Thursday, August 16, 2012

Climate change: the uselessness of uninformed opinion

Much has been made of a recent survey showing that 54% of Canadians believe that climate change is occurring and that it is attributable to a mix of human and natural causes.

Here's the breakdown:

I don't take any particular comfort in these sorts of statistics, just as I wouldn't take any comfort in a survey in which, given a choice between "things falling over" and "poltergeists" as the primary cause of noises in the night, 54% of Canadians chose "all of the above".

It's not about belief, it's about evidence.  So for the 86% of Canadians who think that climate change is partially or entirely attributable to human activity, I have two follow-up questions:

a) In the 4-billion-year history of the Earth, can you specify a period during which climate did not change? and,

b) For the 99.95% of the history of Earth that unfolded before primates emerged as distinct species; and for the 99.99999875% of the history of Earth that unfolded before humans began burning fossil fuels in significant quantities...what DID cause climate to change?

Or to put it graphically:

...and with somewhat more chronological detail:

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.  We know for a fact that climate changed, often drastically, long before there were primates, let alone humans, let alone modern humans, let alone fossi-fuel-burning humans, let alone humans using fossil fuels in anything approaching significant quantities.  If, as the IPCC claims, human-produced GHG are the principal driver of global warming aka climate change aka climate disruption aka man-caused climatic disasters, then it is incumbent upon the IPCC to explain what caused climate to change before humans stumbled onto the scene in the most recent two-thousandth of the history of our planet.

So to the groups of people who answered the above-mentioned poll, I have this to say, according to the answer you gave:

- if you picked "climate change is not occurring at all", you're an idiot who needs to pick up a book or look out a window;

- if you picked "climate change is occurring due to natural climate variation", congratulations, you have a reasonable grasp of the glaringly obvious;

- if you're one of the 86% of Canadians who think that humans are driving climate change, then please explain what drove climate to change, and far more drastically than at any present time, for the 3,999,980,000 years before humans showed up and started messing with Gaia; and,

- if you picked "not sure", then there may be hope for you.  As some obscure philosopher once said, "He who knows not, and knows that he knows not, is a child.  Teach him."

The problem, of course, is who is doing the teaching.  Loud-mouthed advocates for statist solutions to non-problems are of no benefit to society.

And the larger problem with surveys of this nature is that they're based on public opinion.  Yes, everyone is entitled to his or her opinions, but not all opinions are of equal weight.  When CERN was looking for the Higgs Boson, were Pew and Angus-Reid running around conducting public opinion polling of self-important latte-sippers at the corner Starbucks to find out whether or not they thought the thing would confirm or falsify the Standard Model?  How many slack-jawed yokels did NASA consult prior to deciding whether to use a rocket-powered hover-crane to lower the Curiosity Rover onto the surface of Mars? Did the team that identified the Phoenix Cluster take a poll of the malt-liquor-and-bowling community on how to interpret the rate of star formation by using the Chandra X-Ray Observatory?

These are questions of science, and science is not about political cant or personal belief, but about the construction of hypotheses on the basis of observations, and their validation through further observations and/or experimentation.  In short, science is about evidence, and nothing else.

Why are there two standards of scientific conduct - one for "climate science" where, it seems, anything goes; and another for "every other kind of science", where rules of conduct and evidence are expected and (gasp!) enforced?

Until someone can come up with evidence to demonstrate how humans managed to change the Earth's climate before we had even emerged as a species, I will not find compelling any hypothesis that takes as its point of departure the logically impossible contention that humans are the principal cause of climate change today.