Arguing with a tree

I was reading an article in the September-October issue of Skeptical Inquirer (this one, to be precise: regarding global warming and it made me reflect on an exchange on the significance of anthropogenic (one of the posters used the term “anthropomorphic”, which I think would be a very odd thing to see) global warming on a computer gaming website that I frequent. What I noted was that advocates either for or against the idea that anthropogenic changes are causing serious and possibly irreversible changes to Earth’s climate each had their own studies, statistics, and graphs to cite supporting their respective arguments. The climate-change deniers (to coin a phrase) argue that more study is needed (which is a great argument for inertia in any area) or that their evidence clearly demonstrates that climate change is trivial or nonexistent. The proponents (?) of climate change argue that we’ve already wasted too much time and that the sources cited by the other side are flawed, wrong, or motivated by a political agenda. It’s sort of a classic case of liberal versus conservative politics with science being caught in the middle. And it reminds me of an issue much nearer to my heart: loony creationists attacking science (mostly evolutionary theory) for a supposed lack of evidence and crying out that it’s unfair that their particular brand of Christianity is not permitted as an opposing viewpoint in science classes.

The idea that I kept coming back to is that no one on either side will ever change any minds. This is precisely because both sides are driven by political agendas. On the creationism issue, I have enough personal background knowledge to be able to refute and explain away creationist bullshit; many people do not. Do the history deniers (as Richard Dawkins likes to say) have an agenda? Of course. Their agenda is to essentially convert this country into a kind of theocracy, friendly to certain religious ideas and hostile to others or those who hold no particular religious views. Evolution is the wedge issue, as Barbara Forrest has amply demonstrated, that the folks with the Discovery Institute, The Thomas More Law Center, the Christian Coalition, and their ilk wish to use to insinuate themselves and their belief systems into every aspect of public life. Do scientists have an agenda? Sure. We want kids to have not only a good science education but a good understanding of how science is supposed to work, so when they are confronted with issues such as anthropogenic climate change as adults, they can form rational opinions on the topic.

On the climate change issue, I do not have much personal knowledge of how climate models and the large-scale weather patterns they attempt to evaluate actually work; many other people also do not. None of this is new. The average citizen has always had to place a certain amount of faith in scientific consensus on a variety of topics. I tend to place my faith in organizations like NOAA as opposed to people like Glenn Beck. Does the former have a kind of political agenda? Sure. If anthropogenic global warming is real, NOAA can probably get additional grant money to conduct studies to learn more about the phenomenon and how it can be (hopefully) reversed. Does the latter have a political agenda? In the immortal words of a near-VP, you betcha! It’s an agenda of promoting the interests of our corporate overlords above and beyond anything else, including the common good. Sure, parts of the U.S. coastline and the Indian Subcontinent may be underwater in the next 50 years, but why would ExxonMobil care about that?

To paraphrase my wife’s favorite band, you may as well be arguing with a tree.