The debate over the causes and consequences of climate change is one of the world’s most important discussions. At stake are literally trillions of dollars, millions of jobs, and, if climate activists are right, the fate of the environment and even our civilization.
Consequently, we need to think clearly about what is being said by all parties in the discussion.For example, the belief that scientists discover truths, or as the United Nations often puts it, conclusions that are “unequivocal,” is utter nonsense. It is not even possible. In the controversy about the now defunct California Climate Science Truth and Accountability Act of 2016 virtually no one on either side of the debate explained that science is never about truth. Truth applies to mathematics but never to our findings about nature, which are merely educated opinions based on scientists’ interpretations of observations. Since observations always have some degree of uncertainty, they cannot prove anything true.
This was the central theme of the ‘science wars’ of the late 20th century. In that conflict the intellectual left were the skeptics of the idea that we could have absolute knowledge in science.
But this expected approach— skepticism and relativism from liberals and absolutism from conservatives—has been turned on its head in the global warming debate. While right-wingers call for open debate about the causes of climate change, the Left consider such discussion intolerable, even criminal, and act as if we know the future of climate decades in advance, a position that is indefensible, scientifically and philosophically.
At first, it was mostly scientifically illiterate activists who made claims to certainty about future climate states. But increasingly, more scientists now use inappropriately absolute language as well, or say little about the vast uncertainties in the science. They apparently fear alienating their intellectual fellow travelers, peers who, even if they are unfamiliar with the science, support the climate movement for other reasons.
Other left-wing academics who understand the illogic of confident assertions about such a complex and rapidly evolving field also say nothing rather than undermine positions that they support personally, ideals such as social justice and environmental protection. So they sell out philosophically, declining to employ the skepticism they would normally practice.
This is a slippery slope.
Unquestioning acceptance of ‘truth’ in science—truth in the sense of being universal, necessary and certain—has impeded human progress throughout history. For example, when the Greco-Egyptian writer Claudius Ptolemy proposed his Earth-centered system, he did not say it was physical astronomy, a true description of how the universe actually worked. He promoted it as mathematical astronomy, a model that worked well for astrology, astronomical observations, and creating calendars.
It was the ultra-conservative Catholic Church that, relying on a literal interpretation of the Bible, promoted the Ptolemaic system as truth to be questioned at one’s peril. This was why Nicolaus Copernicus, a Canon in the Church, waited until he was on his death bed before he allowed his revolutionary book showing the Sun to be the center of the universe to be published, even though the text was completed 30 years earlier. This is also why Galileo ran into so much trouble when he claimed that the Church was wrong and that Copernicanism was the truth, a position that Galileo could not really know with certainty either.
Similarly, the assumed, unquestionable truth of Isaac Newton’s laws of motion and law of universal gravitation eventually acted to slow the advancement of science until Einstein showed that there were important exceptions to the laws. When authorities preach truth about science, progress stops.
The greatest misinformation in the climate change debate is that we currently know, or even can know, the future of a natural phenomenon as complex as climate change. University of Western Ontario professor Dr. Chris Essex, an expert in climate models, lays it out clearly: “Climate is one of the most challenging open problems in modern science. Some knowledgeable scientists believe that the climate problem can never be solved.”
Yet progressives often label Essex and other climate experts who hold similar points of view as ‘deniers,’ implying they are as misguided as those who deny the Holocaust. When it comes to climate change, tolerance of alternative perspectives, a much vaunted hallmark of liberalism, vanishes. They should welcome, not condemn, questioning of the status quo. Science advances through fearless investigation, not frightened acquiescence to fashionable thinking.
Albert Einstein once said, “Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of truth and knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.” It might be humorous to the gods, but when eco-activists succeed in convincing elected officials to try to criminalize free speech and open scientific enquiry, everyone—left, right and center—must object vigorously.
Totalitarianism, not freedom, dominated most of human history. It will dominate our future too if we let eco-extremists have their way.
Tom Harris is executive director of the Ottawa, Canada-based International Climate Science Coalition (www.ClimateScienceInternational.org).