Do you believe in Climate Change?

By Michael Edmonds 02/01/2014

A while ago I was chastised by a reader of the NZ Skeptic for making the following statement in the magazine.

“I believe there is more than enough evidence to accept that human actions are playing a significant role in climate change.”

In using the word “believe” I was told that this was “faith not science.”

My critic is probably right, but not in the way he thinks.

Most of us like to think we are rational, using facts to make sense of the world. However, the complexity of climate change science means that very few of us are capable of fully understanding it, let alone assessing the raw data. Instead we rely on secondary and tertiary sources of information – the interpretations and reinterpretations of others.

In effect, our opinions on climate change are largely dependent on who we choose to believe.

And who and what we tend to believe will be guided by our underlying values and (political) ideologies.

In an ideal world we could rely solely on scientific facts to decide one way or the other, but the complexity of climate change means each fact only contributes a small piece to the puzzle, and there are now so many contradictory “facts” in circulation, particularly on the internet, it is easy to pick and choose those which fit your argument.

What (facts) we choose to believe depends on who we believe.

Of course we can apply (what we believe is) a rational approach to assessing the data. As someone with liberal values, a scientific background and trust in the scientific community as a whole, I have more confidence in peer reviewed scientific articles. I also put my “faith” in the fact that the vast majority of climate change scientists are convinced that climate change is occurring and is largely the result of human action.

I rely on science to inform my view, but when it comes down to it my opinion on climate change relies on who I choose to believe.

0 Responses to “Do you believe in Climate Change?”

  • For me there is much more to belief than “who we choose to believe in.” Indeed, “who” comes low on the list. We assess whether the theory is internally consistent and how well it fits all the available data. Science provides a methodology for that within the range of theories explorable by science. In law, philosophy, religion we still look to internal consistency and fit to data.
    As for your skeptic friend, I’d have answered something along the lines of “Do you really believe belief is about faith not science?”

    • Thanks for your comments, John.
      When it comes to climate change my impression is that most people don’t go back to the science papers but develop their views from secondary articles, which may contain distorted facts.
      Your comments about internal consistency is a good point and I think this combined with using good sources and not cherry picking data probably optimises the chance of making developing some sensible views about climate change.

  • “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”
    ― Richard P. Feynman

    “I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of uncertainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here. I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell.”
    ― Richard P. Feynman

    “So my antagonist said, “Is it impossible that there are flying saucers? Can you prove that it’s impossible?” “No”, I said, “I can’t prove it’s impossible. It’s just very unlikely”. At that he said, “You are very unscientific. If you can’t prove it impossible then how can you say that it’s unlikely?” But that is the way that is scientific. It is scientific only to say what is more likely and what less likely, and not to be proving all the time the possible and impossible.”
    ― Richard P. Feynman

    “In physics the truth is rarely perfectly clear, and that is certainly universally the case in human affairs. Hence, what is not surrounded by uncertainty cannot be the truth.”
    ― Richard P. Feynman

    He had a pretty good handle on Life in general!

  • Heh. Of course I had to find one that beat the lot! Same guy!!

    “The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty, and this experience is of very great importance, I think. When a scientist doesn’t know the answer to a problem, he is ignorant. When he has a hunch as to what the result is, he is uncertain. And when he is pretty damn sure of what the result is going to be, he is still in some doubt. We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress, we must recognize our ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty — some most unsure, some nearly sure, but none absolutely certain. Now, we scientists are used to this, and we take it for granted that it is perfectly consistent to be unsure, that it is possible to live and not know. But I don’t know whether everyone realizes this is true. Our freedom to doubt was born out of a struggle against authority in the early days of science. It was a very deep and strong struggle: permit us to question — to doubt — to not be sure. I think that it is important that we do not forget this struggle and thus perhaps lose what we have gained.”
    ― Richard P. Feynman