That was what climate sceptics Marc Morano and astronaut Walt Cunningham got asked during the COP19 climate conference in Poland, by a young lady who said that they were ignoring “the science”. She starts up near the beginning of this YouTube video clip:
I guess that for people like her “the science” is always definitive and authoritative and can never be questioned. “Scientists” are people who know.
But I guess the way that I see science is that it’s all about trying to understand what isn’t at present well understood, or even understood at all. Scientists are trying to get to know what they currently don’t know. So the front line of science is the border between what is known and what is unknown.
So I see science as a bit like a campfire burning in the night. In the light of the fire you can see a lot of the things nearest to it. But further out they’re harder to see. And beyond that everything is lost in shadows. What we “know” lies in a little circle around the campfire. And what we don’t know lies outside it, and extends for hundreds of miles in all directions. So what we don’t know is vastly more than what we know.
And so, when I come across some scientist who has won a Nobel Prize for finding out something we didn’t know before, I just see him as someone who made the campfire burn a little bit brighter, so that we got to see a little bit further. But I don’t see such people as “knowing” very much at all. They just know a little bit more than most people.
Really we shouldn’t see scientists as people who know, but as people who don’t know but who are trying to find out. After all, that’s what scientific research is all about: trying to understand things that are not understood right now. If we already knew everything that we needed to know, we wouldn’t need scientists to carry out the research to find out.
So the idea of “the science” that this young lady had – as a body of final, authoritative, definitive knowledge – is wholly mistaken. Science is the process of finding things out. And it’s a process that never ends. We just slowly build a bigger and bigger campfire, and see further and further into the surrounding darkness. We never finally and definitively “know” everything. That’s just our aspiration.
And in the case of climate science, we’ve only been studying it for about 150 years. We only have temperature records that go back that sort of period of time. And it’s only about 70 years since we found out about the jet stream. The Japanese were the first to discover it during WW2, and used it to send balloons carrying bombs to the USA (where they actually killed one person). And it’s only in the last 30 or 40 years that we’ve been able to see the Earth from satellites orbiting the Earth. And it’s only in the last 20 or 30 years that we’ve acquired super-computers that can perform the zillions of calculations that are needed to run global climate simulation models (which don’t seem to work very well). And given all this, it’s nonsense for anyone to ever say that “the science is settled”. Of course it isn’t. Right now is a time of maximum growth and development in climate science. None of it could possibly be described as “settled”.
One of the big problems of our time is that a lot of people – like this young lady – think that scientists know everything, when actually they don’t. And so a lot of people have one helluva surprise waiting in store for them, when most of the scientific predictions come to nothing, and they discover that scientists don’t really know very much more than anybody else does. And I wonder, once she realises how little we really know about anything, how well that young lady will continue to sleep at night.