Tuesday 1 February 2011

"Consensus" about complex science, global warming and God

This BBC Horizon programme was listed in Burnee links on Sunday:

I embed it above because the problem of climate change skepticism (indeed skepticism of any generally accepted science) raises important issues about how non-experts can be expected to approach the consensus.

In next week's Radio Times (published today) the correspondence pages contain the two letters I've scanned and shown at left (click to bignify and legibilificate). We have two opposite opinions on the Horizon programme, just as we have opposing views on climate change itself. But as Paul Nurse put to James Delingpole, if one is not competent to assess the science itself, it makes sense to go with the consensus — and that's what I do. Climate science is extremely complex, such that even the computer models are only approximations of what is — and will be — going on.

It occurs to me, however, that though I'm willing to accept the scientific consensus on global warming, I'm not willing to accept the consensus on some other matters — the existence of God, for instance. The majority of the world's population believes in some kind of deity. I don't. But unlike with climate science, I consider the arguments for and against the existence of God to be accessible to anyone with some general education and a willingness to think. Some of the arguments for God are philosophical arguments, and I understand that the majority of professional philosophers are atheists. I realise that in this sense I'm agreeing with a consensus, but I'm not doing so blindly. In another sense one can consider theology as part of philosophy and the consensus weakens. But who bases their beliefs on what theologians say?

This week there was another BBC Storyville documentary specifically about climate skepticism, by Rupert Murray. From the BBC website:
Filmmaker Rupert Murray takes us on a journey into the heart of climate scepticism to examine the key arguments against man-made global warming and to try to understand the people who are making them

Do they have the evidence that we are heating up the atmosphere or are they taking a grave risk with our future by dabbling in highly complicated science they don't fully understand? Where does the truth lie and how are we, the people, supposed to decide?

The film features Britain's pre-eminent sceptic Lord Christopher Monckton as he tours the world broadcasting his message to the public and politicians alike. Can he convince them and Murray that there is nothing to worry about?
What is genuinely worrying about this film is that Lord Monckton seemed to be getting plenty of traction while talking a lot about the science, when as far as I know he's not a scientist. Murray filmed him in Australia doing some field "experiments" with a bottle of acid. While I'm not a scientist myself, I did chemistry, physics and biology at school, and even I know that there's more to understanding how to do science than being able to recite the periodic table.