As Earth Day arrives on April 22 we're sure to get another round of warnings about the dangers of global warming. True to form, President Barack Obama's weekly address last weekend focused on "combatting the threat of climate change."
Obama's message was that "climate change can no longer be denied – or ignored," and took as given that global warming is happening and that there are no good reasons to be skeptical or critical of the science behind it.
And this is where global warming advocates routinely go wrong: they misunderstand the relationship between scientific theories and the general public.
[sharequote align="center"]So, how do we avoid just taking the word of the experts when it comes to science?[/sharequote]
Our amazingly wealthy (and complicated) society has been created by the division of labor. Gone are the days of the "Renaissance man," the polymaths like Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, and Gottfried Leibniz who made major contributions in a variety of fields. We've learned so much since then that a person can only hope to be an expert in one specialized area of science at best.
So what hope does the average citizen – who doesn't work in any field of science whatsoever – have of coming down on the right side of climate change? Or any other scientific theory, for that matter?
It's a bit like the situation faced by medieval Europeans: they were expected to be good Christians, but the rules for being a good Christian were laid out in the Bible, a book they couldn't afford to own, and likely couldn't read in their own language, let alone Latin. They just had to take the word of the clergy about what the Bible said.
So, how do we avoid just taking the word of the experts when it comes to science?
Fortunately, we have another option. For instance, almost none of us understand radiation theory. Particles, waves, subatomic this-and-that, we don't really know what it's about, but we believe in it. And we have good reason to, because we see it at work every day in technology such as radios, TVs, cell phones, Wi-Fi, X-ray and MRI machines, ultrasound scans and microwave ovens. They all behave as predicted, and so we believe in the theories that created them.
In a similar way, the controversy over vaccinations is a case where science has been the victim of its own success. Vaccinations have been so effective – that is, the science behind them is so solid – that most of us no longer see the horrible diseases that they protect us from. "Polio, small pox, rubella? Why not vaccinate me against unicorns while you're at it?" At this point, the public needs to be reminded of the fate they've been spared (like the Summer Without Children in 1950) in order to appreciate the predictive power of vaccination theory.
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Which brings us to climate change.
We're told over and over how 97 percent of climate scientists believe that humans are causing global warming, so therefore we should, too. Comedian-pundit John Oliver has said (only semi-jokingly) that it's misleading for climate change advocates to debate skeptics one-on-one, as it implies there is a 50-50 split on the issue. (Instead, Oliver says it should be 97 advocates against three skeptics.)
But this misses the point.
In sports – drawn-out playoff schedules aside – the championship isn't determined by who has the greatest percentage of fans rooting for it; it's determined by which team has the highest percentage of wins. Likewise, in science, what counts isn't the percentage of scientists who are supporting a theory, it's the theory's batting average when it comes to making true predictions.
That in mind, you don't rally the public to your cause with gimmicks like putting 100 climate scientists on stage (or flying mailmen, for that matter: never send a gyrocopter to do the work of an evil hovercraft). If you want to convince people about the science behind global warming, show us how the science keeps accurately describing how the world is going to behave.
But that's not what we get. Instead we get a decade-or-more plateau in temperatures even as carbon dioxide levels keep rising steadily. And we get the refining of the prediction of "global warming" to "global weirding."
And so it's legitimate for people to be skeptical about global warming. If advocates of anthropogenic climate change can't show that their theory consistently predicts the future, then why should we give it the same credibility as the mysterious theories that give us radios and cell phones that work hour of every day?
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