Monday, April 4, 2011

Should we believe the scientists?

My friend, English teacher, and inspirer of blog entries, Dina, recently asked me if I'd seen a couple of articles about problems of scientific studies. The articles in question are The Truth Wears Off Is there something wrong with the scientific method? by Jonah Lehrer, which appeared in The New Yorker and Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science by David H. Freedman, which appeared in The Atlantic.

A bit of background, and a plug to join our group:
She raised the question in context to an ongoing discussion about teaching climate change that I facilitate for a small group of educators. We meet monthly and share resources and try and work through ways to improve our approach to instruction around issues of climate change. Our meetings are online, via Skype and our next meeting is April 14 at 8:15 pm EDT.

For this coming call, we'll be talking about Greg Craven's book, What's the Worst That Could Happen?  The book holds an important message, but Craven's writing style is that of a goofy science teacher. That's off-putting to some, but it happens to resonate with me. And, again, the central message of the book is really important. Through the book, Craven also develops a pair of nice conceptual tools for looking at the question of the title. One of those is a "credibility spectrum" that helps you rate different sources of information.

I talked about some of this at last month's National Science Teachers' Association Annual Meeting, and you can download handouts including the credibility spectrum. It's in two parts -- here and here. You can also see the presentation slides here, but it's not needed to understand the rest of this post.

That context is important for understanding Dina's question.

And, if you're interested in joining in our conversation on 4/14, drop me a note. It's a small part of a larger project called Climate Lifelines. The target population is high school teachers, but anyone teaching about climate change is welcome to join.

Now, back to Dina's questions
Here's what she said after sharing the article links:
They make me question Craven's credibility scale. As does the increasing prevalence of science that is being funded by corporations with investment in a certain answer. 
I am not to the point yet where I am a climate change denier. But I do wonder about the intensity of the predictions involved. 
For example. (This is not terribly scientific, but anyway). The incredible ability of ecosystems to repair themselves is well documented. So let us say we do run out of fossil fuel before we reach some kind of climatic tipping point (which as far as I know, is a distinct possibility)-- to the point where it becomes a de facto worldwide carbon-zero reduction program. I don't hear much, if anything, about the possible *positive* impact this may have on climate change.

Here's what I wrote back:
They don't do much to sway me away from thinking that global warming is human caused and I was already leery of putting too much stock in individual studies. I've spent enough time with academics to know that they're human and the process reduces errors but doesn't eliminate them. 
I also think the examples used in the two papers are of a different sort than the things that make the general conclusions related to human-induced climate change durable. They're both simpler than the big picture and more complex than the fundamental physics and chemistry. 
It's been observed probably thousands of times in the lab that if you add carbon dioxide to air and shine light through it to warm up materials within the contained system that it will heat up more than a similar apparatus with less carbon dioxide in it. That's simple and it would be pretty stunning if it started working differently. The examples used in the paper all deal with stuff more complicated than that. So, that's where the climate change bit is simpler than these examples.
It's more complex in the huge range of observations, studies and predictions based on the idea that changing atmospheric chemistry in the way we're doing seem to fit together so very well. I guess that's both complex (at the level of all the different aspects of the Earth system) and simple (in that the outcomes seem to match (or exceed) the predictions). 
I think even if it raises questions about Craven's credibility spectrum, it mostly just makes more room at the top. I don't see what's more reliable than the scientific consensus. 
And, it is true that, if you don't cross certain tipping points (like extinction) ecosystems can bounce back pretty impressively. Of course, there's no bouncing back from extinction.
As for running out of fossil fuel before reaching climate tipping points, I'm personally worried that we're awfully close to the tipping point if we've not reached it already, and we're not on the cusp of running out of fossil fuels. They are, however, running out of the low hanging fruit of fossil fuels. Technologies, like horizontal drilling coupled with hydraulic fracturing, however effectively lower that fossil fuel fruit pretty regularly.
Hmmm... Did I just write most of an overdue blog post? What do you think?

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