There’s a problematic question in journalism and science communication. Various people are asking journalists to stop asking politicians whether they “believe in climate change” and to start asking whether they understand it.
The problem is that outside of the odd politician who was actually a climate scientist, the vast majority of people can’t claim to understand climate change or global warming with any degree of sincerity or completeness. At best, the average layperson or even well educated layperson will have a superficial understanding of anything beyond the basics.
Let’s take an analogy that might be useful. Do you understand gravity, or just believe in it? Let’s test this out.
Lowest level of understanding
- Can you perform an experiment that demonstrates gravity’s existence? Yes, anyone can drop something.
Moderate level of understanding
- Can you perform an experiment that quantifies gravitational pull? Yes, drop a ball from two meters and time it until it hits the ground. Some simple math gives you ~9.8 meters per second squared. That math is beyond some people. It was beyond everyone until Newton.
- Can you perform an experiment which assesses the impact of other forces to isolate gravitational pull? Yes, drop a ball and a feather from two meters and time them. The ball hits first telling you that air resistance slows down the feather more than the ball. Then you can isolate the impact of air resistance on the ball and refine the estimation of the acceleration due to gravity.
High level of understanding
- Can you generalize the effect to any two large objects? That requires an understanding of how far gravity reaches and how it changes with distance. It’s very doable, but this was beyond everyone for a long time. It’s beyond most people today.
- Can you perform an experiment to determine whether gravity stays the same regardless of distance? Sure, you could perform the ball dropping experiment at sea level and at the top of a mountain. But you would have to account for the squished ball shape of the earth and the various places where there’s a bit more mass leading to a bit more gravity. And then you’d have to account for the variance in air resistance between sea level and 3 or 4 kilometres up. It’s very doable, but the variance is still tiny. Most people
couldn’t perform the experiment with sufficient rigour, deal with the confounding factors, or do the math.
- Could you calculate the trajectory of asteroids based on gravity? Well, we can observe the orbital periods of the moon, the sun, and the earth. We can start figuring out from there and a whack of observations their masses. We can figure out from our experiments how rapidly gravitational forces fall off. But most people couldn’t calculate the orbital mechanics of anything even with all of the data and formulas provided.
Excellent level of understanding
- Can you explain how gravity impacts time? Probably not. Einstein figured that one out.
- Can you explain gravity in terms of the curvature of space-time? Probably not. Einstein figured that one out.
- Can you explain how gravity affects light? Probably not. Einstein again.
- Can you compare the force of gravity to the other three fundamental interactions of nature? Probably not.
- Can you define any experiments which would help with the above three? Probably not.
Nobel Prize level of understanding
- Can you define how gravity does what it does? No one actually has a great explanation for what gravity is doing.
Personally, my ability to say that “I understand” diminishes fairly rapidly. I haven’t but could do the math in the high level of understanding category. I haven’t and possibly couldn’t do the math in the excellent understanding category. But I can generally assert a few things about each of those points which I accept are true. In other words, I believe them to be true based on my reading, not because I have done the math or experiments. I accept the authority of science. Some people accept gravity but couldn’t do the moderate level work.
But the GPS in people’s cell phones works regardless of them being able to do the math, which explains why the GPS satellite doesn’t fall out of the sky. And planes fly regardless of whether the passenger in them can explain how the force of gravity is being counteracted.
This is a lengthy way of saying that something which everyone can interact with directly by dropping something becomes so increasingly arcane that even very smart and educated people end up in situations where they just accept the science. In other words, where they assert belief, not understanding.
What does this have to do with climate change?
The vast majority of people have never seen any evidence of climate change — they just see weather. They haven’t looked at historical temperature records for the globe and crunched the numbers. They haven’t compared surface to satellite temperature data. They haven’t personally gone to multiple glaciers every year for 30 years to compare their relative retreats. They haven’t amassed data on weather events and done statistical analysis that would show the impacts of climate change or not.
At best, some people see that spring is earlier than in their childhood, but most people would probably question their memories rather than the seasons.
Climate change is diffuse. Climate change is happening incredibly quickly by geological standards, but incredibly slowly by human standards. We can’t easily see it.
Can anyone do a test of the basics of climate change? Absolutely, the CO2 heating experiment is grade school science. Vapour? Ditto. What about the net effect of CO2 on vapour? Oops. Clouds? Oops. Air pollution? Oops.
What about atmospheric heat transfer to oceans? Oops. Back again? Oops.
What about the carbon cycle? Oops.
Most of climate science is beyond most people. For the majority of people, they just accept that, like GPS, the scientists are right. They accept the authority of peer-reviewed science, the scientific consensus, and the reports of the IPCC. They believe it to be true.
Most people don’t understand climate change at more than the simplest of levels, and even then they aren’t able to define and perform experiments which could assess it.
Climate change skeptics and deniers look at this and their brains melt and run out of their ears. Yet they accept that GPS works, that planes fly, and that people have walked on the moon, stuff that they have a pretty equal lack of understanding of (as with climate change).
So what do we do?
Well, don’t demand that people understand it all, just ask that they accept it. Or reframe the problem entirely and talk about pollution or sensible risk policies or health.
That’s also why I don’t bother arguing with skeptics or deniers about the basics of global warming and climate change. It’s not that I haven’t read through a ton of the evidence and can counter most of their arguments. It’s just a futile exercise. I’d rather spend my time on advancing solutions.
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