Jamie Andrews

Is it possible to be ‘agnostic’ towards science?

I’ve just had the rather surreal experience of reading Simon Hoggart’s column in Saturday’s Guardian, in which he poses the question: “Is climate change the new faith?”, with the strapline “Fanatics must stop playing fast and loose with global warming data”. He goes on to describe himself as ‘agnostic’, and more so since the various errors in a number of  climate change related studies have been uncovered in the past week.

As someone who works to help encourage a reduction in carbon emissions because of the overwhelming scientific evidence proving that human activity is causing potentially catastrophic climate change, I felt rather affronted by Hoggart’s assertions that somehow I am an irrational ‘believer’ of some sort. The implication is that because I am trying to do something about reducing emissions, that means that I am blind to any evidence that might be presented that truly questions the scientific consensus. I feel rather frustrated to be patronised in this way.

But more than that, I’m just plain confused about what Hoggart means when he says he is a ‘climate change agnostic’.

Does he mean he is undecided about whether or not the climate is changing at all? Well, even without human activity accelerating the warming trend, the climate would be changing in one way or another as it has done for millons of years, so I’m pretty sure he doesn’t mean that.

Does he mean that he is undecided about the world warming? This would be quite a radical position, as even the most vehement commentators concede that the observed temperature record since mass industrialisation began is accurate.

Presumably he means that he is agnostic as to whether or not humans are causing this rise in temperature. I’m going to work on that assumption and try and clarify what he means by using some basic scientific principles (I’m not a scientist but I got my GCSEs and I think the concepts that require discussion here are simple enough).

Firstly, burning fossil fuels (e.g. coal) releases CO2. To call that into question would require a radical rethink of the foundations of pretty much all physics and chemistry. There are lots of very simple experiments which prove it.

Secondly, CO2 is a warming gas. If you were to take two test tubes filled with air, and increase the concentration of CO2 in one of them before shining a bulb on both, the temperature would increase in the one with higher CO2 concentration because of the insulating properties of the gas (“Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas as it transmits visible light but absorbs strongly in the infrared and near-infrared“). Again, this is a pretty basic foundation of physics/chemistry and the experiment is simple to conduct.

So before it’s even necessary to begin consulting the vast body of evidence collected in scientific journals, I have a working hypothesis that at a macro-level our atmosphere will behave in a similar way to the gas in the test tube in the above experiment. This is my “null hypothesis”: the default position that I will believe until I am offered compelling evidence to contradict it.

What Hoggart seems to be saying is that he won’t accept this null hypothesis. Instead, he will remain agnostic. And whilst remaining agnostic about some basic tenets of science, he has the tenacity to suggest that global warming may be “an irrational belief designed for a rationalist world”. I’m sorry, am I missing something? Where on earth does the irrationality come in?

What I think is a far more likely explanation for Hoggart’s position is that he is, like most of us rational beings, terrified by the prospect that humanity may be rapidly destroying the ecosystem upon which we depend. But unlike myself, who is prepared to take a big gulp and concede that it’s looking pretty likely that this is the case (i.e. as likely that smoking causes lung cancer, or HIV causes AIDS), he hasn’t quite got enough courage to fully confront it. I cannot see any other reason that an intelligent human mind would be able to produce such a paradoxical statement that it is the people who accept the majority view of science who are the irrational ones!

In any case, phrasing it in terms of religious belief (which is exactly what Hoggart does when he proclaims himself an agnostic) is massively over-simplifying the issue. Of course our climate is hugely complex, and there have clearly been errors in various studies, but at no point has any evidence been presented that contradicts the null hypothesis above (in fact pretty much all the evidence supports it and this has definitely not changed in recent months, despite the errors identified). So unless Hoggart admits that it is a spiritual belief of some sort that breeds his agnosticism, I cannot see any justification for such a position.

We may discover at some point that against all the overwhelming odds that a world in which we have much higher concentrations of CO2 is still liveable. For example, scientists’ predictions about the behaviour of natural carbon sinks in a warmer/higher CO2 world may turn out to be wrong, as this is clearly a difficult thing to predict.

Or a technological leap forward could mean that we can grow food without relying on the natural carbon cycle as it currently stands, we adapt to extreme weather by developing sufficiently hurricane-resistant buildings, and we are able to desalinate water enough to withstand widespread drought etc.

It could also be argued that short-term well-being and happiness trump long-term considerations for our race as a whole, and therefore that we should carry on roughly as we are regardless of man-made climate change.

Discussing global warming and our need to act (or not) along these lines would be fine, because it’s a rational debate and one which allows all sides to utilise the valuable knowledge built up through centutries of progress in scientific and philosophical thought..

But to actually try and flip the script so fundamentally that it’s the people who accept the general tenets of the science as the irrational, faith-driven voice in the debate is utter insanity, and I can only conclude that Simon Hoggart is a nutter.

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