One of the strengths of science is that we do not need to unquestionably believe everything we are told about the physical world. We can experiment. We can learn. Through the practice of science, we soon discover that all opinions aren't equally valid, not all theories are applicable, and not all conclusions are supported by evidence. Scientific claims can be tested, and that testing strengthens the conclusions scientists ultimately draw. Beautiful. And ignored.
When each new international scientific review of published science reports with ever higher certainty that
(1) our world is warming, and dangerously so,
(2) rising atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) are the primary cause, and
(3) we are the primary cause of this increase (due to our burning of carbon-based fuels),
that should count for more than the opinion of one selectively chosen talking head, even if that talking head were to be me! Why then do we find that in the halls of government, our elected leaders continue to argue whether global warming even exists, let alone is a problem? Why are so many of our representatives unwilling to accept the science, much less the responsibility? And why do we still re-elect them?
One reason, of course, is that the climate change debate in Congress is not actually a debate over the science. The number of Ph.D. physicists in Congress can be counted on two fingers. The number of Ph.D. chemists can be counted on one. Congress is not a body of scientists, and a true scientific debate is not taking place.
The putative debate in congress over global warming is in reality a proxy battle between those industries that fear economic losses and those that anticipate economic gains if the government were to act. Mandating a reduction in carbon emissions would require we reduce our burning of fossil fuels. The reason it sometimes sounds as if there is serious debate over the science of global warming, is because, as with the earlier debate between the tobacco industry and the insurance industry over the risk of smoking, those industries either unable or unwilling to adapt — think coal, oil, and gas, for starters — have spent millions employing “merchants of doubt” to prevent or delay needed change.
And herein lies the challenge for science education. The more that science is told rather than practiced, the more that testing demands an emphasis of recall over reasoning, the easier it becomes to suggest that even the broadest scientific consensus is not to be trusted. Maybe it's all a conspiracy. Maybe it's all political. Maybe they’re all idiots. These people say this, but this person says that. Do you really trust Al Gore? Isn't he the ringleader behind this? If all you have to go on is what you are told, how are you to decide? In truth, Congress’s failure reflects our own.
Change is possible, but it starts an understanding of the science. After decades of manufactured doubt and debate over the link between smoking and lung cancer, change finally occurred, but only by turning generations of smokers into unwitting experimental subjects. As our friends, neighbors, and family members died, we saw for ourselves the results of the tobacco industry's experiment, and no longer believed what we had been told. Moving from ancedote to statistics, data revealed correlations, advances in cell biology provided explanations, and the eventual decline in lung cancer following the decline in smoking confirmed predictions.
Now another experimental test is underway, this time on the link between CO2 emissions and global warming. We again have data, explanations, and predictions. One of these predictions is that because we are already adding CO2 to the atmosphere at a rate twice as great as the Earth’s ability to remove it, long-term average surface temperatures will continue to rise. Another prediction is that this will lead to greater climate disruption and instability. Still another is that we still have time to act.
Are we ready for that test, or is it time we learn some science?