Do you believe in ghosts? Much to the amusement of my wife, I think I do. At least when I’m musing ’round a campfire or enjoying a beer or two….
Probably not the kinds of ghosts that go “bump in the night,” but something perhaps more subtle, secretive, ethereal. The point, though, is that I believe in ghosts—I certainly don’t know they exist and I have not one jot of substantive evidence. It is a matter of faith.
By contrast I don’t really believe in more concrete things—pajamas, for example. I don’t need to believe in them because I’ve got some. I know they exist.
Science is about developing knowledge and understanding towards certainty. Belief, in the sort of faith-without-evidence sense, has no place in science. In science we deal in likelihood. We fumble our way towards facts through a chain of evidence.
This is where the arguments on climate change have gone horribly wrong. They have been hijacked by a community of believers and non-believers. Once you are entrenched in a belief you can construct all sorts of clever proofs to back you up, but you also close down the doors on rational arguments. And frankly, I think both sides are guilty.
There is, in my view, a very high likelihood that human actions are causing rapid and unprecedented climate change. There’s still a very small likelihood that new evidence will come to light to disprove this theory. In other walks of life we consider risk as a matter of course—deciding when to cross the road, or what to eat, even whether to smoke or not. A high likelihood of accident or injury leads to evasive action, even a low likelihood, if the consequences are serious enough, and the costs affordable, triggers a response.
If we thought about the planet the way we thought about ourselves, the response to the likelihood of a threat would trigger evasive action. Waiting for unassailable proof would be considered utterly dumb.
So let’s stop believing in climate change, or the lack thereof. Think about it as a possible risk and let’s adjust our lives accordingly.
And by the way—the corollary on the ghosts front is probably that you’ll never convince me they don’t exist with scientific argument, at least not on a dark night by the campfire. I may have some “facts” to back me up, but really this one also requires a leap of faith (and a beer). And I guess that’s okay as long as it’s not hurting anyone else. My ghosts are all harmless!
(Image: Ghost in the campfire. Source: Flickr user stevevoght via a Creative Commons license.)