Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Is global warming for real or isn't it?

I recently read Michael Crichton's book State of Fear and found it very troubling. Like many who love nature, I believed global warming was harmful and being caused by humans. Then I read State of Fear and I wondered. I started checking out some of the references in the back of the book and trying to do some research myself, and immediately ran into a brick wall.

I'm a teaching assistant, I've got some college, but the whole package of science on the climate is so diverse there isn't any one place to even look for basic information. There are numerous specialties dealing with the ocean, how much the ocean has risen or fallen or stayed the same over various periods of time, what the temperature of the ocean is and what the waves of the ocean are doing and what the composition of the water is, and so forth and so on...and that's just the ocean! Then there's the specialists in the atmosphere, and the specialists in land, and specialists in animals, or plants, or how animals and plants interact with each other, and finally I realized that one point Crichton made in this book is rock-solid. The complexity of the climate of our planet is too great for anyone to claim to know all about it.

Another point he makes that seems to be pretty solid is that scientists who are funded by a certain group are likely to find results that favor that group. Environmentalists hire scientists, and industrialists hire scientists, and politicians hire scientists, and it's only natural to wonder if scientists, being human beings like the rest of us, want to please the people who pay their bills. After all, if you make the wrong findings and lose your funding and have to go out and find another job, that's a pretty strong incentive, even if it's in your subconcious, to keep the guy with the checkbook happy. It's the reason scientists in medicine, for example, do double-blind studies, so that bias can't creep in and affect their results.

Crichton makes a good point when he talks in an afterword about eugenics, a psuedoscience that was once embraced as fervently as global warming is today. Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Winston Churchill, Alexander Graham Bell, and the founder of Stanford University embraced eugenics. The Carnegie and the Rockefeller Foundations both funded research for it. The Supreme Court upheld legislation for it, legislation that was passed in a number of states across the country. And skeptics were shouted down, vilified, and driven out. Today we know that you can't mold the human race by weeding out "undesireables" like the feeble-minded or immigrants or Jews, but that was the theory of eugenics. It was created to address a crisis of the human genome. It was completely without merit, embraced with enthusiasm, and ended with the Holocaust. Is global warming to be compared with eugenics? I don't know. That's the thing. NOBODY KNOWS. We see trends in the weather, and we don't even know if it's normal or not. The earth has gone through warming and cooling cycles all through its history. Is this more of the same? Is the change normal? Harmful? Beneficial? No one knows, and everybody who claims to know is basing their knowledge on research that is not even scientifically valid, because it's not double-blind.

I'm not saying we shouldn't reduce pollution, or recycle, or try to preserve our wilderness. Those are all good things to do and we should all strive to do so. I do think this book made me realize that we need to be better informed-that we need to ask not just what the information is, but where it came from and if it's scientifically sound. Perhaps the most glaring example that people are too enthusiastic and ill-informed is the reference on the petition to ban dihydrogen monoxide, a colorless odorless tasteless substance found in rivers and lakes and the ocean. A substance that clings to fruits and vegetables after you wash them and when consumed makes you sweat and urinate. A substance so corrosive it's been called the universal solvent. Penn and Teller collected signatures on a petition to ban this substance-signatures from environmentalists who claim to love the planet. So what's the catch?

Dihydrogen monoxide is water. That's right-plain old water. And when described in the kind of alarming terms environmentalists use, you can get people to sign a petition to ban it without even asking what it is. If we're really going to save the planet, we have to be better informed. State of Fear challenges the reader to become better informed. The references in back are a good place to start. Maybe the planet is too complex for us to really understand, but one thing I took away from State of Fear is that joining and signing and donating without any idea at all of what's going on is a bad idea. You just might find yourself trying to save the planet from dihydrogen monoxide.