Saturday, March 21, 2015

Become Your Own Expert! ('cause you have to)


That scary thing that if you "believe" in it, you must be a greeny, socialist Democrat who wants to tax and regulate us into the next Great Depression --- and if you don't "believe" in it, you must be an ultra-conservative, market-loving, trickle-down Republican oil company shill.

This kind of useless false dichotomy rules the way our society talks about issues...and I'm really irritated by it. Though I may have struggled to get most of my college homework turned in on time...the experience of a liberal arts education definitely had an impact on me; training me to be open minded, to listen to all sides of an think critically. I think critical thinking is frighteningly absent from today's political, social and media landscape. And here's a great example!

This argument is as flawed as it is stupid...and this guys makes WAY more than me to take part in our legislative process...scary...but not what I'm writing about today.

My interest (read: obsession) with climate science began with a paragon of Science Communication: Carl Sagan. Episode 4 of his seminal 1980 PBS Broadcast Cosmos: A Personal Journey is titled "Heaven and Hell" and examines the climates of Venus and Mars in the context of solar system and other planetary science...and ends with a critique of human industrial activity which is uncharacteristically piercing and forceful for Sagan. It got me thinking: climate change is this contentious thing that everyone argues about...but is it real? 

Now...if I were to ask myself the same question about the death of Jared Fogle, the internet would very quickly answer my question definitively. If I were to ask the same question about water molecules and cohesion, I would get a similarly quick and clear answer. Not so with climate science, which is what I found when I brought my climate questions to the internet. It's a mess...a huge mess. 

I have found a few websites who (mostly for their strict comments policies) keep things pretty plain and scientific. Their articles are very straightforward and honest about uncertainty, and the comment threads are open discussions (mostly) back and forth about the findings, their impacts, etc. These have been helpful. But there are two problems I've found with my "research" so far. 

1. The insane political nature of this issue causes extreme suspicion on both sides. I could feel the utmost confidence in something I had read extensively on...but there is still that nagging fear, "what if the scientists are making it all up?!" I really don't think that's true, I have pretty darn good faith in scientists (maybe more on that later). I'm wired by my social surroundings to think it's probably more true that the $$$ oil industry is working a disinformation campaign. That is not unprecedented for big industry. But really I don't want to spend much time on that rat's nest of politic either! I just want to know what's up with the climate, for real, at least as well as the scientists know. Maybe that's a lofty goal, which brings me to the second issue with my research thus far. 

2. While the more sciency sites are far less full of vitriol, they are far more full of science...equations, physics and statistics that are truly beyond me. How can I hope to validate a claim or feel secure in my repeating of it without a really solid understanding. I can certainly follow along with the broad concepts, and I'll definitely expound on them in posts specifically on climate topics, but a misuse of a scientific law, or a fudged statistic could easily slip by me.

I think I'm at a minor impasse where my next steps in exploring this field are to obtain raw data (pretty well available) and make some of my own analyses, as well as brush up on statistics and maybe physics...I think I need to start engaging closer to the science. I had the idea to write about this after seeing this blog post, where an amateur has plotted data on his own to draw some of his own conclusions, which is where I think I'm headed next.

That's a lot of introduction to really say this: 

I don't know if it's right that the political landscape has gotten so out of hand that someone who cares about the environment and the state of the climate has to become a self-made expert. The misinformation, the anger, the partisan squabbling, and the conspiracy paranoia has convoluted this issue so much that I don't know who to trust. (I lean toward the science, but that irrational other side is loud in my ear). Not that self-educating is bad, it's great, it's what I hope to chronicle in this blog. But I feel a little backed into a corner by the noise surrounding climate science.

If even the medium predicted effects of anthropogenic climate warming come to pass, it will push us beyond the bounds of our reasonable habitability on this planet (and our adaptability is way better than many animal species). Aside from that, our ways of producing energy and transporting ourselves are not nearly the best they can be...they involve a complicated, wasteful use of resources and are full of negative externalities aside from enhancing the greenhouse effect. The point is...these are truly pivotal issues for the future of our species, and I would like to be able to hear expertise on the issue and push for change accordingly.

I'm wary of my ability to do that. There will always be the response of the other side of the partisan aisle. Can I really say "you're just plain wrong" if I can't actually show the data myself? While I love an academic challenge, I don't like the reasons for this one's necessity. 

I don't have any good answers, for now I'm going to keep learning and growing in my understanding of this topic.

 I'm also going to seek out more ways I can actually make a difference.

As usual...more on that later. 

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