In the last decade, scientists made amazing discoveries. For example, scientists managed to photograph a black hole, which is the remnant of a star that has collapsed upon itself (a supernova) creating a region of space with such a strong gravitational field that even light can’t get out. Scientists also managed to detect gravitational waves, which are the ripples that form in the fabric of spacetime when cataclysmic events happen such as the collision of two black holes. Another discovery was the finding of the Higgs Boson, a subatomic particle associated with a proposed universal quantum field that interacts with other particles generating their masses. Finally, space probes sent to the planets made exciting discoveries regarding these worlds such as the way Saturn’s rings are formed (Cassini Spacecraft), the presence of water in Mars in the past (Curiosity Rover) and present (Mars Express spacecraft), or the surprising geological activity found in Pluto (New Horizons Probe).
These are exciting discoveries that stimulate our imagination and sense of wonder and advance the frontiers of our knowledge of the universe.
But wait a minute. How do you know these things are true?
What if these scientists are lying? What if they are faking data and misleading the public? Why would they do this? Well, they could be doing this to keep getting their grants approved by funding agencies, or they may have sold out to the companies that make their multimillion-dollar equipment. How do you know this is not happening? Are you an expert in astronomy, space crafts, or physics? How do you know if the data are true? How do you know these individuals are not hiding their dishonesty behind a wall of technical mumbo jumbo and made up findings? How do you know there is not a conspiracy of dishonest astronomers, spacecraft experts, and physicists to mislead taxpayers and take their money?
You would probably reply that you believe that the majority of the individuals involved in these studies are persons like you or me who strive to be honest and are genuinely interested in figuring out the truth about things. You would also expect scientists with competing views to double-check the experiments and observations of each other. Additionally, you would expect funding agencies to have mechanisms in place for reviewing the granting of funds, the results of studies, and the claims by any whistleblower regarding the mismanagement of funds or faking of any data. Finally, you would hope that any of a number of government and agency watchdog groups would notice if something strange was going on.
And yes, all of the above are indeed the case. We acknowledge that there will be some dishonest individual or groups of individuals that will abuse the system, but we expect all the above safeguards will work to eventually weed them out. We also rely on these safeguards to rule out the existence of any Machiavellian conspiracy.
But in any case, truth be told, if you are an average person, all the questions I asked and all the notions I put forward above are probably nothing more to you than a theoretical mental exercise. For you, things like black holes, gravitational waves, subatomic particles, and planets may be interesting, but they are not something that really concerns you that much or affects your everyday life.
But here is my point.
There are thousands of scientists who, much like the astronomers, spacecraft experts, and physicists alluded to above, are also finding out some amazing things in other fields of science. Climate scientists are finding that the Earth is warming due to human activities, and that unless we reduce our consumption of fossil fuels and implement green technologies, we are going to do great damage to our planet. Vaccine scientists are coming up with new vaccines against terrible diseases, and alerting us about the dangers of not vaccinating our children. Evolution scientists are applying the tenets of evolution to come up with useful applications that benefit our society, and warning us about the dangers of the scientific illiteracy that would be created if creationism were to be accepted and taught in schools.
However, unlike things in space or in the realm of subatomic particles, climate change, vaccines, and evolution affect people directly. They are told they HAVE to use less fossil fuels and more green technologies. They are told they HAVE to vaccinate their children. Their children ARE taught in school that something that goes against their faith is true.
And what a difference this makes to some people!
All those scientists who were “persons like you or me who strive to be honest and are genuinely interested in figuring out the truth about things” are now deluded, evil liars and cheats, or atheists. All those safeguards that supposedly keep science and scientists true and honest have failed in these fields, and all the science in the climate, vaccine, and evolution disciplines has become part of nefarious conspiracies to fake or misrepresent data, get money, cause harm, take away our liberties, destroy religion, or spread socialism!
However, astronomers, space craft experts, and physicists are not different from climate, vaccine, and evolution scientists in that they all follow the scientific method to find the truth about the behavior of matter and energy in their fields of expertise. These people uncover the way our world and the universe works, and then they report it. All scientists do this. Why demonize and delegitimize some and not others? The answer is, as mentioned above, because what some scientists find in some fields challenges our behavior or our beliefs.
This is one of the things about science that some people cannot deal with. Science is not just about generating pretty pictures and interesting experiments for show. The purpose of science is to discover reality. And in doing so, science may reveal that what you are doing is harmful to yourself, society, or nature. Science may also reveal that some of your most deeply held beliefs and convictions are not true. While many people welcome these discoveries and change their behavior or beliefs, others have a lot of problems in dealing with this and will understandably lash out at science and scientists. But that’s the way science works. Reality cannot be compromised.
The Image of the Black Hole of the Galaxy M87 by the Event Horizon Telescope is free for public use.
The Global Average Temperature graph by NASA is in the public domain.
This blog is supposed to be a science blog, so I try to keep it non-political. Science is the best method we have to discover the truth about the behavior of matter and energy in the world around us. Furthermore, science makes it possible for human beings of very different religious, philosophical, and social persuasions to come to an agreement on issues pertaining to the natural world. In order to keep this capacity, science should not intrude into those areas that are not of its competence such as values, morals, ethics, religion, political views, etc. However, this is a two-way street. Politics, religion, and other disciplines of human thought should not intrude into the scientific realm and thwart the scientific quest for truth. So what are scientists to do when this happens?
Hurricane forecasting is a difficult scientific discipline. There are many variables involved in predicting the path of hurricanes, and many of these variables are not yet known or even understood well enough to make long-term predictions. These limitations are well known and are woven into our current hurricane forecasting system. Citizens are always informed of the likelihood that a hurricane will affect certain areas and to what extent to the best of the abilities of the scientists and the effectiveness of the technology at their disposal. However, it is imperative to understand that the prediction of the path of a hurricane can sometimes change from one day to another.
Political personalities or celebrities that are followed closely by millions of people can play an important potential role in the preparedness against an impending hurricane. These individuals can raise awareness quickly about the need for people to protect themselves and what they have to do. However, for this potential to be realized there needs to be close cooperation with weather scientists as well as reliance on the most up to date forecasts. This brings us to hurricane Dorian and President Trump’s tweet. The facts of this SNAFU are well known and you can read about them in several media outlets, so I will just gloss over the most salient aspects.
On September 1 close to 11 AM Mr. Trump, tweeted that the state of Alabama would be among the states most “likely hit (much) harder than anticipated” by hurricane Dorian. It seems that Mr. Trump was basing his tweet on dated information from 5 PM on August 30 that included the possibility that within 5 days large areas of Alabama would have a 5-30% chance of experiencing sustained winds of 34 knots (39 mph), and the southeastern corner of the state would have a 5-10% possibility of receiving winds of 50 knots (58 mph). According to the Beaufort Wind Scale, a wind speed of 34 knots is the wind speed that will break twigs and small branches from trees and make walking difficult, whereas a wind speed of 50 knots can break or uproot trees and cause considerable building damage. However, by the time of Trump’s tweet, the predicted path of the hurricane had moved eastward and now only the southeastern corner of Alabama stood a 5-10% chance of experiencing sustained winds of 34 knots within 5 days. The inclusion of Alabama in Trump’s tweet and the language he used alarmed many people who read it or heard about it, and they started frantically calling the office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Birmingham, Alabama, which issued a tweet contradicting the president’s assertion.
Over the course of the next few days, Mr. Trump defended his tweet with several pieces of evidence. One was an actual NOAA weather map that had been altered with a line drawn over Alabama. Another was one of the so called “spaghetti plots” that displayed a few potential hurricane tracks over Alabama. However, these devices are not weather forecasts. They are very preliminary and inaccurate plots that scientists use to make the cone plots of probability for forecasting the hurricane’s path. It seems that Mr. Trump did not know this.
The most serious thing that happened was that NOAA’s management sent an agency-wide communication to all its weather service personnel telling them to “only stick with official National Hurricane Center forecasts if questions arise from some national level social media posts which hit the news this afternoon” and not to “provide any opinion.” This was widely interpreted by both present and former employees of NOAA as pressure from the higher ups not to contradict the president and received widespread condemnation. At the time of writing this blog, the latest reporting on the matter indicates that the president himself directed his staff to pressure NOAA’s management to disavow the Birmingham office, which the president denies. (Update)
I want to state the following regarding this issue. Both the president and NOAA have the duty to serve the American people to the best of their abilities. This means that:
1) If the president is going to issue a communication regarding a potentially shifting weather phenomenon like a hurricane, he has the obligation of basing it on the most up to date information. For this, the president has to request to be briefed accurately and also educate himself on the subject. There is nothing shameful in this. A person can’t know everything. Additionally, it also means that the president should quickly admit mistakes and vow to ensure that they don’t happen again, as opposed to doctoring weather maps or producing dated or deficient maps to defend his claims. Admitting a mistake and taking efficient corrective actions is not a sign of weakness. We are all humans. We all make mistakes. People understand this and can relate to it.
2) NOAA has a duty to not only provide education to the president, but also to coordinate with him to avoid confusion, recrimination, and loss of confidence in the agency.
However, what the higher ups at NOAA did, which was essentially chastise their scientists for providing the most up-to-date information to the people of Alabama, is unacceptable. When the president of the United States speaks, or in this case, tweets, his words can have far-reaching consequences. The Birmingham office should be commended for their quick action in defusing a tense situation created due to a presidential communication based on deficient information.
A modern society cannot face challenges effectively when the message delivered by science is nullified by political considerations. This is especially true when the well-being of human beings is at stake, as is the case with the possible path and impact of hurricanes, and is made more relevant today by the fact that global warming is contributing to the strengthening of hurricanes. Unfortunately, not only is Mr. Trump skeptical of climate change reports put together by his own scientists, but his administration has also been actively opposing the efforts by scientists to educate society to address this issue. The pursuit of the scientific truth is something to be cherished and promoted, not something to be met with reprimands, disavowal, disbelief, or ignored altogether.
The Dorian Forecast Graphics by NOAA are in the public domain.
There are a lot of conspiracies out there nowadays, and many of them include scientists as the “evil guys”. Some conspiracy theorists argue that climate change isn’t real, and it’s all doctored or exaggerated data generated by scientists promoted by research funding agencies and green companies. Others argue that vaccination produces autism, and that scientists and pharmaceutical companies are trying to hide this fact. Still others argue that scientists are hiding evidence for a young Earth and the discovery of Noah’s Ark because this would confirm creationism. There are also those conspiracy theorists that state that the scientists that carried out the analyses of the destruction of the Word Trade Center by terrorist during 911 engaged in faking data and misdirection to hide the fact that the attacks were a false flag operation staged by the US government to justify the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. And there are even some who argue that the Earth is really flat, that the moon landing never happened, and that pictures of a round Earth are fake.
It is tempting to roll our eyes and dismiss these conspiracy theorists as ignorant, but when you check the social media accounts of these characters and read the debates in which they become involved in public forums, you find that many of them are quite knowledgeable individuals. In fact some believers in conspiracy theories are, or have been, eminent scientists!
Conspiracy theorists and scientists share the fact that they are both skeptics, and skepticism is a healthy attitude in science. There is nothing wrong in being a skeptic, and truth be told, conspiracies should not be dismissed outright either as there have been a number of documented conspiracies. But many would argue that when it comes to some of the conspiracy theories outlined at the beginning of this post, conspiracy theorists are going too far in their skepticism and are not behaving like true scientists. So how do we differentiate between the reasonable skeptics and the irrational skeptics? How do we determine when conspiracy theorists are not behaving like true scientists?
I have stated before that, unlike other disciplines, the reason that science can be right is that it can be wrong. In other words, scientific claims can be tested and proven wrong, if indeed they are. On the contrary, non-scientific claims can never be proven wrong. The proponents of non-scientific claims constantly move the goalposts and engage in fancy rationalizations to explain away the data that disprove their ideas. This is one of the characteristics of many conspiracy theorists. It is impossible to prove they are wrong, and in fact many of them when backed into a corner will argue that the mere act of trying to discredit their ideas is further proof that there is a conspiracy!
It is important to identify these individuals in order to avoid getting sucked into pointless debates that will consume a lot of your valuable time. So here is the question you should ask conspiracy theorists:
What evidence will convince you that you are wrong, and, if such evidence is produced, will you commit to changing your mind?
If a conspiracy theorist cannot answer this question with examples of such evidence, and make the commitment to change their minds if said evidence is produced, then you can infer they are not behaving scientifically. This is one of the differences between a reasonable skeptic and an irrational skeptic.
There is another big difference between reasonable skeptics and irrational skeptics. Most conspiracy theorists are individuals who are perfectly comfortable with sitting smugly in their corner of the internet engaged in ranting out against their favorite targets to their captive audiences, but do nothing to settle the issue. Reasonable skeptics, on the other hand, do something about it. I have already mentioned in my blog the case of Dr. Richard Muller, a global warning skeptic who decided to check the data for himself. He got funding, assembled a star team of scientists (one of them would go on to win a Nobel Prize), and reexamined the global warming data in their own terms with their own methods. He concluded that indeed the planet was warming and that human activity was very likely to be the cause.
This is the way rational skeptics behave. Why don’t proponents of the flat Earth theory band together, raise money, and send a weather balloon with a camera up into the atmosphere, or finance an expedition to cross the poles? Why doesn’t the anti-vaccine crowd fund a competent study to assess the safety of vaccines? Why don’t those that argue that scientists are hiding evidence of a young Earth finance an investigation employing valid methods to figure out the age of rocks? Why don’t 911 conspiracy theorists finance a believable attempt to try to model the pattern of collapse of the Word Trade Center buildings according to evidence?
The answer is very simple, and it is the reason why fellow global warming skeptics repudiated the results of Dr. Richard Muller when he confirmed global warming is real. It’s because for the irrational skeptic, truth is a secondary consideration. Irrational skeptics are so vested in their beliefs and/or ideas that their main priority is to uphold their point of view by whatever means necessary. No fact or argument will sway them, no research or investigation is necessary. Because of this, when it comes to these characters, the best course of action is to apply Aldler’s Razor (also called Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword) which states that what cannot be settled by experiment or observation is not worth debating.
The World Trade Center photograph by Michael Foran is used here under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license. Photo of Buzz Aldrin by Neil by Armstrong, both from the NASA Apollo 11 mission to the moon, is in the public domain. The image of a 5-year average (2005-2009) global temperature change relative to the 1951-1980 mean temperature was produced by scientists at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and is in the public domain.
Most of the material in this post is taken out of the excellent book Chesapeake Requiem by the writer Earl Swift published in 2018. Mr. Swift lived for one year on the island of Tangier in the Chesapeake Bay. His book is a fascinating look at what is essentially the life and times of a small town whose economy is mostly reliant on the sea. He also describes in detail the rough life of the watermen, the men who risk their lives out in the water to catch the crabs and oysters consumed by Americans, and the ins and outs of their trade. But most importantly for the purpose of this blog, the author also extensively documents the plight of Tangier Island: it is disappearing.
From the 1930s to the present day, two thirds of the island has been lost to the sea, and the pace of sea level rise in the Chesapeake Bay is accelerating. By the year 2050 Tangier may be by and large uninhabitable like other islands in the past that have experienced this fate in the Chesapeake Bay such as James Island, Sharps Island, and Holland Island. Because Tangier’s demise is happening in modern times when climate change has been identified as a worldwide problem, islands like Tangier are in a sense the “canary in the coal mine” of climate change, letting us envision on a small scale what will happen to coastal communities worldwide in the future. However, despite the certainty of these scenarios, scientists and climate change activists are mesmerized by the fact that the inhabitants of Tangier do not identify climate change as the root of their problems.
The mayor of Tangier, James Eskridge, in 2007 had a face off in a televised town hall meeting with no other than environmental icon and former vice president, Al Gore. Mr. Eskridge explained his position (which turns out to be the same position of other communities in the Chesapeake Bay) that the problem they are facing is not sea level rise due to climate change, but rather erosion. He stated that he has a crab house business out in the water that was built in 1970, and in all this time he had not seen the sea-level rise that scientists claim to have occurred. Gore replied that scientists have documented that sea level in the Chesapeake Bay has indeed risen. However, he acknowledged that one of the challenges scientists have is translating this information to people in ways that are believable to them.
Part of the issue is that the Tangier Island community is as conservative as they come. For example in 1946 when the congregation of the island’s only church attempted to remove a pastor deemed too progressive, the pastor left and founded a new church on Tangier. This event which split families apart led to widespread lawlessness ranging from acts of theft and vandalism to mobs of people throwing projectiles at the site of the new church’s building. The Methodist congregation in the island split again in 2011 over the belief that the broader United Methodist Church organization was becoming too liberal and did not support Israel enough. This led to a few tense years when some people in the island refused to talk to others. The town’s council once denied permission to Warner Brothers’ studio to film some scenes in Tangier of a romantic drama called “Message in a Bottle” because the movie contained cursing, alcohol drinking, and a sex scene. In the 2016 election, 87% of the population of Tangier voted for the now president of the United States, Donald Trump; an individual who has stated that climate change is a hoax.
In Tangier, the scientific establishment is in general viewed with distrust. This distrust has partly been fueled by climate change skeptic pundits who exploit conservative people’s fears by equating those who accept climate change and want to do something about it with atheists, liberals, and socialists. The people of Tangier would rather believe their own interpretation of what they have seen out on the water, than measurements taken by water stations, satellite data, or computer models. However, despite this, it is their belief in God and their ways which have allowed the inhabitants of Tangier to surmount many challenges. Among these are hurricanes have flooded and destroyed structures in the island (the highest part of the island is 4 feet above sea level), ghastly squalls, and other incidents that have taken the life of several watermen over the years, and fluctuations in the abundance of the crab and oyster populations and how much the market is willing to pay for them. The resilience of the Tangier community has been as remarkable as the strength of their faith.
It could be argued that whether the cause of loss of land in Tangier is climate-change driven sea level rise or erosion is irrelevant, the important thing is to do something about it and save the island. Many have tried, but more often than not the plans for several projects to protect the island through the years have been bogged down in exasperating red tape and endless studies and studies of studies carried out by the US Corps of Engineers. Finally, the construction of a jetty to project Tangier’s Western shore was approved and will become a reality in this year, but many argue that in the long term this will not protect Tangier from the rising sea levels in the Chesapeake Bay.
Some in the Tangier community think that the argument that climate-change driven sea level rise is to blame for their land loss problem and not erosion, is put forward to justify not doing anything about it. But the reality may be far crueler than that, and this is a quandary that many governments will have to face in the future. The quandary is: how much spending is justified to save a community? The island of Tangier has a population of 500 plus people. How many millions of dollars should be spent to save it as opposed to relocating the population elsewhere? In an era of mounting national debt and fiscal deficits, a lot of tough decisions will have to be made as coastal communities throughout the United States are threatened by rising sea levels.
President Trump phoned the mayor of Tangier in 2017 and told him not to worry about sea level rise, adding that Tangier has been there for hundreds of years, and that he believes it will be there for hundreds more. Mr. Swift doesn’t seem to share that optimism, as we can surmise from the name of his book. Whether you are interested in science, government policy, or climate change activism, I highly recommend that you read it. I have only mentioned those aspects of the book that I deem relevant to this, a science blog. However, Chesapeake Requiem is much more than that. From the headstones of vanishing graves in old cemeteries being devoured by the sea to the ways of catching, classifying, cooking, and eating crabs, Mr. Shift describes for posterity a community that is now literally “living on a prayer”, a few decades away from oblivion. If you accept the reality of climate change, Tangier is the future, and it doesn’t look pretty.
The image of the cover of the book Chesapeake Requiem is copyrighted and used here under the legal doctrine of Fair Use. The picture of Tangier from the US Army Corps of Engineers website is considered public information and may be distributed or copied.
I have been recently reading about Flat Earthers. These are individuals who claim that the real shape of the Earth is flat. If you go to social media outlets such as Twitter and type in hashtags such as #flatearth you will see the accounts of a number of these people. One thing that struck me about Flat Earthers is that quite a number of them are sophisticated individuals who are well versed in technical jargon and can argue with you forever or outpost you on a discussion board. There is even a society called the Flat Earth Society dedicated to promoting the “truth” of the flat earth. It held the first International Flat Earth conference in 2017.
But you may ask: how do Flat Earthers explain all the pictures of Earth taken from space that show it’s a sphere? The short answer: a conspiracy! Flat Earthers believe that the public is being deceived by the government which has bribed or coerced astronauts into lying, faked the moon landing, and created bogus pictures of a spherical Earth.
Admittedly, the case of Flat Earthers is an extreme example. You could even say that they are at the fringe of antiscience groups such as climate change deniers, antivaxers, or creationists. But from their rhetoric, I think we can draw one valid question that is worth addressing: How do we know there is no conspiracy? The government has been shown to have lied in the past, as well as have many other institutions and organizations. How do we know they are not doing it in these cases?
The answer is diversity: diversity in scientists, and diversity in methodology.
I have mentioned in a previous post the famous case of N-rays, the mysterious radiation discovered by the French scientist René Blondlot, and confirmed by other French scientists, that turned out to be nothing but a case of self-delusion. During the course of the investigation of N-Rays, at one point it became evident that almost all of the positive results were coming out of French labs. When all the positive results originate from one state, or organization, or lab, we should be concerned. Diversity in the scientists that practice science is a safeguard against bias and mistakes.
In another post I have also mentioned the case of polywater, a seemingly new form of water with many potential applications. Many scientists set to work on polywater and they were able to obtain the same results reported by other scientists (the results were reproducible). Nonetheless, polywater was eventually demonstrated to be false. The positive results were due to the fact that all the scientists were using the same methodology and making the same mistake! When all the positive results come from scientists using the same methodology, and these results can’t be supported by any other methods, there may be a problem. Diversity in the methodology employed in research is also a safeguard against bias and mistakes.
Thus when many scientists from different nations, ethnicities, religions, political beliefs, scientific traditions, etc. study a problem employing different approaches and methodologies and come up with the same results, you can infer not only that the chance that there is a conspiracy going on is vanishingly small, but also that there is a very good chance that the theories they have generated have grasped important aspects of reality.
For the conspiracy that the Flat Earthers claim to exist to be true, it would have to involve not only the government of the United States and astronauts, scientists, and private contractors involved in the space program, but also similar numbers of people in the other 5 space agencies that possess launch capabilities (those of India, Europe, China, Japan, and Russia), as well as those of the 50 plus countries that have satellites in space, not to mention individuals involved in space research in all these countries. Additionally, the roundness of the Earth has been demonstrated by many methods. If you want to argue for a flat Earth, you might as well argue that we are all living in The Matrix.
However, in their conspiracy claims Flat Earthers are in good company. The theories that the global climate is warming and that humans are responsible for it, or that vaccines do not produce autism, are the product of science involving a diversity of researchers and methods, and yet they are also rejected by many people claiming that they are part of massive conspiracies.
To all individuals out there espousing these conspiracy theories about science and scientists, I want to suggest that you consider a radical and revolutionary idea. This is that maybe, just maybe, the vast majority of scientists are interested in the truth, they act in good faith, and that the theories they have generated are correct!
The image of a flat Earth by Trekky0623 was modified under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. The image of the real Earth from NASA is in the public domain.
In the old days scientists were considered to be individuals who were curious about the world around them. They wanted to find out how it worked, and what laws determined its behavior. They wanted to use this knowledge to make predictions, and develop technologies that could improve the situation of humankind. It was acknowledged that scientist were interested in discovering the truth. However, the social discourse in our society regarding some scientific fields that are perceived to be relevant for the culture wars has changed this view. One area where this has been very visible is global warming.
There are scores of climate change skeptics who regularly pound news or social media outlets with commentary posts and videos against the notion that our planet is warming, and that humans are responsible for it. These people will not believe anyone who argues the opposite: not even one of their own! Such was the case of Dr. Richard Muller, a global warming skeptic, who decided to perform a study to check the evidence for himself. He assembled a star team of scientists (including one who won the Nobel Prize), obtained the funding, and performed the study. Dr. Muller and his team found that global warming is real, that it correlates with carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, and that human activity is very likely to be the cause. Needless to say that his results were not accepted by his fellow deniers!
However, the discourse of global warming deniers goes beyond the mere rejection of the facts. What we are seeing is that scientists working in the climate field are often portrayed by many climate skeptics at best as compliant sheep who follow the consensus in the field, or at worst as despicable individuals that skew, modify, or falsify data to serve special interests, enrich themselves, gain access to funding, or promote liberal or socialist ideologies. These climate skeptics believe that if you are a scientist who agrees with the premise of global warming, then you must have some ulterior motive other than the truth, and this colors all they do.
Consider the so called Climategate. In 2009 the e-mail correspondence of climate scientists at the University of East Anglia was obtained by hackers who went on to select and publish several e-mails that they claimed proved that climate scientists were manipulating data to create the impression that the world is warming. The released e-mails were pounced upon by some news (and not so news) outlets and paraded through the news cycle as proof of the conspiracy. The scandal led to investigations conducted by independent universities, committees, panels, agencies and foundations. They found the e-mails had been taken out of context and or misinterpreted by the hackers, and the scientists were cleared of wrongdoing. What had happened?
Think of all the e-mails you’ve written in the past few years. Now think about someone who really doesn’t think highly of you and your beliefs. Now imagine that this person gains access to your past e-mails and pores over them trying to put together a narrative guided by their biases. I can guarantee you that, even if your e-mails contain nothing truly objectionable, this person will be able to piece together a narrative that will portray you in a less than flattering light. This is precisely what happened with the Climategate e-mails. The e-mails dealt with very technical and complex topics in an informal way, as you would expect from individuals highly knowledgeable in their field communicating and bouncing ideas off each other. The hackers did not have the scientific expertise or access to the context of the e-mails and they ended up creating a conspiracy where none existed. If the hackers and those who spread their message had paused and given scientists the benefit of the doubt, perhaps they would have avoided the debacle, but the mantra seems to be that a scientist who agrees with global warming by definition is up to no good.
Despite being demonstrated to be wrong again and again, global warming skeptics and their supporters have been very successful at convincing a significant proportion of the American people that global warming is bogus. How is this possible?
I believe that part of the answer lies in the fact that several possible solutions to climate change involve initiatives (e.g. reducing emission from fossil fuels), and entities (e.g. government) which many people view with suspicion. These suspicions have been purposefully stoked by powerful corporate interests that want to preserve the status quo and by organizations with social and political agendas. In essence these corporations and organizations have successfully sold snake oil to millions of individuals who, when they see scientists talk about climate change, they see the government imposing on them and taking away their jobs and their freedoms.
So what are scientists to do? Perform more research? Generate more data? Attempt to educate people? Give more lectures? Continue confronting the skeptics and rebutting their arguments?
A climate scientist, Dr. Katherine Hayhoe, has an interesting suggestion. She claims that refusal to accept climate change nowadays by many people has more to do with identity and ideology than with data and facts, therefore arguing over data and facts with these people is not only futile but in fact may be counterproductive. Instead she suggests that scientists should select groups of individuals with whom they share a common value, engage with them at a personal level, explain how climate change will affect their shared value, and offer solutions they can implement.
I don’t know if she is right, but her approach is a breath of fresh air in the otherwise virulent debate taking place in social media and over the airwaves. Dr. Hayhoe has produced a series of short videos entitled “Global Weirding” including the one in referenced in the link in the paragraph above where she discusses the reality of climate change and what we can do about it.
The image of a 5-year average (2005-2009) global temperature change relative to the 1951-1980 mean temperature was produced by scientists at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and is in the public domain. The clip from Dr. Katharine Hayhoe’s Global Weirding video, “If I just explain the facts, they'll get it, right?”, is displayed here under the legal doctrine of Fair Use as described on Section 107 of the Copyright Act.