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Thursday, September 20, 2012

Do You Believe in Global Warming?

On September 16, 2012, “Arctic ice covered just 1.32 million square miles—the lowest extent ever recorded. ‘The loss of summer sea ice has led to unusual warming of the Arctic atmosphere, that in turn impacts weather patterns in the Northern Hemisphere, that can result in persistent extreme weather such as droughts, heat waves and flooding,’ NSIDC scientist Dr. Julienne Stroeve noted in a press release. ‘There's a huge gap between what is understood by the scientific community and what is known by the public,’ NASA scientist James Hansen said, adding that he believed, ‘unfortunately, that gap is not being closed.’ What the scientific community understands is that Arctic ice is melting at an accelerated rate -- and that humans play a role in these changes. According to the panel, humans are ‘really running out of time’ to prevent atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations from reaching levels that would precipitate runaway climate change. Hansen warned that even maintaining current concentrations of approximately 390 parts per million for several centuries ‘guarantees disaster.’”

                                                                                          Ice melting in Greenland.   NYT
The excerpt from the Huffington Post sounds like a promotion for a 1970s disaster movie like Earthquake or one of the later flicks in which a huge rock is headed directly for Earth. Rather than get carried away with sensationalistic accounts of what is likely to happen—such as what is now Miami becoming a series of islands next to a salt water bay that we now know as the Everglades, I want to make transparent the mentality that sustains the gulf between what the scientists know and the general public believes.
A few weeks ago, I received an email from a retired man who ironically lives in Southern Florida and yet does not believe in global warming. His attribution of belief struck me as odd. One might say, “I don’t believe in God,” or “I don’t believe it is going to rain today,” but people don’t usually say, “I don’t believe in math,” for example. That is to say, belief is not typically applied to fields of knowledge. In effect, the man was telling me that he did not respect the enterprise of science. I thought to myself, on what basis? In other words, the man presumes that  belief applies to knowledge or that science is mere opinion. That he doubtlessly did not have a background in science troubled me, for he had no basis to make the claims he was making. It seemed to me to be a case of ignorance that can’t be wrong. How can ignorance make such a claim? Anti-foundationalism knows no better example than the arrogance of ignorance that cannot be wrong.
So the ice keeps melting as our scientific community is relegated epistemologically into mere opinion or politics. The astounding implication is that we as a species do not have the luxury of such a mentality. Even the possibility of “guaranteeing disaster” suggests that we as a society or species cannot afford to ignore the scientific consensus even though science is not perfect. To be sure, science does not prove a hypothesis; rather, successive null hypotheses are rejected, giving us added confidence but not certainty that the remaining hypothesis is valid.
My general point is that where the survival of our species is flagged, we have an obligation to err on the side of what the scientists are telling us, rather than dismissing their findings as self-interested ideology to further some cause. Ironically, it is opinionated ideology that presumes to discredit science without having sufficient scholarly credentials in it. Put another way, the democratizing of science such that anyone believes one has a sufficient basis to reject it as mere opinion takes the little bundles of subjectivity too far. I see this also when people proclaim themselves to be professionals.
Recently I ran through the criteria from the Journal of Professional and Business Ethics on what constitutes a professional (e.g., lawyer, physician, CPA) with someone who told me that as a school teacher he is a professional. He presumed to reject any criterion that did not go along with his view of himself as a professional. I pointed out that I had read of a guy who gives massages for a living representing himself as a professional, and therefore that there is no limit if everyone gets to ignore the criteria and proclaim oneself a professional. It is the self-proclaiming as a sort of given fiat that is so problematic in this case as well as in the case of scientific evidence of the warming of the planet’s atmosphere and oceans. Besides the arrogance, the failure of ignorance to know and correct itself can easily lead to a shipwreck of sorts. “There really isn’t a giant rock out there heading toward Earth.” Meanwhile, the asteroid comes closer and closer. It doesn't care in the least whether we believe in it or not.
What I am getting at here is the following: might it be that an inherent weakness in human nature is our own worst enemy?  Whereas there is no harm in someone ignoring the definition of “professional” and inventing his own (or that of society), ignoring the scientific evidence that the Earth is warming can literally be dangerous. Even if the pollution has not contributed to the warming, efforts to reduce CO2 concentrations could offset the warming at least in part. The issue is not one of blame, but of the survival of our species. Scoring ideological or partisan points is in my view not worth putting that in jeopardy. If we do go down, I submit that besides greed and selfishness, the presumed entitlements of human ignorance—something hardwired into human nature—are to blame. Lest it be supposed that the culprit is of an epistemological or intellectual nature, I submit that it is based in what Augustine called the sin of pride. That is to say, it is self-idolatry that may bring our species down. Holding ourselves as the ultimate authority on whatever we happen to think we know or believe, we essentially expunge our own species. Flying so high to the sun as a god, a human being is bound to fall to the ground in a fiery mass of self-conceit that takes itself to be a falling star.


Joanna Zelman and James Gerken, “Arctic Sea Ice Levels Hit Record Low, Scientists Say We’re ‘Running Out Of Time,” The Huffington Post, September 19, 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/19/arctic-sea-ice-loss-record-low_n_1897602.html