It was a revolution in the deepest sense of the word. A new science, quantum mechanics, was sweeping across physics. Its advocates were piling up impressive explanations for new phenomena while its detractors stood on the sidelines complaining bitterly that none of it made sense. Surveying the progress and the carnage one of the new science’s founders, Max Planck, penned these now famous words:
A scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.
Planck’s words bear a harsh truth in the wake of Hurricane Sandy a month of ago. For those who call themselves “climate skeptics” (but often take a position that is more appropriately referred to as denial) the storm marks a turning point. There are two paths forward and only one them embraces the reality of science, its methods and its ethics. Ironically that path is exactly what allows these skeptics to once again embrace science if, in fact, science and not politics was their true interest from the start.
Being wrong in science is not only a good thing; it’s to be expected. The trick is to keep a scientific stand from becoming a personal one.
I have been wrong a number of times in my scientific career. In my younger years I was a fierce advocate for an idea about how the super fast beams of plasma called “astrophysical jets” are formed. These jets are everywhere in astronomy, from new born stars to black holes. I had a theory that dense gas in the environment was all you needed to “collimate” a spherical streams of gas into a jet. The prevailing opinion said no, magnetic fields were the jet-making agents.
More data was gathered, more theory was explored and, it turned out, I was wrong.
Did my colleagues call me nasty names? Did they scribble insults on the department’s bathroom walls? Nope (at least not as far as I know). We all understood the game. The data had had its say and now I had to back down.
That’s the way the scientific cookie crumbles.
Hurricane Sandy put a frighteningly real and expensive face on what seemed to be a never-ending academic argument about “hockey sticks” and parts per million of CO2. When combined with this summer’s extraordinary (and ongoing) drought, Sandy pushed millions of folks over the edge in terms of the simple question “What does climate change mean?” And while a real bipartisan political discussion on what to do about a changing climate remains, the reality that the climate is changing is finally sinking in.
Faced with this new reality climate skeptics face a simple choice. On the one hand they can stick to the script. They dig in and argue that a single storm has nothing to do with climate change. As I have discussed before, it’s true that laying blame on single events poses its challenges. But the new field of attribution science is changing that uncertainty, making it clear that climate change will, inevitably, mean more “weather on steroids.” As more extreme droughts, heat waves and storm surges pile up, skeptics hiding behind “How do you know that was climate change?” are going to start sounding pretty hollow.
The other choice the climate skeptics face is the time-honored and scientifically honorable choice. Acknowledge the weight of data and acknowledge the weight of its interpretation. Honor the process and, finally, honor the beauty and power of science.
There is no shame in having taken a position that proves to be wrong. There is also still room for honest scientific skepticism that engages with the current state of the field and seeks to better its understanding. But remain stubborn in your adherence to sweeping rejections of an entire field in spite of the data and you suffer the worst of all fates in scientific inquiry: irrelevance. The field, and the world, just move on. It’s that dichotomy that cleanly sums up the difference between skepticism and denial.