Thursday, October 15, 2009

Global Climate Change — Whom Do You Trust for Information?

[Quick note: When I began this blog post, it was going to be about finding honest, complete information about global climate change. It spun off into an epistemological tangent. My apologies if you don't think this truly falls under the "global climate change" topic for Blog Action Day 09 that prompted this post. What can I say? Sometimes you control the pen, sometimes the pen controls you.]

As both individuals and governments scramble to find ways to slow or reverse the progress of global climate change, one barrier consistently gets in the way: The information barrier.

This may sound like an odd statement, what with this ginormous, ubiquitous Internet thingy out there feeding us terabytes of new information every hour. There's plenty of information — or data, or just words, depending on how you look at it — about climate change out there on the Interwebs. A quick Google search for "climate change" yields 46.5 million web hits in under a second. So it isn't the lack of information that's the problem, it's too much information. With so many words and images and tables and charts and graphs to choose from, how do we separate the noise from the music? The opinions from the facts? The jejune meanderings of schmoes like me from the hard data from the people working the front lines of discovery?

And when we do find a morsel of seemingly good data, how much can we trust it?

Government debate — salted with both expert opinions and million-dollar science budgets as well as corporate lobbyists and pork barrel politics — is one thing, but when it comes to really understanding what the global climate change conversation is really about, and what it all means, it really boils down to the individual. What do I, a lowly, lonely nonscientist, really know about climate change?

I don't have the gear or the background to test, research, and gather my own raw data about what is happening in the world. And even if I get my hands on raw data, I likely won't understand how to read and interpret it. No, I must rely on someone else, or several someone elses, to discovery, decipher, and deliver the relevant scientific research. But how do I know that such technological jargon is being interpreted accurately?

I don't.

And that's the point that I've been getting to: My understanding (hoi polloi's understanding) of global climate change boils down to a matter of trust.

Whom can you or I trust to give us accurate and complete information about what's really going on in the atmosphere? Very rarely do we get unfiltered information directly from researchers. We get science news from, well, new reports, and bloggers, and science magazines, and movies. Many times, these reports are based only on a reading of a research abstract. More common, though, is a report written after reading a couple of other articles or reports which were in turn written after reading a research abstract.

Science journalism in particular has taken a pretty
shoulders recently. Reading about shoddy and suspicious journalism in particular cases can make one wary of journalistic practices as a whole. Even if people aren't consciously withholding the truth, it's too easy to just let some fact-checking slide. But if I can't trust the news media, where do I go for good information?

There's always Al Gore!

I trust that Al Gore's efforts truly are an attempt to create positive change. Unfortunately, that trust also leads me to more doubt. "Creating a positive change" isn't the same as "presenting the whole truth." Al Gore (and Michael Moore, and Ralph Nader, et al.) have their own agendas based on what they believe and the information that they trust. And when you have such an angle, it's difficult, if not impossible, to be totally unbiased. It's too easy to ignore or undervalue data and opinions that don't jibe with what you already believe and what you're trying to say.

(Who'd've thought that science and religion would have so much in common?)

But if we can't trust someone to accurately describe the facts, surely we can trust what we see with our own eyes! There are plenty of videos and images floating around out there showing glaciers crashing down and icebergs melting and starving penguins, but do we really know that we're seeing the effects of climate change? Do we know that an image is truly representative of a larger trend and not just an isolated event?

So if we can't totally trust science journalists to get it right, and we can't trust Al Gore and his ilk to give us the whole story, and we can't connect disparate images to global data, who can we trust? Where can we get the information we need to draw real conclusions?

Some may argue that the simple volume of apparent evidence is enough to point us toward the truth, that so many people saying the same things couldn't be wrong. But how much of the buzz about climate change is just the same handful of stories recycled and rewritten and reposted online . . . the game of Telephone on a grand scale?

And besides, the idea that general agreement can dictate truth is a cop-out. Think flat Earth. Think slavery.

So I guess the issue of trust is really just a stepping stone. Ultimately, deciding whom and what to believe is a matter of faith. (Again, science meets religion.) You have to believe something, but you can never know everything about anything. Ultimately, you have to have faith in the sources you've chosen and go forward as if that information is infallible — at least until some better, more trustworthy information comes along.

And that's the epistemological conundrum behind every decision we make: we're always basing our decisions on incomplete and unprovable information.


Not to elevate my intellectual status, but I imagine this is the type of conundrum that Descartes slogged through before arriving at his famous Cogito, ergo sum — I think, therefore I am — the ultimate undeniable truth. I doubt even Descartes could start with that one foundational belief and work his way all the way up to global climate change.

I certainly can't.


Anonymous said...

Well said...exactly what I've been thinking (and blogging) about...climate change (and the rest of politics) is a game of trust and chance!

Anonymous said...

Is there climate change? Undoubtedly. The plantet is changing slowly, and climate is just one part of the puzzle. Geology shows us how drastic the earth has changed and continues to change.

Man-made global warming is the real debate. I see where human activities alter the environment and pollute. Does not seem that much of a stretch to say humans are the cause for warming up the earth. Looking back in time glaciers were much more prevelent in N. America covering much of the nortern latitudes. There have been many cycles of glaciation in the geologic recore. How much colder would it have been when we had glaciers, which have been melted for tens of thousands of years? I guess modern human activities can't be attributed to the global warming then. What caused that warming episode? The real maker of global warming/cooling/climate change, etc. is the EARTH. It's moving under us and if we could just manage to make our years multiply by millions then we would see some real change. Ocean front property in West Va?