniers only know of such natural variation from the field of climatology and from climatologists. So deniers believe climatologists when they say there has been natural variation, while suggesting that those scientists actually never thought of such variation! One of the oddest twists of logic I've ever encountered.

Let's say for the sake of discussion that in Austin, Texas, in 1990 the average winter low was 40 degrees and the average winter high was 60 degrees. Then in 1991 the averages were 40.1 degrees and 60.1 degrees, respectively. Would you feel any difference? Of course not. In fact, even if the average temperature was .1 degrees higher, you could still have record lows that year if you had a greater number of days above average. But sure enough as soon as that record low was recorded a denier would be on TV claiming global warming a hoax. Local record low temperatures are a weather phenomenon, not a climate issue. But in 10 years if that trend continued the new averages would be 41 and 61 degrees. In another 10 years the numbers would be 42 and 62. In just 30 years the average temperatures would have risen 3 degrees, an increase that climatologists agree would have catastrophic impacts. The weather would not be changing noticeably even as the trend was rising dangerously. So of course we will experience cold winters, with deep freezes, snow and ice and maybe even record lows. That weather has absolutely nothing to do with the reality of global warming.

Finally, climate change does not mean that all places will warm at all times -- quite the contrary. We can indeed expect many places to see colder and harsher winters, just as we will see more frequent and violent tropical storms. As the climate shifts, we get more extremes at both ends; that cold snap does not indicate warming is a liberal plot; only that weather and climate are not equivalent -- and that averages and trends are not determined by a single point.

This confusion between fact and opinion is not benign. Twenty-two years ago I was part of the United States delegation to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) when I was the Assistant Director for International Science and Technology in the White House. We know now, more than two decades later, that the predictions scientists made in that first final report have proven extraordinarily accurate. What strikes me all this time later is the tragedy of lost time. Due to intense conservative opposition to science on the basis of nothing but faith, and confusing fact with opinion, we have likely lost the opportunity to stop the world from warming catastrophically even if we now take drastic action. The train has left the station and no amount of denial will change that sad fact. The costs of responding now will be exponentially greater than what they would have been if we acted in 1990. But we won't act even today because the House Science Committee is filled with members who believe climate change is a liberal hoax, along with the idea that the world is 4,000 years old and evolution is a conspiracy to denigrate religion. We are fighting battles that were decided hundreds of years ago. And we knew 20 years ago that climate change was real and caused by human activity; we knew that. But so-called skeptics refused to accept the conclusions of thousands of scientists from 166 countries - because they suddenly became professional climatologists who knew more than all the global experts, and believed that fact and opinion are interchangeable.

Harsh Reality

Climate change is here and here to stay. A report from the American Meteorological Society (a nasty den of liberal conspirators deviously disguised as neutral scientists) demonstrates the point in its summary of 2012: Arctic sea ice reached record lows; sea level hit an all-time high; and greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels (rather than from trees) broke all records. That year was one of the globe's top ten warmest years ever recorded; and the United States experienced its hottest year ever. These are not isolated statistics taken out of context; these are data points along a robust trend driving toward an ever-more rapidly changing climate. The science is clear, the conclusions robust: the earth is warming much faster than natural background rates, and that warming is caused by human activity. To deny that reality, that fact, is no different than dismissing atoms as nature's building blocks, refuting that DNA contains genetic code, or claiming that energy does not equal mass times the square of the speed of light.

Faith is no substitute for objective reality when making public policy. A preacher might believe his skin is immune from the effects of heat; but put his hand over a hot flame and his flesh will burn, indifferent to his contrary belief. Climate change is as real as that flame; denying its existence will not diminish the very real impact.

Big Consequences

Due to conservative intransigence we will be witness to an extraordinary transformation. The threat of massive migrations unprecedented in human history, wars over dwindling or shifting resources, catastrophic storms and flooding and dramatic changes in agricultural production are not sufficient to concern climate deniers. So let's look at something closer to home and more immediate: the health effects of a changing climate.

• We will see (are seeing) an expanding range of tropical diseases and new strains of old diseases as they move north, more and more severe allergies as ragweed season grows longer, more mold and fungus in hotter more humid weather, change in rainfall patterns affecting food production, more extreme heat waves, and more frequent and severe droughts and longer and more intense fire season.

• As warmer weather moves north, disease vectors go along for the ride. Many of those vectors are insects, like mosquitoes, which are expanding their range to a backyard near you.

• Water-borne diseases will increase in frequency because warmer water expands the season and range of diseases-causing organisms.

• Rodents also proliferate in the growing temperate regions with milder wet winters; they themselves are disease carriers, and also are reservoirs for disease-carrying ticks.

• We can look forward to a host of ugly diseases, including: dengue fever, malaria, yellow fever, Hantavirus, leptospirosis, Japanese B Encephalitis, Elephantiasis, Lyme's disease, West Nile, Leishmaniasis, Chagas disease and Typhus.

• A long drought in the southwest has reduced predator populations, leading to an explosion of white-footed mice, which carry Hantavirus.

• New Yorkers first suffered an outbreak of West Nile virus in 1999, a new scourge for the city, which is now an annual threat.

• We will also get new strains of old diseases. A new strain of West Nile first detected in 2002, is moving quickly. The virus infected about 175,000 people in 2007, killing 117.

• An increase in carbon dioxide supercharges the growth of the most aggressive pollen producers, including hay-fever causing ragweed and the trees that give us the worst springtime allergies.

• With a warmer climate we will see an increase in the proliferation of mold and fungus, the spores of which love warmer temperatures and higher levels of carbon dioxide.

• Severe droughts in Africa lead to massive dust storms from that continent's expanding deserts. Those clouds travel across the Atlantic and into the lungs of unsuspecting citizens in Florida, who have seen a 20-fold rise in asthma in the past several decades.

• Changing weather patterns will bring floods to some areas and more severe droughts to others, a longer and more extreme fire season, and changes to agricultural production, all of which are direct threats to human health.

So when grandma gets malaria, or comes down with a bad case of West Nile, write a letter of thanks to your local Republican representative.

Faith and Reason

We have come to this tragic conclusion about our future because fact and opinion today are considered of equal validity. But how did we arrive here? Why did this happen? How did two plus two equals four become liberal conjecture? Why do we dispute the obvious? Because our society has been infected with the deadly disease of faith-based reasoning.

Faith and science are not compatible worldviews. Here is the fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the two: Science searches for mechanisms and the answer to "how" the universe functions, with no appeal to higher purpose, without assuming the existence of such purpose. Faith seeks meaning and the answer to "why" the world is as we know it, based on the unquestioned assumption that such meaning and purpose exist. The two worldviews could not be further apart. Let's be clear: many people can simultaneously turn to science to understand "how" and to religion to understand "why", and derive satisfaction from both. That though does not mean that science and faith are compatible, any more than are oil and water. You can make a good salad dressing emulsion with oil and water, and enjoy the flavor of both together, but you can't make them mix.

Science can tell us that the earth rotates counterclockwise (if we're looking down on the North Pole from space). No purpose exists in that fact. The "why" here answers a mechanical question based on history; that particular direction of rotation is a consequence of how the original gases and debris were orbiting the sun prior to coalescing into our planet. Faith might ask "why" God had a yen for counterclockwise, but that question is outside the realm of and irrelevant to the science in question, if such a question is valid at all.

For centuries people have attempted in vain to reconcile faith and reason. The Pontifical Academy of Sciences was founded in 1936 by the Vatican to promote scientific progress compatible with the Church's teachings. Here on the pages of The Huffington Post, Jeffrey Small argued that science and faith have common ground. Others writing for the Post, like Max Tegmark, make similar appeals.Jonathan Dudley claims the Christian faith requires accepting evolution. Dudley says that "Christians must accept sound science, not because they don't believe God created the world, but precisely because they do." The sentiment is similar to what famous geneticist Francis Collins said: "When something new is revealed about the human genome, I experience a feeling of awe at the realization that humanity now knows something only God knew before. I am unaware of any irreconcilable conflict between scientific knowledge about evolution and the idea of a creator God; why couldn't God have used the mechanism of evolution to create?"

Here is the easy answer: Because the mechanism of evolution explain life's history and complexity without any need to invoke god; he becomes superfluous, a desperate add-on. I feel a realization of awe that nature with no direction or purpose can result in such a spectacular array of life using nothing but simple mechanisms of action with no guiding hand. Appeals to reconcile science and faith are utterly hopeless, just wishful thinking and faith that the absurdities of faith can be shoehorned into the realities of science. It is not possible. A reasonable response to the overwhelming evidence for evolution is to accept that the ideas of faith have failed to explain the extraordinary presence of life, rather than to try desperately to bridge an ever-widening chasm between what we know and what the faithful want to believe. Forcing the round peg of faith into the square hole of reason only serves to reduce god to what Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins don't know.

Unlike scientific claims, beliefs cannot be arbitrated. If opinion is truth, there is no means to determine which belief is valid because there is no objective basis on which to compare one set of beliefs to another. Faith and science are incompatible at every level. The two seek different answers to separate questions using fundamentally and inherently incompatible methods. Nothing can truly bring the two together without sacrificing intellectual honesty.

Science Is Fallible

Those who attempt to reconcile faith and faith often appeal to the idea that science is not immune to error. We are told that since science and faith are both fallible, both are equally valid approaches to understanding the world and ourselves. Here is what Jeffrey Small says about this:

"Bias, preconceived ideas, academic politics, ego and resistance to change are ever-present in scientific and academic communities and often result in institutional opposition to new theories, especially ground-breaking ones. Many scientists initially resisted Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo because they presented a new paradigm of the universe."

Well, exactly! What this proves is that over time, science is indeed self-correcting while faith is not.We all know now, due to science, that the earth orbits the sun. But getting there was a journey of fits and starts. Yes, science is indeed fallible, and scientists suffer from all the usual human foibles. But reproducibility, scrutiny from other scientists, the drive for new knowledge, the glory of overturning orthodoxy, all drive science to a better understanding of an objective truth or our best approximation of it; this method of understanding the world is inherently incompatible with faith. Faith cannot be contested: I believe, therefore it is true. All scientific claims are by nature contestable. Those differences can fundamentally never be reconciled.

In reality we need to turn this argument about fallibility on its head. Science never claims to be infallible. There would be no need for more research if scientists believed they had all the answers, and all of them right. But god by definition is infallible. And yet. The Bible's clear statement about age of the earth, off by more than 4 billion years, is one example of an important factual error. Sure, maybe this is a mistake of human interpretation of divine will. But with each new discovery proving a Biblical assertion wrong, the Church retreats to the safety of errors in interpretation or dismissing the discrepancy as unimportant. Nevertheless the ever-accumulating factual mistakes must call into question the certainty with which the Church claims that god, or the Bible, is infallible, since their previous insistence has proven unsubstantiated with glaring factual mistakes. The issue of fallibility is a problem for the faithful, not for science and reason. Never confuse the two.

Heavy Inter-generational Burden

Conservatives have on their shoulders a world that will change dramatically because they prevented us from acting when we had the chance. Faith trumped reason; opinion trumped fact. We knew. We knew 20 years ago; you can imagine the frustration in watching this unfold knowing that opposition to the scientific conclusion was not due to questions about the data but due to ideology, religious fanaticism and right wing lunacy. Irrationality, disdain for the truth, contempt for science, and the warm embrace of willful ignorance are all symptoms of the same malady, a conservative movement sick with extremism borne from faith-based reasoning. And the world burns as a result.

Follow Jeff Schweitzer on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JeffSchweitzer




 


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