The doc says: “You got a problem!”

Neat letter to the Sydney Morning Herald (Aug 17):

I’m not a climate scientist per se, but I am a senior Australian scientist (biologist) with interests and expertise in environmental science. Reading Miranda Devine’s piece ( ”Bring it on, Labor, pull that trigger”, August 15-16), it occurred to me that in the climate change debate there are serious misconceptions about the way science actually works. So let’s shift the context from climate change to medicine.

Your health declines. You see 10 specialists and nine tell you that you have a serious, complex medical condition that requires surgery.

The 10th says you are fine and there is no need to do anything. You follow the advice of the 10th and do nothing for a year. Your health does not improve. You go back to see the specialists, and nine tell you that the condition is worse and you need the surgery urgently. The 10th still says you don’t need to do anything and in fact argues that the condition is not real. What would you do?

This is exactly the state of play in climate science. The vast majority of specialists in the field say we have a major problem, that it is caused by humans, and it is probably getting worse. This is not the same as ”proof”. It is difficult if not impossible to ”prove” complex environmental (or many other) scientific theories. Climate change science is not a high school geometry problem.

Instead what happens is that evidence is gathered that supports a theory, alternative explanations are considered and discounted on the evidence, and a consensus view emerges. As a consequence of this process the overall consensus on human-induced climate change is now quite strong among experts in the field. Thus comments by Senator Fielding or others of like mind who deny climate change, or the need for us to act, on the basis that ”the science is unproven” or ”science does not work by consensus” are misleading. They do not reflect how most science actually works.

I suspect my comments may actually be used to argue against the reality of climate change (”Senior scientist says climate change not proven!”). In response I go back to my parable. Your health or even your life is on the line and nine of 10 specialists propose a diagnosis and subsequent course of action. What would you do?

Professor Peter Steinberg Mosman

It’s a good analogy I think. It makes me stand back and think, I might want to believe the advice of the tenth specialist. But it’s my health, and I’ll act if I need to.


4 Responses to “The doc says: “You got a problem!””

  1. 1 drp53
    September 22, 2009 at 11:05 am

    Good analogy. Just for fun, let me refine it a bit. First off, let’s say you are not a human being but a huge complex creature with a life span of a million years. And let’s say that during your long lifespan parts of your body change. Over the course of centuries and millennia some parts grow, some shrink, new and surprisingly different parts are added, and some parts die and fall off. Now, go on with the doctor part again.

    • 2 redstardogfish
      September 22, 2009 at 11:54 am

      Nice. Thanks. Now that gets me thinking Big Philosophy. What if we completely de-anthropomorphise this completely? That means no more ‘doctor’ metaphor. But what if we think of the earth as a complex, changing organism. At this phase in its existence it has a tumour, or a parasite if you like. Maybe it is like one of those parasites that consumes its host until it makes its own existence untenable, and it dies out. But in the case of the earth, chances are that life, in new forms and new patterns of dominance, would go on. It brings us to two unavoidable ethical questions: first, do we have an obligation to our species to maintain the conditions for its survival, and second, do we have an obligation to the wider environment to keep the system stable? Maybe in the big picture our species track record (a blink of the eye for the earth) is similar to one of its massive events, like an asteroid collision, or a mega volcano, which changes the conditions for survival of its species. I don’t know. I think the earth might be happy enough to see the back of us, but I think our ethics are more human-bound – we do have an obligation to our children’s children’s children.

  2. 3 finely
    November 26, 2009 at 10:34 pm

    Nice blog. I wish the two sides of the debate didn’t align so cleanly with the two political camps (take Al Gore and George Bush, for example)…. It seems impossible for anyone (and scientists in particular) to divorce themselves from their political views, or from some other overarching private moral perceptions that would have very public consequences, on this one….

    Hoping seaweed makes a comeback….

    • 4 redstardogfish
      December 7, 2009 at 7:38 am

      I agree with this desire that things didn’t line up so politically. Because I like the idea of science! But this political alignment is disturbing. One wonders which comes first – the political persuasion or the scientific proposition? And what I find intriguing is that in general nobody thinks that they are holding their position in bad faith. Not many on the left (I believe) think “This science is a crock, but I’ll pretend it is true so that we can implement large-scale control of the population.” They genuinely hold that the scientific process is sound, and that these are the results it is delivering. And on the right, people (I hope) don’t think, “The facts are clear but I’ll cause mischief and put about lies to prevent any political action.” They genuinely believe that the scientific process has been perverted by special interests. But it does seem that one’s political persuasion is preeminent.

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