Friday, May 15, 2009

Tahoe Ticker Column 3: Climate Change

I've worked in a number of areas over the years (decades?), but they've all had something in common. In every case, the people who were most prominent and respected in the various fields were those who stuck very close to the evidence.

I began my career in brain research, and that's kind of a no-brainer. You do what you do, measure what happens, analyze the data, and report out on what it shows. As a clinical psychologist it was a little less clear, but I quickly learned that therapy was most effective when it dealt with what was actually happening in the patient's life, and interpretations and advice worked best when they stayed close to the facts.

In business consulting, one of the most highly respected books in the field is "Good to Great" by Jim Collins. I've talked to Collins about the research and writing that went into that book, and what struck me was the integrity of his sticking to the data even when it didn't go where he expected it to go. One of the major findings in that book is the importance of leadership in moving companies from being good and solid to being great. Jim had believed that leadership was an overrated concept, and was chagrined, annoyed even, when the data said otherwise.

So why is it that when the conservative forces in this country and the so-called Christian Right have a problem with an issue of science, evidence and the scientific method suddenly don't matter? Take climate change. The data are not 100% on either side of the question. If the 20th Century taught us anything, it is that science doesn't allow for absolute certainty. So scientific inquiry proceeds based on the preponderance of the evidence, not "beyond a reasonable doubt."

I'm not an expert on climate control, so when I want to learn about it I go to those who are – climatologists, geologists, earth scientists, marine scientists, etc. As a scientist myself, I look with great skepticism at, say, an economist making statements about climatology. The Right, apparently, has no such problem. Those on the Right who would have us believe that climate change isn't a problem, or that human activity is not a factor in what from the evidence looks like a potentially disastrous trend toward warming seem willing to quote economists, government professors, doctors, pretty much anyone who will say what they want to hear. On the scientific side of the argument, the alarm is being raised by people whom we would expect to know what they're talking about – who have done the research, gathered the data, and who, to my relatively untutored eye, don't seem to be straying too far from the evidence. Yet the Right seems to want to play "we have as many 'experts' as you do," and expects that to carry the argument.

With a bit of a twist, the situation is the same with stem cell research, Scientifically, there is no question that stem cells hold the possibility of great medical advances. Many people oppose stem cell research on what amount to moral grounds, particularly where the cells are derived from embryos. I don't agree with them, but I can respect their moral convictions without endorsing them. What I can't respect is cloaking those moral arguments in arguments about the efficacy of stem cells, arguments the data simply do not support.

And don't get me started on evolution vs. creationism. If you want to believe in creationism, great, but don't try to use science's always being open to new evidence to cloak what is, at root, a religious, not a scientific position.

The point is, let's stick to the data.

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