There are few things that can get me as hot under my collar as people who flout scientific facts. Whilst I admit that I get a bit of a thrill every time someone comes on my blog to try and debate me otherwise it still saddens me that there are many people out there who are willing to disregard hard facts in favour of anecdotes and emotional arguments. When it comes to anthropogenic (read: man made) climate change I all too often find people who aren’t willing to believe that there’s resound scientific consensus on the issue, instead wanting to believe the story that there’s still on-going debate. This could not be farther from the truth as the scientific community, and more specifically the ones specializing in climate, are in such unity on the idea that only one, out of almost 10,000, disagrees:
This picture has been doing the rounds on social media for a while now and it aptly highlights that there really isn’t an on-going debate among climate scientists about whether or not anthropogenic climate change is occurring. Still many media outlets feel compelled to provide a “balanced” story, pitting top climate scientists against celebrities, politicians and anyone else who isn’t exactly qualified to comment on where the science stands on this. Such debate thus lends credence to the idea that both are equally valid when, in fact, anyone who’s an expert in the field would say otherwise. Typically I could just write this off however a recent study from 2 universities in the USA has me very worried about how the general public is processing this information.
The report states that the number of people in the USA that flat out don’t believe climate change is happening at all has increased by 7% since the beginning of last year rising to a rather staggering 23%. Worst still they’re becoming far more stubborn about their views with many more people now saying that they’re unlikely to change their stance. The only bit of good news in there is that the majority of the USA believe climate change is happening although the percentage of those that believe its caused by us is declining.Taking the figures at face value I really was surprised to see that this was occurring but the explanation is what blew me away.
So apparently climate change deniers came up with the theory that we’re actually in a global warming “pause” as the amount of warming over the past 15 years has slowed down. Now forgetting for a second that this means they’re agreeing in principle to the idea of global warming (as you can’t say the warming has slowed without acknowledging it’s happening) taking short time slices of a phenomenon that occurs over a period of decades or centuries is a best disingenuous. We could just as easily take a similar time slice from multiple different periods to prove the opposite but instead we’ll just take the large swath of data we have that has shown an upward trend in temperatures that strongly correlates with the amount of carbon we’ve pumped into the atmosphere.
I know I’m preaching the the choir here but the mental gymnastics I’d have to go through to believe this kind of tripe befuddles me. Sure I can understand that when faced with problems this large with such huge consequences rational thought processes tend to shut down but it’s really not that difficult to take ownership of it in order to start making a positive difference. We all need to stop humouring those who harbour opinions that not only fly in the face of science but also prove to be extremely damaging to the rest of the world. The longer we entertain the idea that we need a balanced debate about things like this the worse the problem will get and I won’t feel at all good about saying “I told you so” when all of Australia’s beaches are underwater.
I have a bugbear for people who believe they know better than those who’ve made a career out of being experts in some field. For me in particular its doctors as I know that I’m rubbish when it comes to figuring why things are happening in my body so I defer to their expertise. People I know seem to harbour a deep mistrust for them however, believing that everything they’re telling them is wrong and only they have the right answers. Whilst everyone has a story of when a doctor might not have got things quite right they always seem to forget the times when they got them spot on, which I’ll argue is more often than not.
The reason why they don’t get it right 100% of the time is due to the very nature of medicine and, more generally, the principles they and all other science based professions engage. For highly complicated systems like the human body it’s nigh on impossible to control for every input and thus we instead rely on statistical models that pull from large data sets so we have a good idea of the effect something will have given a certain input. These models are far from perfect and this means that edge cases won’t respond in the same way but that does not invalidate the model, it merely identifies another factor that needs to be incorporated into it.
It was these very principles that lead a group of scientists back in 2009 to make a prediction that there was a low risk of an earthquake in the small town of L’Aquila in Italy. Months prior to them making the prediction L’Aquila had been rocked by many small tremors which is what caused the local government to convene a panel of experts to determine whether action was warranted. L’Aquila lies on a fault line and using seismic models they had available at the time the scientists concluded that the risk of a larger quake was unaffected by the recent tremors, but there was still a risk. Forced into the situation of giving a yes or no answer they opted for no as earthquake predictions of that nature are incredibly disruptive events for all involved. Unfortunately for them not 6 days later a magnitude 6.3 quake hit L’Aquila and over 300 people lost their lives.
When something devastating like this happens it’s human nature to look for someone to blame. The people of L’Aquila turned their sights on the scientists and politicians who had were involved in making the predictions and yesterday saw 7 of them convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 6 years jail, 2 more years than what the prosecution was asking for. The conviction is assuredly done in order to placate the larger public of L’Aquila who are still struggling to rebuild after the quake laid waste to their town and many of them are seeing this as some small form of justice for those who perished.
This could not be further from the truth.
The predictions they made (which were then announced by a government official with no seismological experience) were based around the models and data they had available at the time and all of them pointed to there being no increased risk of a large quake at that time. Whilst there’s an argument to be made that in the hours leading up to it models in use then would have predicted a massive increase in risk (on the other from 1 in 200,000 to 1 in 1000) that doesn’t change the fact that the prediction they made was sound. To turn around and prosecute them means that in future all scientists who are approached to make predictions of this nature will err on the side of caution and any mild risk will turn into an absolute or, more chillingly, they’ll simply refuse to make any prediction at all lest they face litigation.
The fact of the matter is that there are many factors that lead up to this disaster being as bad as it was and laying all the blame on the scientists who made a prediction based on good data and science shows that they were only looking for a scape goat. There are numerous other individuals who could be held as equally responsible for this such as the builders who built and maintained those houses (magnitude 6.0 proof buildings can be easily constructed, just ask Japan), the regulators who didn’t mandate certain construction standards and anyone else who could be tangentially involved. We won’t do that though because it sounds like madness yet throwing scientists in jail seems reasonable, something which I will never understand.
I am so sorry for the losses the people of L’Aquila have had to endure but blaming the scientists for this is not the right course of action. Instead they should focus on ensuring that the risk is fully mitigated rather than relying on predictions that can and will be wrong from time to time. From now on no scientist in their right mind will make any predictions unless they can be granted immunity from prosecution and when that doesn’t happen they’ll simply refuse. It is one of the most chilling effects modern science has experience in recent memory and I can only hope that the verdict is overturned.
Not just for the scientist’s sake, for the sake of science at large.