What medicine and physics can teach environmentalism

A colleague of mine listened to a talk yesterday by a guy from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University on global warming. In a discussion with him this afternoon he pointed out a glaring problem with environmental science: it doesn’t know how to properly sell itself. And I mean that in an entirely scientific way. And let me also state, right from the start, that I have no doubt that global warming is real (it’s hard to refute the experiential evidence).

In particular, this guy who gave the talk mentioned that all the models suggest global temperatures will rise anywhere from 2.1 to 8.9 degrees in the coming half-century or so. This is taken to be conclusive evidence for global warming. The problem is that, as a physicist and mathematician, I look at that and immediately notice that the range including statistical error is larger than the sample itself! When my colleague pointed this out to the guy he was immediately vilified as a supporter of the current administration.

In a sense, then, these environmental scientists are doing the same thing that the disbelievers are doing – turning it into a black and white, “with me or against me” attitude, rather than shore up their own argument by responding to legitimate critical feedback.

Here’s where I think these people could learn a thing or two from medicine and physics. Look at an example from medicine. Studies have shown that chocolate can help reduce the chance of getting clogged arteries though the exact mechanism may not be known (actually it might, but I’m not sure). Nonetheless, when presented the doctors don’t say: “It’s an absolute fact! If you don’t believe me you’re an idiot!” What they say is: “Yeah, the studies definitely point to a correlation but we don’t know the exact mechanism yet. Nonetheless, it seems prudent to eat chocolate if you want to reduce the possibility of clogging your arteries.” Or something like that.

Why don’t environmental scientists argue this way? They’re clearly working with statistical correlations which certainly give very strong evidence about something, but do not always mark the be-all-end-all. They need to publicly admit that the full mechanism of what is going to happen due to global warming is not well understood yet. Present it like medical researchers do.

To that end, physicists (physics being the science of simplification), would (should or maybe even have) look for a way of simplifying the explanation for the public without diluting the reality of the problem. In particular, it’s pretty easy to show that increasing the parts-per-million count of CO2 in air will cause a given sample to heat up (you don’t even need sophisticated equipment to do it). Heck, astronomers have known for years what a runaway greenhouse effect will do on a scale the size of earth since it’s happened on Venus!

But no one ever argues these points. It ends up just being rhetorical politicizing which is very easily shot down – hence the fact that the debate still rages despite the fact that it should have ended long ago. And those of us who would like to see a more logical, thoughtful explanation that the public will actually buy into, are shot down as traitors even though we just as vehemently agree!


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