Monday, May 28, 2007

Environmental zealotry

David Suzuki recently published an opinion piece in which he came out very strongly against the climate change deniers, saying that for some, “doubting the science of global warming has taken on an almost religious zeal”.

That got me thinking. He’s right, of course, but to define one side as being zealots doesn’t properly recognize the reality that people on both sides of the issue frequently take positions based on no more than pure faith and, as we know from how well the world’s various religions get along, faith-based belief is virtually impossible to change and does more to separate than to unify.

Now before people jump all over this statement and assert that their position (on both sides) is not based on faith but on real science, let me explain. I have no doubt that scientific evidence and perhaps even proof exists to support the various claims, but I would suggest that the number of people in the entire world who have seen the science and, more importantly, can properly review, assess and understand the science, is numbered in the hundreds. We are dealing with what are arguably the most complex natural systems on earth, and as anyone who has ever been disappointed when the weekend weather doesn’t turn out as was predicted as little as 48 hours previous knows, nature is notoriously bad at meeting expectations.

So what do the other few billion of us do? We listen to the scientists, the politicians, our neighbours, the media, etc., and we make up our own minds based – not on hard, tangible evidence – but on faith. David Suzuki says: Trust me. I’ve seen the evidence and it is frightening. And he says it again, and again, and again, until it becomes a mantra that environmentalists repeat over and over. He has seen and probably understands the science at a level most of us could never aspire to, so we take what he is saying on faith.

On the other hand, you’ve got the deniers, people like author Michael Crichton who’s book State of Fear is essentially several hundred pages of science and pseudo-science used to support the deniers’ “what, me worry?” frame of reference. People who quote that book to me as proof that the environmentalists are all wet, are doing so not because they have some special inside knowledge, but because they have faith in Michael Crichton; that he’s done his homework and the science he is quoting is legitimate and correct.

The stronger the faith, the more closed the mind, and so, as soon as there’s any dialogue between the two polarized camps on this issue, it becomes one side challenging the other side’s faith in what’s right and true with their own faith in what’s right and true. We don’t have the numbers, the hard evidence, the confidence in our models, or even the understanding of how the modeling was done to be able to fight a counter-position that is taken forcefully and aggressively, and usually quite loudly, so we retrench, dig in a little deeper and yell louder ourselves. Not terribly productive, but not at all unlike any inter-faith religious conflict in the history of the world.

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