August 19, 2014 by Steve Schuler
How To Explain Science To Your Climate-Change-Denying Uncle
This is what you say to your crazy-climate-change-denying uncle when he asks, “Yeah, but, how do we know scientists are right? I mean, how do we know what is a ‘fact’ anyway? Oh yeah, and where is the science council of elders?”
Warning: This is also what you say when you no longer want to be on speaking terms with your uncle.
How do we know something is a fact?
Of course this is a deep topic with lots written about it, but it boils down to: How do you know it’s a “fact” that you can’t walk through the wall? Of course, this could all be a dream and we could all be imagining our own realities (i.e., we are just a collection of brains in vats), but on a practical level, the reason we all agree that it’s a fact that you’re six feet tall, or that light bulbs light things up, or that man-made climate change is really happening, is because of what we observe with our senses, which agrees with what others say they observe with their senses. At some point it’s logically impossible to argue that something is not a fact (go ahead and try to walk through a wall, it probably won’t work for you either). When you reach that point, you are right to call someone delusional who continues to believe something in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. We usually put these people away in mental institutions and/or give them drugs to help them, but in this case you are family so…
Of course, this doesn’t work with climate change deniers because they don’t have any reason to believe what they say they believe. If they did, they’d be willing to consider all the evidence and logically develop conclusions based on that. After all, they’re seeking the truth like the rest of us, without any ulterior motives/alliances, right? Since they’re only willing to selectively consider evidence to prop up their existing beliefs (selection bias, confirmation bias), we can’t call them delusional – only stubborn. This is why you can’t argue with climate change deniers, when you back them into a corner with facts and logic, they don’t do what a delusional person would do — claim they’re experiencing a different reality than us, or that they somehow sense things differently — they just say something about how they heard something somewhere from someone who they trusted and they defer to that person who sounded great at the time. If we could get into a time machine and go back and present that person with good counter arguments at that time when he heard this “key” info, then maybe we could sway him. However, a delusional person will say he can walk through walls even if you present him with a wall he can’t walk through.
How do we know climate change is a fact?
We know climate change is real and caused by human activity because the scientists who study the climate have overwhelmingly come to this conclusion (I’ll get to that in a moment). It’s not their opinion, it’s the scientific method. They’ve put in the hard work to observe, gather evidence, test, peer review, and so on. I’d love for anyone to tell me how we can know ANYTHING without using science.
This, by the way, is why the supernatural is by definition not possible. How could you possibly explain something supernatural in terms of the natural world? Supernatural things are *super* natural. If they’re not natural, then how can you distinguish them from a dream or a delusion? If it’s not natural it can’t be tested or experimented on, and if it doesn’t interact with the world enough to even be experimented on, then for all practical purposes it doesn’t exist.
And if we can’t explain something, it’s not supernatural any more than an iPhone is supernatural to a Viking – it just isn’t well understood yet.
Where is the science council of elders?
Science is not religion, there are no elders, there are no prophets, what we have are human beings dedicated to one thing, finding the truth. And the way we know something is fact without a “council of elders” ruling over us is something called meta-analysis. It’s when someone looks at, say, 100 studies about a topic, and then analyzes the conclusions of those studies. So if you want to know if climate change is real, research the meta-analyses in this field of study. In climate change there have been many such analyses and all have some crazy high number of agreement. Since you must allow for some amount of anomaly due to environmental factors, experimenter bias, random chance, etc., you’d never expect 100% agreement. They call this the “alpha” value in the social sciences, and if the disagreement is 5% (alpha of 0.05) then it’s considered rock solid. In climate change we’re talking a single percent or maybe even fractions of a percent.
You can find this info if you Google it, the trick is recognizing the respected places and ignoring the biased ones. Generally this is easy, but not always if you’re completely unfamiliar with a field.
But at the end of the day, there’s no substitute for spending the time to read arguments on both sides. If you happen to do some experiment in your backyard that disproves the theory of gravity, then great – publish it, and let’s see if anyone can come up with a logical reason that experiment may not show what you think it shows. At this point, chances are good that you’re not going to stumble onto the one missing angle that scientists have not yet found, same goes for evolution, climate change, etc. But don’t let that stop you from trying!