Not 'just a theory'

Climate-change skeptics misuse scientific language to mislead the public

December 16, 2009|By Glen Scott Allen

The problem of global warming is having its moment in the sun - thanks to factors including a new administration more open to climate-control initiatives; the ongoing Copenhagen conference on climate; new data on the accelerating rate of global warming; and new studies about the economic impact of doing what is necessary to reduce greenhouse gases. Not unexpectedly, such forces have produced reactionary push-back from those who criticize the science on global warming.

And this push-back is producing alarming results. In a recent (unscientific) poll of Sun readers published on this page, an astounding 85 percent answered "yes" to the question: "Do you think the threat posed by climate change has been exaggerated?" In trying to understand how so many people in one of the wealthiest and best-educated states in the nation could believe global warming is "exaggerated," it isn't enough to state that they are in denial. Most citizens who don't work in environmental or scientific industries either don't have access to or don't avail themselves of the actual scientific evidence for global warming.

When they read, for instance, that a recent United Nations study concluded that the evidence of global warming was "unequivocal," they don't look at the actual data; rather, they react to summaries and interpretations of that data. Those summaries and interpretations - in newspapers, television and, increasingly, the Internet - don't always use key words in the same rigorous ways scientists do. Thus, it could be argued that the real debate over global warming is linguistic and cultural, not scientific.

At the center of this debate is what one means by the word "theory." When critics of climate-control initiatives refer to "the theory of global warming," they intend their audience to hear the word "theory" as axiomatically skeptical of the factual basis of global-warming data. They're implying that the idea is more subjective guess than objective explanation. (This linguistic sleight of hand does not apply only to the issue of global warming. Similarly, those who criticize the teaching of evolution in science classes often base their critique on the argument that evolution is "just" a theory and therefore no more valid than competing "theories," such as intelligent design.)

What such critics don't understand or won't admit is that when scientists use the word "theory" they don't mean "we're not certain"; they mean "a supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something" - one based on accumulated scientific evidence and subject to revision based on further evidence. In scientific language "theory" means "as certain as we, as mortals, can be" - as certain as we are, for example, about the "theories" of electricity, DNA replication, atomic energy, the dynamics of flight or plant growth, all of the physical processes that surround us and whose function we assume to be fully understood and irrefutable.

Perhaps this misunderstanding results from the general public's confusion over the difference between a theory and a hypothesis. A hypothesis is a "proposition made as a basis for reasoning, without any assumption of its truth." In this light, it can be said that alternative explanations for the "unequivocal" evidence for global warming are (at best) hypotheses, not theories. But it is certain that, at this point in our understanding, the effect of greenhouse gases on global temperatures (or the evolution of life forms from less to more complex organisms) are the best explanations - the best theories - we have for the accumulated evidence. And while it is one thing to argue that the theory of global warming isn't the only possible explanation for why the ice caps are melting, it is something else entirely to argue they aren't actually melting.

Worse still is to contrast the "theory" of global warming with the "reality" of losing jobs to climate intervention to suggest that such initiatives are a risky investment that threatens jobs. Arguing that we shouldn't do everything we can to slow and perhaps reverse global warming because it would cost jobs is like arguing we shouldn't vaccinate people against diseases because hospital workers depend on sick people for their income. The planet is sick, and curing it should be our first priority; how we shift and "green" our economy is an important discussion, but it's irresponsible to suggest that issue trumps the future of all humankind.

Until we all agree on what we mean by the words used in this debate, we will continue to be stalled in a cultural impasse, and the very real threat of global warming will continue to be dismissed as "just a theory."

Glen Scott Allen is the author of "Master Mechanics & Wicked Wizards: Images of the American Scientist as Hero and Villain from Colonial Times to the Present," from which portions of this essay are excerpted. He was professor of literature and cultural studies at Towson University from 1992 to 2006. His Web site is GlenScottAllen.com and his e-mail is gscottallen1@comcast.net.

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