The Deniers

There are all kinds of facts: historical facts, judicial facts, scientific facts, among others. And now there are “alternative facts.” The difference is there are rules for determining historical, judicial, and scientific facts. The rules of evidence, for example, control what kinds of things a finder of fact (judge or jury) can hear or see in reaching a verdict (from the Latin roots for “truth” and “say”).

Gazing down at their hand-held devices, people implicitly accept the facts of the science that make them possible. The same is true of any technology: It’s applied science. Expecting it to work entails not only accepting the particular scientific facts and laws that make it work, but also the methods by which such facts and laws are generally determined.

Everybody expects technology to work. How can some of us selectively deny other scientific facts validated in the same way?

One of the reasons courses in the natural sciences are required even in high school (at least when I was in school – maybe still in public schools) is to teach scientific method and logic, that is, the experimental method and the inductive logic that drives it. Understanding what is true about science helps children become citizens who are less likely to be fooled by superstitions and charlatans.

Inductive logic is one of the foundations of science. It says that if a phenomenon is observed once, it may be unique. But if it is observed regularly, it becomes possible to explain the cause and result as a law of nature.

Consider my cat, Jenny Kaye. One of the games she likes to play is to push an object bit by bit to the edge of the table until it falls off. Maybe she just likes to see them fall. They always do. But maybe Miss Jenny Kaye Newton is testing the law of gravity. I can suppose it’s an experiment. Maybe one of these objects won’t fall. That would be even more fun.

Unlike Jenny Kaye, science has rules for deciding what a “regular” observation is: controlled conditions, calibrated instruments, etc. The number of observations is important too. That’s where statistics comes into play, just as it does in political polling, or when actuaries calculate the likelihood of morbidity. Pollsters may not always get it right, but actuaries make life insurers a lot of money by telling them how much to charge for bets on whether their customers will live.

Now consider the data points climate scientists gather in order to calculate global warming. Who knows how many they gather every day? They’re gathered over the whole of earth’s surface, land and sea, at regular intervals every day, and they have been for years and decades, in the United States since 1880. Is it more daily data points than Twitter has tweets (58 million) in a day? Or than YouTube has views (4 billion as of 2012) in a day? Maybe not, but it’s more than enough to be statistically significant.

It’s more than any one denier can gather by looking out into his back yard occasionally on an unseasonably cold day, thinking “the globe isn’t warming much around here today is it?” And feeling very clever about his insight. Maybe this denier should, like my cat, keep gathering data. Very few communities, if any, have not set a temperature record or records in the last ten years. So the denier might have to take a reading every day for ten years at the same time each day before he could be in a position to defend his denials rationally, and then only about the climate in his own community. So why do people who aren’t equipped to gather and analyze climate data nevertheless deny the results deduced by those who can?

To say nothing of what the physicists and chemists have shown about human causality, that is, the release of greenhouse gases as a regular practice for running human societies and economies. I won’t try to describe what they measured and explained. I probably wouldn’t get it quite right. I’ll just point out that I might with equal justification deny that there’s any causal connection between what I am typing on my keyboard and what appears on my computer screen.

People who think climate changes are not due to human activity (like Scott Pruitt, tabbed by Trump to head the Environmental Protection Agency), or that an ingredient in vaccines causes autism (like Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who might like to lead an investigation of the ingredient at public expense), I’m sorry to say, are no smarter than my cat. At any rate they apply inductive logic no better than she. Or other systems of belief are interfering with their implicit belief in the everyday truths of science and technology.

It’s easy to see which belief systems are influencing highly-placed climate change deniers: large accumulations of capital are threatened by policies designed to limit the release of greenhouse gases. Whether and to what extent the opposed policies might have a rational basis other than in the denial of scientific facts, has to be the topic for another post.

Originally published in Marx’s Political Economy on January 26, 2017.