Friday, April 3, 2015

The Climate Change Debate and the IQ Divide

I read a good number of articles about climate change. I’m curious about an issue that -- if the dire pessimists are correct -- would be easily the worst man-induced catastrophe this planet has ever suffered.

What I find especially interesting are the often vituperative comments below the articles where believers in man-made climate change face off against skeptics. I’ve been reading the comments for many months and something needs to be said that isn’t politically correct. Namely:

Extreme skeptics of man-made climate change (I’m avoiding “deniers” as that has become a charged word) tend to be dumber, simpler people than their extreme opponents.

To be clear, I’m not trying to pass judgment on whether man-made climate change is real and the sea level will rise 30 meters, or 15 meters, or 5 meters during the next 100 years. I don’t know what will happen. The global atmosphere is terribly complex; we can barely predict local weather five days out. Also, I’m not particularly well-versed in all the scientific data and theories underpinning the belief in man-made climate change.

Instead, I’m just saying that the most extreme skeptics (at least those opinionated enough to post their feelings online) are much less capable of evaluating science, processing numerical data, considering alternative explanations, reasoning soundly ... they’re just not as bright. For anyone who wants a thorough, healthy debate, this should be worrisome: Dumber, simpler people tend to be governed more by emotion than reason, tend to be more susceptible to becoming locked into ideologically dictated viewpoints, tend to be poorer at considering long-term consequences, and tend to tune out sophisticated, multi-step arguments with their version of “na na na na I can’t hear you.”

Skeptics may bluster back at me that intelligence isn’t everything, that no one can agree on what it is anyway, and isn’t everyone entitled to an opinion?

Yes, of course, everyone is entitled to one. But the heart of the matter here isn’t whether invisible angels come and sit on grandpa’s gravestone every Sunday afternoon and play tiny soundless violins. That’s frankly unknowable -- it’s what Karl Popper would term a non-falsifiable theory -- and besides it’s not very important anyway. But with man-made climate change, we are opening the floor not to a discussion of what’s the sexiest color, or some other highly subjective, everyone’s-entitled-to-their-own-opinion thing. We are instead desperately in search of a truth that should be gleaned based on science, with the utmost appreciation for science and its rigorous methods. To be blunt: Leave your damn agendas/favorite conspiracy theories at the door.

Again, I don’t know much about the argument for man-made climate change. I do know two basic things that I find very compelling:

(1) The current level of atmospheric carbon dioxide is quickly closing in on 400 parts per million -- by far the highest in hundreds of thousands of years -- and I’m assuming the equipment that gathers this data isn’t wearing a Republican or Democrat T-shirt.

(2) An overwhelming proportion of climate scientists -- 97 percent -- believe that man-made climate change is real and significant. These aren’t the guys who mow your lawn, or sell aluminum siding, or scrape your teeth clean -- they are the ones who study this intently, pondering data and various theories, applying the scientific method, creating various models of how the atmosphere behaves and how it might behave differently if variables such as the concentration of carbon dioxide were tweaked.

The bottom line is we need a smart, informed national debate about man-made climate change. But the dirty secret is we won’t get one -- at least as long as loud, aggressive people who aren’t that bright in science and math have hijacked one side of the argument (a la Senator Jim Inhofe and his “Look at my snowball!” theatrics in Senate chambers).

Last -- I meant for this to be closer to first but so be it -- what precipitated this essay? Well, I recently came across this exchange in the comment section after an article about climate change:

Let's see here, plants thrive at 1,500 parts per million of carbon dioxide. At our current 400 parts per million, they're on a starvation diet and we want to go down to zero. At 150 parts per million, all plants die. Carbon dioxide is one of the most important foods for life on earth.

Jesus Christ, you are stupid.

Exactly. This crystallized what I had long been thinking about the two sides. Now you may argue the first commenter isn’t serious; he’s just parodying the position of the skeptics. It’s always possible. But, from all I’ve read from the vehement skeptics of man-made climate change, his abysmal understanding of what’s going on wouldn’t surprise me at all. A lot of them, sadly, seem more interested in talking points than in learning anything.

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