It’s an odd little misunderstanding, just a minor difference in the way of looking at the world, but it has played a disproportionately huge part in making seven billion people content to allow a few energy companies turn off the world’s support systems and let them all die.
So, what is it, this misunderstanding that has the people who know what’s happening talking past the people who need to know what’s happening? Well it is just a different use of words like certainty and probability – a scientific use and a common use.
The general public thinks that things for which they have little or no evidence, just anecdote or faith, are certainties. Scientists think that nothing is certain, that all we have is the probability that something is true based on amount of evidence.
The public will use all kinds of language based on nothing but gut feeling and personal ideology to express their belief that something is true “exactly right” “certainly true” “absolutely no doubt” “no doubt” “probably” “possibly” “don’t think so” “nah, don’t believe that” “c’mon, pull the other one, that one has bells on it”.
Scientists, recognising that the presence or absence of bells is a bit hard to define precisely have by contrast developed an exact measurement for the likelihood of truth based on assessment of number of observations. It is a mathematical concept in which you can approach (by repeating an experiment over and over) more and more closely to 100% certainty but never quite reach it. For practical purposes though a probability somewhere in the 90% plus level is thought of as being a pretty sure thing (although it depends on the discipline and particular kind of experiment, physics for example demands much higher certainty than, say, the social sciences).
As well as the mathematical component though, the idea of scientific probability represents the scientific mindset – no result can be certain because the very next experiment may overturn it in whole or in part. If a writer is only as good as his last novel, then a scientific theory is, in a sense, only as good as its last experiment.
For the public though lots of things are certain, have to be otherwise you wouldn’t get up in the morning. These certainties are based on religion, ideology, common sense, authority, repetitive observations. Sun rises in East, there is a “god” or two, capitalism is the end of history, some people have psychic powers, the Liberal Party is there for the battlers, vitamin C cures colds. Then there are uncertainties where the outcome is merely probable – will my football team win next week, am I having a drink with friends on Friday night, are UFOs real, can acupuncture cure cancer, is Kevin Rudd challenging for leadership or is it a media invention.
So, the stage is set. When scientists are asked about climate change in general or particular aspects of it, they reply, as good scientists do “well there is a high probability that X is the case”. When asked “are you certain?” they reply “well, no nothing in science is ‘certain’”. They mean by this that certainty can never, mathematically, reach 100%, and they are obliged to repeat this fundamental tenet of science endlessly, thinking to themselves “well, of course there is no such thing as 100% certainty in science, don’t these idiots know anything?” Or they formalise this the way the IPCC does, saying that the chances of Y event happening in Z time have a probability of “90%” or “95%”.
Now in both cases the scientists are also thinking, and assuming the listeners are familiar with the concept, that for all practical purposes the projected outcome is certain. Will almost certainly in fact (because the scientists are sick of being called alarmist) be much more likely than the probability being quoted which will have been deliberately set on the low side.
The scientist leans back and relaxes at this point, happy in the conviction that he has merely restated the bleeding obvious about the scientific method and that everyone will totally understand what he means – and get on with saving the planet which he knows with absolute certainty is under its greatest threat in millions of years.
The listener or reader however, Joe Public, hears something quite different. They hear that things aren’t certain, just probable, and they interpret the “probable” as their own version of that prediction. Climate change becomes, in their own minds, no more likely than, say, the reality of UFOs. And you wouldn’t want to spend billions of dollars defending against UFOs now, would you.
This continues on to the details. Is this particular massive storm; record-breaking drought; record high temperature; record flood, the result of climate change? “Oh, we couldn’t say that with certainty”, says the scientist. Joe Public hears this as “No”.
Now while the scientists are maintaining scientific purity on the questions of certainty and probability, there are people, with vested interests in the short-term outcome (we all have a vested interest in the long term outcome, but most of us don’t know that), who have absolutely no scruples in pretending that scientific “uncertainty” is real uncertainty and therefore no one would want to do anything when everything is uncertain. So they add in bits and pieces of questions and comments on the siting of thermometers, melting of glaciers, troposphere temperatures, mediaeval warming periods, the north west passage, deep sea temperatures, climate sensitivity, snowfall in Chicago, cosmic rays and the like. None of them mean anything much in themselves, none of them have the slightest relevance in general to the overall pattern of rising CO2 levels causing global warming and consequent climate change.
The scientific community, realising (in some cases very belatedly) the con trick being played on them and on the community at large, and seeing the consequent failure of politicians to take any meaningful action to pull back on CO2 production, have at last begun to fight back a little. Oh they still talk about uncertainty and probability, but a few brave souls have begun to say “the science is settled”.
To see what they mean by this it is worth exploring an analogy. The theory that explains how evolution occurs (involving variation, natural selection, and geographic isolation) was extensively debated in the years after 1859 (when it had been simultaneously proposed by Darwin and Wallace after they arrived at it from different data). Some scientists (like Thomas Huxley “why didn’t I think of that”) instantly recognised its validity. Others were more cautious, looking for contradictions, wondering about mechanisms for the variation (in the years before either genes or DNA were discovered), debating the religious implications and so on. But over the next few decades the science became settled. That is the truth of the theory was clear, and now research was mopping up the details (again genes and DNA in particular) relating to the exact mechanisms. And also investigating both the comparisons and relationships between living species and their fossil records with new eyes that greatly fleshed out the actual path that the evolution of living organisms had taken on this planet.
The science of evolution is settled. There remain arguments over details of particular evolutionary sequences, whether there are other speciation mechanisms apart from the dominant allopatric one, exactly how genes interact during development and so on. But the science is settled and forms the basis, directly or indirectly, of all the sciences to do with life on the planet, and conversely is supported by all the other sciences (notably geology, chemistry, physics). Oh there are one or two scientists, brains addled by religion, who purport to believe that there is evidence for god in bacterial flagellae. But their argument (that some feature is too complex to have evolved) was one that Darwin was familiar with, and has been demolished thousands of times in the subsequent 150 years. It is amazing how otherwise apparently smart people can have their brains addled by religion.
In exactly the same way the science of climate change is settled. The fundamental elements (Milankovitch cycles, greenhouse gases, sun activity, geography) have been known for decades (in the case of greenhouse gas not much less than evolution). The science forms the basis for all the other sciences to do with the surface and atmosphere of this planet, and in turn is supported by all the other relevant sciences. Scientists argue over details of exact time frames, precisely how some mechanisms interact, likely impacts on ecology, historical sequences, and so on, but none of that has any effect on the fundamental science. Oh there are one or two scientists, brains addled by libertarian and neocon ideology, who purport to believe that climate sensitivity is a bit lower, or that clouds are going to roll in to our rescue, or that there is nothing new in the astonishing warming of the planet over the last 3 decades, but their arguments have been demolished thousands of times. Amazing how otherwise apparently smart people can have their brains addled by libertarian and neoconservative nonsense.
Look I am a scientist, OK? I understand the need to maintain the fundamental core of the scientific process, that nothing is ever 100% certain. I get that, ok? And I know that scientists are naturally shy and reticent (me too) and reluctant to involve themselves in public slanging matches and political debates, wanting to remain pure and above all that. But listen, this is the time for all good men and women to come to the aid of the planet. Cast aside your Clark Kent clothes in a handy phone box. Start speaking out. There will be death threats. The last thing the ideologues and the energy companies want is for scientists to discover they have a voice – they have already been trying to discredit science as a whole in case you ever did start to speak out, but you are still just in time if you hurry. Make it clear that the science is, sadly, settled, the data in, the planet in really big trouble. You wouldn’t say “oh, nothing certain about evolution” so don’t do it about climate change. Whatever the fine details that remain to be sorted it is absolutely irrefutable that adding more and more CO to the atmosphere is warming the planet rapidly, changing the climate, buggering up the ecology, causing damaging weather events, and it is going to get so bad that we are, not to put too fine a point on it, stuffed as a species. Nothing more certain.