Friday, December 12, 2008

BB: Naoimi Oreskes: Science vs Beliefs about Science

This is the eighth in a series of posts on presentations given at Beyond Belief 3: Candles in the Dark"

You can find a list of all Atheist Ethicist blog postings covering Beyond Belief 3 at the Introduction post

And I would like to encourage you to give a contribution to the Science Network, who makes these presentations available for free.

Our next series of presentations at the Beyond Belief 3: A Candle in the Dark conference dealt with the subject of the politics of science. This is not to be confused with the subject of the science of politics – or, more precisely, the neurobiology of politics – to come later).

Naomi Oreskes gave the first presentation in this section. In her presentation, she described a significant problem in some detail, but offered no solution to that problem (except to criticize the idea of conceptualizing the problem in terms of “A Candle in the Dark”).

The main conclusions that she presented were:

(1) Science had formed a consensus on the issue of human-induced climate change as early as the 1970s.

(2) Yet, today, a substantial portion of the population still believes – 30 years later – that there is no scientific consensus.

This is not to say that people are not aware of a scientific consensus that exists (the way that they might not be aware of the fact that the planet Jupiter has rings). They believe that a consensus does not exist (the way that they might believe that Jupiter does not have rings.).

It’s the difference between what people don’t know, and what they think they know that simply is not true.

Let me share with you a list of the little-known facts about the scientific consensus on climate change over the past century that Oreskes brought to the presentation.

(1) In the late 1800s, scientists knew that CO2 and H2O were greenhouse gasses – that they kept the earth warmer than it would otherwise be. Without these gasses, the earth would be a frozen ball of ice.

(2) By the early 1900s, scientists knew that if the level of CO2 in the atmosphere were to double, then global temperatures would go up somewhere around 4 degrees centigrade (7 degrees F), which would result in significant changes in the global climate.

(3) By the 1930s, scientists knew that humans were probably increasing atmospheric concentrations of CO2.

(4) In the late 1950s, scientists started to monitor global CO2 levels.

(5) By the late 1960s, scientists knew from these observations that humans were, in fact, increasing atmospheric CO2 levels at a rate that would lead to climate change.

(6) In the 1970s, the National Academy of Science commissioned its first report on climate change based on the already existing consensus in the scientific community that human-induced climate change was a fact.

In other words, by the late 1970s, there were only two legitimate answers to the question, "Is there a scientific consensus on whether humans are increasing CO2 levels at a rate that risks significant climate change in the future?"

Those two answers were "Yes," and "I do not know."

Anybody who answered “No” to that question in, say, 1980 was wrong. They were as wrong about the scientific consensus on climate change as they would have been if they had said that the world was flat or that the Earth’s oceans consist almost entirely of methane.

However, even today, over 40% of Americans believe that the answer to the question of, "Is there a consensus in the scientific community on human greenhouse gas emissions and their contribution to global warming?" is "No." On this issue, over 40% of Americans are simply wrong. They hold a false belief. They are not only wrong about climate change, they are wrong about what scientists believe about climate change.

Of course, they were lead into this error by people who think nothing of lying for profit – lying to such a degree that they are willing to lay waste to whole nations for the sake of padding bank accounts that are already among the largest in the world.

I have no trouble comparing the Board of Directors of Exxon-Mobile to the Nazi Party in Germany in the 1930s with regard to the amount of global destruction they are willing to impose for their own profits. It does not matter that these executives do not believe that they are bad people – that they do not believe that they are doing harm. The members of the Nazi Party in Germany did not believe that they were bad people either. In fact, they considered themselves the most virtuous people in the world. It was "everybody else" – everybody who was trying to stop them – who were the bad people.

We can get some hint of where Oreskes is heading with these facts by a mention of her upcoming book that was discussed when she was introduced. It concerns the practice, perfected by the tobacco companies, of confusing the public on matters of science so that they can continue to make profits through actions that are exceptionally harmful to others.

Just as I have no trouble relating the Board of Directors of Exxon-Mobile to the Nazi Party of Germany, I have no trouble relating the leaders and employees of Phillip Morris and other tobacco companies to a global child sex ring. The future harm that a child will come to suffer as a result of being seduced into the world of tobacco is at least comparable to the future harm a child will suffer as a result of being seduced into the world of tobacco.

In doing so, they keep their activities legal and profitable by flooding the market with misinformation – with lies and deception that aim to fill the culture with mistaken beliefs about the real-world facts regarding the activities that they are engaged in.

Oreskes did not offer any solutions to the problem that she described.

One response to these facts (and others like them) that I would recommend begins with the recognition that they deal with a set of moral failings. This practice of doing great harm to children or other countries for the sake of personal benefit is something that no good person would do. The practice of sitting back and doing nothing, or of offering political support to such groups, is something that no good person would choose to do (except in extraordinary circumstances).

In other words, we are dealing with malleable desires where the moral tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment can be used to mold those desires in a new direction. We have many and good reasons to turn these tools against those who would promote ignorance for the sake of inflicting such harm on others. We should act on that good reason and turn those moral tool of condemnation against those like the leaders of Exxon-Mobile and Phillip Morris, and against the public officials and private citizens that support these groups.

One thing I want to add, as I have added in the past. If a society is an open society where people can speak freely and their opinion counts, it would not be legitimate to engage in private violence against those who would engage in these practices. Private violence is not called for except in a closed society where there is no form of legitimate protest or to bring about a peaceful change. However, words and private actions directed at these groups is certainly legitimate – and long past due.

8 comments:

anton said...

A great post, Alonzo, and it covers most of what is wrong in our world! Unfortunately, most of North Americans do not react to an injustice or a threat that is occurring in the next block if they can't perceive its effect "spreading" to them. Coupled with cognitive dissonance for those things that they, or their children, do or don't do, it is no wonder that we find ourselves with dilemmas on our horizon. Fault-filled faith that we are the good guys has meant that there are powerful opponents to "global warming" that the average citizen would rather listen to. As George W. said, "we will support any global effort as long as it does not threaten the US economy!. That was said last year before the US economy imploded. Now US America has been distracted by the need to get its financial house in order and could not give a damn what is happening to our planet!

Mark C. said...

"The future harm that a child will come to suffer as a result of being seduced into the world of tobacco is at least comparable to the future harm a child will suffer as a result of being seduced into the world of tobacco."

Just a little nitpick. Otherwise, another great post!

Katesickle said...

Whenever someone says there is a consensus among scientists, they are almost certainly wrong. Scientists don't ever completely agree--and the issue of global warming is no different. For example, the 'climate change' scientists were expecting in the 70's? An ice age. Not global warming.

Today the most outspoken scientists are the ones who supprt global warming (guess what? there's money in it). But there are those who disagree http://www.capmag.com/article.asp?ID=5370.

Usually I agree with just about everything you say, but this time I'm disappointed.

Hume's Ghost said...

Regarding the timeline of little known facts about the history of climate science, the following site is a fantastic resources, the best on the web as far as I know, about same:

The Discovery of Global Warming

Hume's Ghost said...

"For example, the 'climate change' scientists were expecting in the 70's? An ice age. Not global warming."

Common myth.

Eneasz said...

"Whenever someone says there is a consensus among scientists, they are almost certainly wrong. Scientists don't ever completely agree"

That's kind of an odd statement. No one is saying that a consensus means all scientists must completely agree. There are always outliers. Only that a vast majority agree very closely.

And there are plenty of things on which there is actually a strong consensus on. The age the of earth/universe, the workings of gravity (and all the four fundamental forces), the evolution of life, etc.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Katesickle

Your statement that, in the 1970s, scientists were expecting an ice age is false. The articles people use to support this claim are articles in news magazines - Time and Newsweek. These organizations aim to sell magazines and use sensational stories to do so. However, you will not find a single peer-reviewed scientific article that suggests a coming ice age. The peer reviewed science in the 1970s showed a consensus on global warming.

And . . . there is money in disagreeing as well. Exxon Mobile and a number of companies paid organizations to spread doubt about global-warming science because they saw a threat to their business. They hired public relations firms that are experts at promoting lies, who then found a small number of people willing to make claims contrary to the consensus (and you will always find some - no matter what the topic) and marketed their dissent.

But their arguments had no scientific merit. They were convincing to a public that lacks scientific understanding - but, when one wants a political victory and does not care who is harmed, this is good enough.

Hume's Ghost said...

"We can get some hint of where Oreskes is heading with these facts by a mention of her upcoming book that was discussed when she was introduced. It concerns the practice, perfected by the tobacco companies, of confusing the public on matters of science so that they can continue to make profits through actions that are exceptionally harmful to others."

David Michaels wrote an excellent book doing the same. It's called Doubt is Their Product and his website (the link I just gave) has links to the smoking gun documents revealing how the tobacco industry knew it was killing people but continued to attack the science they knew was legitimate.

Chris Mooney reviewed the book and found that the manipulation of science was even worse than he already thought it was:

Tobacco companies perfected the ruse, which was later copycatted by other polluting or health-endangering industries. One tobacco executive was even dumb enough to write it down in 1969. "Doubt is our product," reads the infamous memo, "since it is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy."

In his important new book, David Michaels calls the strategy "manufacturing uncertainty." A former Clinton administration Energy Department official and now associate chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University, Michaels is a comprehensive and thorough chronicler -- indeed, almost too thorough a chronicler, at times overwhelming the reader with information.

But there's a lot to be learned here. Even most of us who have gone swimming in the litigation-generated stew of tobacco documents (you can never get the stink off of you again) don't have a clue about the extent of the abuses. For the war on science described in Doubt is Their Product is so sweeping and fundamental as to make you question why we ever had the Enlightenment. There aren't just a few scientists for hire -- there are law firms, public-relations firms, think tanks, and entire product-defense companies that specialize in rejiggering epidemiological studies to make findings of endangerment to human health disappear.