Last night, I was catching up with a friend and they asked me “Do you believe in climate change?”
Honestly, I find it mind-boggling that the word belief is even included in that question. As a culture there’s a scary movement to put science on the level of faith and belief.
It also amazes me when, with a wave of a hand and grunted scoff, climate change is dismissed as easily as science fiction. From a distance, the methods of the scientific community seem unbelievable, but science is founded on a long series of minuscule, cautious, often painfully precise baby steps.
It’s amazing the amount of hard work, the attention to detail, the shear persistence required of scientists to track down tiny molecules and understand, on scales ranging from planetary to sub-atomic, the way the world works.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot after watching Rachel Pike’s fascinating TED talk on the science behind climate change. (And after reading through a chapter from the IPCC’s report on climate change.)
As Rachel describes, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change puts out their report on the state, it is the written by 620 scientists from 40 countries and reviewed by another 400+ scientists from 113 countries, but only after 15,000 scientists convene in San Francisco to take part in the largest scientific gathering in the world that reviews the current state of climate science and determines the content of the report.
And each of those scientists is from a research group; each research group studies a variety of topics; each research area is supported by the work of numerous PhD students; each PhD student studies incredibly narrow topics… and so on.
Rachel explains very well the monumental efforts required of scientists to reach the conclusions headlined in the sensational articles that find the general population through newspapers and magazines.
The problem is that it’s easy to read these articles and ask “Yeah, but how do they know that?” The explanation is long and complex — too long and too complex — and it’s too easy to dismiss the conclusion on the grounds of being too “scientific”.
But science doesn’t happen in imagined worlds or thought experiments. It starts there when it’s born in the minds of inquisitive, questioning scientists who then find ways to put reality to the test by answering small, boring questions.
These answers create more questions, and then more answers and more questions. Rachel’s talk does an excellent job decomposing the process.