I’m a non-scientist. My Ph.D. (1968) was earned in factors of human personality, illness, evaluation, treatment, learning, intelligence, emotion, and psychotherapy. As a research degree, learning the research findings of others was augmented with training in conducting scientific studies myself. The science part of the training dealt with experimental design, statistical analysis, and the scientific method in general. I’ve been away from that life, however, for several decades, so I cannot now honestly claim expertise in either psychotherapy or research. That is why, for purposes of this post, I am a non-scientist. The most I can claim is an aptitude for the scientific method and an inclination to apply it when stymied by an epistemological quandary.
Even as a fresh Ph.D., however, I was not expert in meteorology or global climate, just as climate scientists know no more than the average person about measurement and treatment of hostility. Each would call for a great deal of background knowledge of the field. A few hundred years ago a single polymath might be acquainted with most of the world’s knowledge. Not only does one person now know more and more about less and less, polymath is a word virtually never used. So while the human race has become massively informed, a single human can be expert in only a tiny portion of that knowledge. That is why I cannot rely on my science background to understand and interpret studies and theories of global climate change.
So what do I have to suggest to others about their approach to the sensitive and critical matter of global climate change? I assume any intelligent person knows the simple parts. For example, climate and weather are not synonymous, and climate in world history has gone through massive changes, and is affected by a many influences. As the population of humans has increased enough to affect it, even human action exert an impact. (A world population of one million would likely have had no discernable effect.) We also know that human beings tend to react to large events in less than intelligent ways, like running from a bear. Life has evolved a long way from cyanobacteria about four billion years ago, and it has—that is, we have—achieved spectacular feats like space probes beyond our star system, radiometric dating, and organ replacement. But when confronted with alarming changes in the chemistry of our home planet, we retreat largely into denial.
Worse, the specter of global climate change sets us against each other, for political strife is a more familiar phenomenon than loss of polar ice, sea level rise, agricultural shifts, and a cascade of other unfamiliar effects. We become baffled whether to deny the changes, to blame them on our nemeses, or to retreat into our various religious comforts . . . reactions as predictable as they are futile, so inevitable that we attribute them all to “human nature” as, of course, they are.
When America sought an extreme weapon, we learned from Meitner and others of massive energy retrievable from subatomic forces too small to imagine, much less be seen. When humans sought alleviation from disease, we turned to biochemistry and germ theory. When we sought long distance transportation, we considered Bernoulli and fluid dynamics. When we sought far-flung communication, asked Maxwell and Marconi. In other words, though scientific pursuits and revelations have had a few hiccups along the way, the scientific method has proved the most powerful investigative tool we have to understand ourselves as well as our universe. But there are still human failings that complicate the process.
When the challenge is overwhelmingly deadly, when it requires us to dispense with our political small mindedness, when it calls for putting aside international hegemonic jockeying, when it entails understanding or at least trusting the most powerful tools we have, we foolishly make both the methods and the possible solutions of science into a political issue. Whether there is anthropogenic global warming and, if so, what drives it, and what might impede it are neither political nor religious questions. They are questions of facts—not alternative facts, not wishes, not hoaxes, but scientifically verifiable truth.
With the possible exception of nuclear winter, the matter of global warming is more perilous for human existence than previous dangers we have faced. Clearly, the need to appreciate the matter and to mobilize whatever genius we can bring to bear confronts us as a species. But the simple division of labor in doing that seems so far to have escaped vast portions of our bodies politic, from citizens with only rudimentary grasp of world climate to political leaders blind to the existential gravity of planetary warming.
- Human effects on global climate are phenomena to which we must bring our most powerful tool, science . . . . not feelings, not politics, not uninformed opinions. In this endeavor, I am (and almost certainly you are as well) unqualified to help.
- Humanity’s development of actions to forestall catastrophe is a challenge to both science and technology . . . . not feelings, not politics, not uninformed opinions. In this endeavor, I am (and likely you are as well) unqualified to help.
- Whether counteractions are worth their cost is a political question; science and technology are not helpful in this endeavor. How much of what sort of sacrifice is acceptable to alleviate how much of what sort of solution? I am, you are, and the rest of humanity are the only sources of legitimate consideration and input.
In other words, the values, feelings, and opinions of our human population are relevant to the third point, but seeking them regarding the first two is sheer foolishness, if not deadly stupidity.