20/08/2009 - 00:00

When science becomes the new religion

20/08/2009 - 00:00


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A healthy dose of scepticism is a mandatory job requirement for a journalist.

When science becomes the new religion

LAST year, you may remember, our television screens regularly brought us news of food shortages.

The poster child for this was Haiti, where food riots actually took place regularly. I've read some serious material on this and it's disturbing. In the slums they bake biscuits out of mud to feed people.

This was yet another argument in the never-ending bombardment of bad news about global warming and how we, the rich energy users, were condemning the poor to starvation as an increasingly hot climate killed off food production.

I've often dwelt on why we never saw food riots in neighbouring Dominican Republic. After all, these two nations actually share the same Caribbean island, so it's remarkable that global warming should affect just the western side of it.

Of course, it doesn't take much research to find that Haiti is placed as one of the world's poorest nations and that its neighbour, while poor by our standards, is among the wealthiest Latin American countries.

So much for global warming; this is just mismanagement.

There has been a lot of this going around. Examples of real or perceived events that are linked back to human activity, reinforcing the views of many urban dwellers that the world is on a climatic precipice.

I use this as illustration to admit that I find myself quite cynical about the global hysteria over the weather. 

Being sceptical is the nature of a journalist. Nevertheless, you only have so much time and energy to be so. Like any job, it is best if you concentrate your efforts on your areas of expertise.

Therefore, just like any member of the public, I'll tend to accept most of society's mores based on my own knowledge and experience.

But every now and then something becomes so big that you have to share the love, so to speak, and widen your scepticism to matters that previously did not concern you.

I found this with climate change when an emissions trading scheme started to become reality.

I had always been a believer that man influences climate. Ever since I was in Bangkok for the Thai New Year celebration to mark the beginning of 1993, I have believed man made the weather. Then, overnight, I witnessed the climate change from hot and sultry to magnificently balmy, all because the factories closed down and the workers returned to their rural bases for their one brief break a year. It was extraordinary but, as it turns out, quite an extrapolation to believe this is a global phenomenon.

More recently I have started thinking that many urbanites believe in climate change because they are making just such extrapolations.

This year I decided that my own personal experience of the weather was not enough on which to base support for the economic shift that was being proposed for an emissions trading scheme. So I decided to go on a journey of discovery.

Anyone can do this. I did it in my own time, starting with simple Google searches and following leads and chasing arguments and counter arguments. My starting point was the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, presuming this would provide all the answers. Perhaps it does, but not to the uninitiated, so I sought explanations of what it was seeking to say.

I have not been comforted by what I have found.

There are numerous, well-written websites and blogs that throw significant doubt on the theories (and that is what they are) put forward by the alarmists who will have us all wearing hairshirts and eating mud biscuits - just in case man might be precipitously influencing the earth's climate.

Just as not all scientists can be on some gravy train of climate change research handouts, so too can there not be an army of unpaid amateur sceptics just for the sake of it.

These people - trained in a variety of expertises - consistently get back to one message - carbon dioxide pollution may not be the problem.

Don't get me wrong, real pollution is bad. But somehow we've jumped across some great divide to blame CO2 for something that many experts say it simply cannot do - cause global warming.

I've attended the lectures: from Al Gore to Ian Plimer. Both are very believable; the former less so after you've heard the latter.

I've read the books, on both sides, and found the sceptics' view the one I feel comfortable with. Tim Flannery, one of my literary heroes, is an alarmist of the highest order. He writes of a lifeless world dominated by a purple sea. He also writes of Gaia, using the primal Greek goddess of the earth as a term for the earth's natural systems, in tones that, to me, strike of a devotion that goes way beyond science.

What concerns me is that this is an example of the world going full circle. Those who claimed science is the answer have turned it into a new religion - complete with its own heretics.

And, be warned, the sceptics are starting to get a little evangelical as well, which does the cause of seeking truth (which is what scepticism should be) a disservice.

I've noted over the past few months that I am not alone in noticing this. In company, I introduce the subject as an innocent question: 'what do you think of climate change', and await the answer.

Interestingly, in hushed tones, almost exclusively the response is doubt and disbelief. This is from friends, acquaintances, family. Not all, but most. Mainly they are concerned about appearing out of step. All of them are smart people.

In this small space, I deliberately have not gone into the traditional sceptic's counter arguments. There simply isn't room.

One of the books I've found comfort in is called Poles Apart; it attempts to rationally dissect the arguments of both sides of the fence and examine them in detail.

While this book comes to the conclusion that there is a case for man-made climate change, it does so dispassionately and, I hasten to add, without alarm. In fact, after a rigorous look at the facts, the authors certainly did not suggest the case against CO2 was overwhelming, only that they gave it the benefit of the doubt.

Although the authors believe we should act to mitigate the possibility of man-made climate change, I took from this objective work that there was not a lot to panic about when it comes to the weather.

There is plenty of time to convince doubters like me of the facts before we embark on some ill-conceived economy-wrecking crusade.

As well meaning as an emissions trading scheme may be, if the alarmists are wrong they will do the opposite of their quest, which is to leave things in a better state for future generations.

Even worse, by weakening our economy we could make ourselves more vulnerable to climate change if it does turn out to be extreme and not caused by man at all.

It would be like removing our clothes in the hope that that would stop another ice age. As silly as that example might be, history is full of societies that have done equally ridiculous things at their peril. Strange belief systems and pseudo-science were often to blame.

We are supposed to be smarter than that.

Anyway, if you are surprised or disappointed about my view, and have made no effort to find out the facts for yourself, might I suggest you do so rather than relying on gut feeling or political leadership. You might just discover that the politicians of the world have been doing what they do best - following public opinion instead of leading people where they ought to go.

I am prepared to be convinced otherwise, as should we all. Scepticism is healthy, blind opposition is not.

In the interim, I don't want to join the Haitians.


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