Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Extremism works against reason

I read an article today in Scientific American about how a couple of studies that say we have already passed the tipping point in climate change. These studies claim we will see a catastrophic collapse in the world environment resulting in massive changes after 2050. They say we can expect to see the world population climb to about 8 billion people by 2040 only to see it drop to about 4 billion by 2100. The interesting thing about these studies is that the various factors they track appear to be moving in synch with the model predictions.  They reach their conclusions via different paths, but they both reach the same basic conclusion: We are in for trouble.

Well, maybe.

One of the things non-scientists miss is that scientifically valid studies come with error bars. This is the same as the plus or minus claim you see on political polls. The number quoted is the mid-range, but it could be anywhere between the plus or minus amount. I can throw a dart at a dart board and say that it hit the bulls eye, plus or minus the radius of the dart board and that would cover anything that actually managed to hit the board. But, people tend to focus on the quoted number, not the range.

If we look at the scientific forecasts about what is going to happen we see there are the ones that say there will be little change all the way to the ones that say there is no hope. The truth is, the reality will probably be somewhere in between. It is true that the extremes have a chance of being right, but there are many other options and they all have a chance of being correct, too. 

I believe we are in for some profound changes in our lives in decades to come. I hesitate to accept the premise that there is going to be a catastrophe and that billions of people will die. There are many reasons, but let me point on just one. The author of one of the studies stated that "Whereas in 1972 humans were using 85 percent of the regenerative capacity of the biosphere to support economic activities such as growing food, producing goods and assimilating pollutants, the figure is now at 150 percent—and growing." But, another study says carbon sinks have not reached capacity and instead keep growing in their capacity to absorb carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.The two values are not identical, but they would be related. This causes a question in my mind about the validity of the conclusion of the doomsday scenario.

And, this is a real problem because I'm not the only one that thinks that way. The difference is that when I question the validity of this study I do not automatically reject other studies and dismiss global climate change in its entirety. Other people will do just that. They will point at this study, conclude that it is wrong and then reach the conclusion that all other climate change predictions are also wrong. This is a hard argument to deal with because there is some truth to it, namely, the extremist predictions are probably not correct. But, it is a false argument to say that just because you find fault with the one study, therefore all other studies are equally at fault.

That is where we are in many of the public debates. In that regard, extremist claims like this just do not make the work easier.

So, please, if you find fault with one study do not judge every other study by that standard. Just like the political polls, the truth is probably somewhere in between.

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