After watching Australian politician Craig Kelly being denounced as a “climate denier” on Sky TV by Piers Morgan and Laura Tobin, I found myself wondering for about the thousandth time how it was that people become so certain about things they know nothing about.
How much do Kelly, Morgan, and Tobin know about climate? I may be wrong, but I bet that it’s next to nothing (even if Tobin does happen to be a meteorologist). Same applies to Russell Crowe and Jennifer Aniston.
So why the certainty? Why the intensity? Shouldn’t all concerned simply declare that they don’t know anything about climate, and so have no strong opinions about it? Why does that never happen? Why is it that the exact opposite always seems to happen.
Perhaps the explanation is this: The less anyone knows about something, the more certain they will be about it. And conversely, the more anyone knows about something, the less certain they will be about it. And that’s why “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
Perhaps in part it’s because the less you know about something, the easier it looks. I know next to nothing about mountaineering, and so it all looks perfectly simple to me: you climb mountains the same way as you climb into bed. It’s probably only when you actually try to climb a mountain that you find out how difficult it actually is, and you realise it’s not so simple after all.
And perhaps that’s what’s happening with the climate. The less you know about it, the easier it looks: the climate works in the exact same way as running a hot bath. What more do you need to know about it? So everyone becomes an instant expert on the climate after reading about it for 10 minutes. It’s easy. And within 10 minutes you’re accusing people of being “climate deniers”.
I’ve been going a different route. I’ve been building my own climate model for the past two years. And I don’t think the climate is in the least bit easy to understand. Just to get the sunlight right, I’ve had to construct a Keplerian orbital simulation model. And to model the radiative exchanges within the atmosphere I’ve needed to use multiple fourth-power Stefan-Boltzmann equations. And while I can do conductive and radiative heat transfers, I still don’t know how to model convective heat flow in air or water. And I haven’t really got much of a grasp of humidity and precipitation. And I’ve only just started to think about wind movement in the atmosphere, and currents in the oceans. Building my own model is in many ways a process of discovering how little I know about all the processes at work in the atmosphere. It’s a humbling experience. And I sometimes wonder whether, when I’ve understood everything I need, and got all the equations I need, whether I’ll have a model that’s so complex, and with so many variables, that it will behave chaotically, and I will wind up finding out nothing at all about the Earth’s climate.
Perhaps that’s why most of the world’s great scientists and great mathematicians are very often rather quiet, modest people who will speak hesitantly, using many ifs and buts. Because the more they know about something, the more aware they become how complicated it all really is. And that’s why it’s the Russell Crowes and the Piers Morgans who are the loudmouths slanging out everybody else, precisely because they know next to nothing about it.
It’s also why we have Greta Thunberg, who one can say with almost perfect certainty knows absolutely nothing at all about climate (and even less than Russell Crowe), if only because she never goes to school. Hers is the perfect certainty that comes with perfect ignorance.
It’s not just climate science. It’s the same with everything else. Including smoking and smoking bans. Everybody knows that lung cancer is caused by smoking tobacco. It’s quite simple, and perfectly obvious. And ten minutes after learning this, they’ll have become rabid antismokers who want to ban smoking everywhere, and who will regard tobacco companies as the embodiment of pure evil.
Perhaps it’s how wars start. They start when a lot of people become perfectly certain about something they know next to nothing about. Imagine that you’re living in Vienna in late June 1914, and your next door neighbour tells you that she’s heard that Archduke Franz Ferdinand has just been assassinated in Sarajevo, except that she thinks he was an Archbishop rather than an Archduke, and he was assassinated in Samarkand rather than Sarajevo. And you’re shocked and dismayed – even though you’d never heard of him before – at the thought of hundreds of people firing off shotguns at him at point blank range. It’s all you need to know, and so ten minutes later you’ll be out on the street with thousands of other people demanding reprisals, and will sign up the next day to march off to Samarkand to teach the Whirling Dervishes a lesson. Isn’t that pretty much how it works? Marry in haste, repent at leisure. And when you come back four years later, minus an arm and a leg as well as many of your former friends, you probably will indeed repent.