From John Ray's shorter notes
March 23, 2019
Climate science requires acceptance, not belief or full understanding: Climate change is like gravity, only accessible to lay-people at the top levels (?)
An amusing article below by Michael Barnard off the pseudo-intellectual "Medium" site. He is badly in need of a bit of philosophical sophistication. A reading of Erich Fromm on authority might generate some thought in him.
He says that you need to accept authority to accept global warming. I sort of agree with that. It is only blind trust in authority that is behind most global warming belief as far as I can see.
What he is doing is overlooking Erich Fromm's distinction between rational and irrational authority. In Fromm's terms, Leftism is a case of irrational authority. Leftists want to impose their will on us "by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon", as Friedrich Engels put it. It is authority exercised by fear and pressure on the basis of emotional submission. It is the authority of blind obedience.
But there is another kind of authority, rational authority, by which we mean any authority which is based on competence and knowledge, which permits criticism, which by its very nature tends to diminish, but which is not based on the emotional factors of submission and masochism, but on the realistic recognition of the competence of the person for a certain job.
So Barnard claims that global warmists are rational authorities and should therefore be believed. But they are not. They behave just like irrational authorities, trying to shut up dissent and getting anyone fired who disagrees with them and refusing debate with knowledgeable opponents. They do NOT permit criticism. They expect submission only.
And their claim to competence and knowledge is totally deficient. They have made numerous prophecies over the years and none have come true. The Arctic is supposed to be ice free by now, English children are not supposed to know what snow is by now etc.
Far from being rational authorities, Warmists are false prophets
There’s a problematic question in journalism and science communication. Various people are asking journalists to stop asking politicians whether they “believe in climate change” and to start asking whether they understand it.
The problem is that outside of the odd politician who was actually a climate scientist, the vast majority of people can’t claim to understand climate change or global warming with any degree of sincerity or completeness. At best, the average layperson or even well-educated layperson will have a superficial understanding of anything beyond the basics.
Let’s take an analogy that might be useful. Do you understand gravity, or just believe in it? Let’s test this out.
Lowest level of understanding
Can you perform an experiment that demonstrates gravity’s existence? Yes, anyone can drop something.
Moderate level of understanding
Can you perform an experiment that quantifies gravitational pull? Yes, drop a ball from two meters and time it until it hits the ground. Some simple math gives you ~9.8 meters per second squared. That math is beyond some people. It was beyond everyone until Newton.
Can you perform an experiment which assesses the impact of other forces to isolate gravitational pull? Yes, drop a ball and a feather from two meters and time them. The ball hits first telling you that air resistance slows down the feather more than the ball. Then you can isolate the impact of air resistance on the ball and refine the estimation of the acceleration due to gravity.
High level of understanding
Can you generalize the effect to any two large objects? That requires an understanding of how far gravity reaches and how it changes with distance. It’s very doable, but this was beyond everyone for a long time. It’s beyond most people today.
Can you perform an experiment to determine whether gravity stays the same regardless of distance? Sure, you could perform the ball dropping experiment at sea level and at the top of a mountain. But you would have to account for the squished ball shape of the earth and the various places where there’s a bit more mass leading to a bit more gravity. And then you’d have to account for the variance in air resistance between sea level and 3 or 4 kilometres up. It’s very doable, but the variance is still tiny. Most people couldn’t perform the experiment with sufficient rigour, deal with the confounding factors, or do the math.
Could you calculate the trajectory of asteroids based on gravity? Well, we can observe the orbital periods of the moon, the sun, and the earth. We can start figuring out from there and a whack of observations their masses. We can figure out from our experiments how rapidly gravitational forces fall off. But most people couldn’t calculate the orbital mechanics of anything even with all of the data and formulas provided.
But the GPS in people’s cell phones works regardless of them being able to do the math, which explains why the GPS satellite doesn’t fall out of the sky. And planes fly regardless of whether the passenger in them can explain how the force of gravity is being counteracted.
This is a lengthy way of saying that something which everyone can interact with directly by dropping something becomes so increasingly arcane that even very smart and educated people end up in situations where they just accept the science. In other words, where they assert belief, not understanding.
This does turn into an appeal to authority, but not the logical fallacy of appeal to false authority. That’s a rhetorical trick played by ‘skeptics’. They claim that any appeal to authority is a logical fallacy, when it’s actually only referencing the statements of the unqualified that is the logical fallacy.
What does this have to do with climate change?
The vast majority of people have never seen any evidence of climate change; they just see weather. They haven’t looked at historical temperature records for the globe and crunched the numbers. They haven’t compared surface to satellite temperature data. They haven’t personally gone to multiple glaciers every year for 30 years to compare their rates of disappearance. They haven’t looked at 20,000 year old ice cores to assess CO2 isotopes. They haven’t leveraged existing and proven climate models to assess specific impacts. They haven’t amassed data on weather events and done statistical analysis that would show the impacts of climate change or not.
At best, some people see that spring is earlier than in their childhood, but most people would probably question their memories rather than the seasons.
Climate change is diffuse. Climate change is happening incredibly quickly by geological standards, but incredibly slowly by human standards. We can’t easily see it.
Most of climate science is beyond most people. For the majority of people, they just accept that, like GPS, the scientists are right. They accept the authority of peer-reviewed science, the scientific consensus, and the reports of the IPCC. They believe it to be true.
Most people don’t understand climate change at more than the simplest of levels, and even then they aren’t able to define and perform experiments which could assess it.
Climate change skeptics and deniers look at this and their brains melt and run out of their ears. They accept that GPS works, that planes fly, and that people have walked on the moon, stuff that they have a pretty equal lack of understanding of. But then they turn around and reject the science of climate change, something that they understand just as poorly.
They will happily point to inexpert experts such as Nobel Laureates in solid-state electronics who are skeptical about global warming, but will claim that citing the IPCC and actual climate scientists is the logical fallacy of appeal to false authority. In other words, they are guilty of the thing that they claim you are guilty of (a familiar pattern).
So what do we do?
Well, don’t demand that people understand it all and don’t ask that they believe in it, just ask that they accept the science as they accept GPS or gravity.
Or reframe the problem entirely and talk about pollution or sensible risk policies or health. As the major political groups which are skeptical about climate change are conservative, and conservatives dominate the ranks of skeptics, it’s worth looking at this guidance on how to talk to conservatives about the subject.
Personally, I don’t argue with skeptics or deniers about the basics of global warming and climate change. It’s not that I haven’t read through a ton of the evidence and can counter most of their arguments, or that I don’t have online resources such as Skeptical Science to find the refutations quickly. It’s just a futile exercise. In a complex space, there is a tremendous amount of scope for Gish Galloping and whataboutism, two annoying debating tactics commonly used by skeptics. I’d rather spend my time on advancing solutions and I’m not the right person to convince most skeptics to shift their views. I’m more focused on solutions.
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