Monday, November 30, 2009

Climate Change Debate Demands “Good Science”

In today’s world, science and technology influence our lives at every turn. Science has not only shaped our worldview; it literally shapes our view of the world. Digital technology awakens us in the morning, provides our coffee, delivers the news from anywhere in the world, helps us to plan our day, and converse around the world by wireless communication. The clothes we wear, the food we eat, and the vehicles we drive all shape our lives as fruits of science.

But science is not value-free. Science is a human endeavor and the fruits it yields to society depend upon the values of the culture. For a culture to prosper, it must value education and the pursuit of knowledge, freedom of expression, respect for ones neighbor, and reverence for all creatures and the physical order. Each of these values must be undergirded by an ethic that seeks after scientific truthi.e. ‘What is true?’ or, “What best conforms to physical reality?”– and wisdom i.e. ‘What is right?’, or ‘right application of knowledge in a world that recognizes the human capacity to do evil.’

Right application of scientific knowledge demands freedom of expression so that all who wish to participate may do so by offering rigorous critique and additional experimentation. The so-called “scientific method” has demonstrated itself to be very effective in identifying correct judgements about the natural world when scientists function as a community in a professional, ethical, and objective manner. It is particularly important that these elements be present where scientific authority is being used to influence public policy. Where one or more of these elements are missing, science risks being hijacked by a relative few who seek to use its fruits for political and economic gain.

For example, many global climate scientists utilize climate models that point to global warming to advocate both national and international policy changes aimed at reducing production of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Such policies are designed to reduce human consumption of fossil fuels and discourage other practices that are believed to cause global warming. However, some are concerned that such policy changes will provide little relief to either planet Earth or to the poor while at the same time shifting the balance of power to central governing bodies at the national and international level.

Given the immense impact of climate change-driven public policy decisions, it is particularly disturbing that the above ingredients necessary for a “healthy science community” may be lacking. It is not my purpose here to debate whether global warming is occurring or the magnitude of the contribution of human activities to climate change. However, I am concerned about the growing evidence that scientific openness and objectivity are being suppressed by political agendas both within government and within the scientific community.

For example, the recent hacking of e-mails and documents from the Climate Research Unit at East Anglia University, Norwich, England, suggests efforts to intimidate or discredit opposing scientists (or see Wall Street Journal, April 12, 2006), suppress exchange of climate data, and suppress publications that question the assumptions of climate change models. Dr. Tim Ball, Canadian climatologist, expresses his concern in a recent YouTube interview. Remarkably, little attention is being given to the implication of the e-mail exposures.

Wouldn’t a healthy scientific community be well served if it were to openly take stock of the revealing e-mails and to own up to any private doubts or attempts to suppress conflicting or controversial data? Isn’t this an opportunity to test the expertise, professional ethics and motivations of climate scientists on both sides of the issue? Certainly, the lessons of the “Lysenko Affair” in the Soviet Union under Stalin testify of how science, hijacked by political interests, both stifled scientific progress and caused starvation and death of millions . Good science may not only provide answers to the “climate debate” but contribute to a more certain and sustained rationale for establishing lifestyles that foster human stewardship of the Earth.


Jessicah Zehring said...

It is saddening to read about the alledged climate change cover up. Climatologists must step forward and be honest about conflicting climate change evidence. If they don't, they, and the larger scientific community, may lose the authority to speak on any issue that has political or economic ramifications.

This loss of authority would be a tragedy-- as Dr. Silvius pointed out, science helps define our view of the world. As Christians, we believe that God created the world, and all the amazing details and processes the world contains. If science lost its credibility, the Christian community would lose an ally that helps reveal God's character through His creation.

This scandal is a shame and a loss to the secular science community, but no less to those who view the fruits of scientific research as a valuable tool to steer others to God.

tammy said...

People know me as the Christian environmental studies teacher and I am occasionally asked for my opinion regarding current environmental topics. Such was the case twice this past week when unrelated people wanted to know what I thought about "Climategate."

I usually side with traditional environmentalists on most issues. I love the idea of land conservation, smart growth and especially clean energy. You see, as native of Western Pennsylvania I have lived my whole life next to a dead stream--the result of the coal mining that took place in the hills above my house before I was even born. I never saw my stream healthy and can only guess at what fish, salamanders, frogs, and toads may have called it home. I consider this to be an extreme rip-off to me from the people who once lived here. What right did they have to do this to this land? They took what they wanted and left! This stream has run, as it were, as a silent witness to me of the potential destructiveness of extractive mining. I wonder if the coal that was burned up so long ago really made people happy and added value to their lives. I tend to doubt it since I don't see people enjoying their lives any more today because they can easily and cheaply satisfy their electicity, transportation, and heating desires with fossil fuels. Frankly, I dislike fossil fuels and believe we'd all be a lot better off if we moved away from them as quickly as possible. Don't get me started on mountaintop removal!

I say all this to show why I have a basic affinity for any effort people make toward more sustainable living. As a conservative I have many friends who are 100% convinced that climate change is not happening, and if it is it is not "anthropogenic" (human induced). They forward emails to us, and some of them can get down right ugly, especially when Al Gore's name comes up. I don't like this "tone." I believe that we have a higher calling as Christians and taking pot shots at people does not conform to that calling. Perhaps this is why I tend to shy away from legitimate criticism of the junk science that actually underpins much of the climate change debate.

Thank you, Dr. Silvius, for the excellent discussions you referenced in your post. I knew that my jury could not remain out indefinitely and I had to take the plunge and really look into these issues, especially on the eve of Copenhagen. The discussion of the Lysenko Affair was particularly enlightening. He was marginalized because he didn't tow the party line. Many of the climate change skeptics of today face similar censure from the scientific elite. I am also reminded of how Galileo was ordered to renounce his views on heliocentrism. He could not.

I told my husband I couldn't really believe that "scientists" would lie--what about peer review? What about the scientific method? Didn't any of this mean anything? He simply said that human nature has not changed and to follow the money. After working through this information together last night and seeing how right on the money he has been my husband was quick, of course, to point out that he had come up with his conclusions before seeing the information.

I don't see why scientists need to trump up reasons for the world to get serious about sustainability. The problem of biodiversity loss alone ought to be big enough and scary enough to force positive environmental change. There's plenty of sound science to back it up. I'm still not sure about climate change, but I intend to be like the Bereans and continue searching out answers.