Letting your ass do the talking

Here’s a short, accessible video effectively debunking some of the claims of climate change deniers like Anthony Watts (Glenn Beck’s go-to guy for climate information):

An old friend of mine who is heavily invested in several right wing conspiracy theories recently asked me why I believed in climate change (he thinks, of course, that it’s all a liberal scam). I answered that a sizable majority of not only climatologists, but also biologists, geologists, paleoclimatologists, physicists – experts in several independent fields of study, in other words – have seen changes over recent decades that point to the same conclusion: the planet is getting warmer and it’s due to human activity. Thinking about it now, I realize that this could be seen as a fairly weak argument on the surface, so I’ll flesh it out a bit. Leaving it at, “because scientists say so” could easily be interpreted as an argument from authority – the kind of bogus argument that many creationists and other defenders of complete bunk misuse when trying to “scientifically” justify their claims. Just round up a group of people with titles after their names, and suddenly your claim is supposed to amount to something. That is, of course, a bullshit defense, and it wasn’t what I was getting at. I was just trying to point out that many lines of seperate evidence in this case point to the same conclusion.

Of course, you could make an argument from authority and still have a pretty solid argument (The argument just shouldn’t end there). An overwhelming majority of credible experts do indeed support the idea of anthropogenic climate change. A person shouldn’t be reflexively skeptical of experts (just aware that expertise doesn’t automatically guarantee a valid opinion). Most of us have only the slightest grasp of the technology that we use, but we trust that someone out there understands it, and is being paid to make sure that it works. We trust that medical doctors probably have a better idea of how your body works than the average person on the street. The thing is though, these are not examples of blind faith in authority, but just the product of reasonable expectation. When a process usually works, it’s reasonable to assume that it will in the future too. When people that should know what they are talking about say something, it’s usually wise to listen. The important part, however, is always the evidence for the claim being made, regardless of who is presenting it. The value of experts is as qualified interpreters of the data, not the title before or after their name (i.e. there are no Popes in science). Experts should always be able to present their data when requested, and not expect anyone to just take their word on faith. A title means nothing if someone is spouting complete nonsense, or is speaking beyond their realm of knowledge.

On that point, it’s important when taking the advice of “experts” that their expertise actually relates to the topic at hand. The Center For Inquiry’s Credibility Project has recently pointed out that the expertise cited in the Senate minorty (read: Republican) report on climate change isn’t what its cracked up to be. As an analogy, I get irritated when celebrities pontificate on topics that they have little to no real knowledge of, and people take them seriously. Their opinions might be interesting, but nobody should automatically assume that they have the slightest idea of what they are talking about. Likewise, I wouldn’t trust your average television weather person or a civil engineer to give me an informed opinion on global warming. Yet, these are the credentials of many of the prominent climate change deniers, and many people are indeed taking their opinions at face value.

Another part of this is the possible motives or conflicts of interests a given expert might be influenced by. I asked my conspiracy theory friend what possible motive so many scientists might have to invent the idea of anthropogenic global warming? How could thousands of seemingly independent experts be embroiled in such a plot? Do they just hate the global economy that much? Does this idea maybe seem a tad bit absurd? Now flip that scenario around. Are there things that many global warming skeptics have in common? Do many, for instance, work in some capacity for carbon fuel industries? Hmm, they do? Can you think of any motives such individuals might have to resist findings on climate change? Would a conspiracy be necessary for these individuals to say the things they are saying or would self-interest be enough? Given just these criteria, the simpler answer should be convincing enough. Unremarkably, my pal didn’t see it that way.

It’s important also to point out that the information that experts cite is not inaccessible knowledge. Science is given its power by the process of peer review. That’s why a good judge of credibility is having work published in a respected journal. If someone isn’t willing to submit their work to scrutiny, there’s a good chance that it’s weak. Publication also lets the public examine scientific findings. Don’t feel comfortable trusting a bit of information you’ve heard? Find the journal that published the findings in question and examine the methodology used and the strength of the conclusions. Yes, climate change is a very expansive topic and is supported by several vastly different lines of evidence; there’s a massive amount of information out there. However, it is not secret information. It is widely available. Examine findings topic by topic, and decide the truth for yourself.

Most people, unfortunately, would rather talk out of their asses instead. It takes much less effort. Find information that confirms what you already think and ignore everything else. I’m glad guys like Peter Sinclair and his Climate Crock of the Week series are out there making this information easily accessible and entertaining for the masses. If you’ve heard the bleating yelps of a global warming denier out there, there’s a good chance that his claims have already been solidly debunked by someone.

One last point: something many people fail to realize when absorbing scientific findings is that there is no absolute truth in science. All knowledge is predicated on the understanding that we are fallible creatures who have devised fallible methods for ascertaining reality. Science is based on probabilities, not certainties. Detractors of scientific knowledge almost always exploit this honest acknowledgement of human limitation. People are drawn to confident language that speaks in certainties and absolutes. However, this isn’t the way the world actually works, and people that use such powerful language are always speaking opinion, not fact. Reliable scientific knowledge is based on probabilities that approach certainty – much more, in fact, than any other kind of knowledge (and by a very long shot) – but it is, and always will be, open to reevaluation as new data come in. Strong effort has been made to eliminate confounding elements that may confuse the results. Mathematical methods are used to calculate the exact probabilities of whatever effect is being studied and access its likelihood. The findings are scrutinized by other experts for weaknesses, and replicated to make sure that they weren’t a fluke. What other methods of seeking knowledge jump through these hoops to prove their validity? Answer: none. Scientists are just being honest when discussing thier findings, saying that they have a very good reason to think that something is true, but not that they know that it is true. Human beings are simply not capable of claiming certainty about anything, and anyone who tells you that they have absolute truth is absolutely full of shit. This relates to climate change in that the deniers almost always highlight the gaps in knowledge, throwing out the massive amount of supporting evidence in favor of the chance (however small) that it could all be wrong. But take this analogy: you wake up in the middle of the night and the air is filled with smoke. I would hope that any decent person would not wait until they see flames around their feet to start getting their family out of the house. You base action on the knowledge that you have, not that you wish you had. Climate change has too many drastic consequences for the survival of our and many other species to start nitpicking (hoping to score political points) at this late juncture. We’ve wasted enough time as it is.

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