Letter to a Christian Climate Skeptic


Dear Incertus,

In your last communication, you offered three main reasons for your reflexive skepticism about climate change. As each of these reasons, in my experience, reflects deep-seated suspicions and doubts among many American Christians on this issue, I wanted to take some time to address each of them at some length, before touching on a fourth point that I think is much misunderstood and should be given serious weight.

Objection 1: The Science is All Political

You said that much of what passes for science on this issue is politics, or at any rate heavily politicized. I think several things can be said in response to this.

First is, “well sure, of course.” If by “politics” we mean something like, “the deliberation by a society about justice and the common good,” well then one could hardly expect a phenomenon like climate change not to be a political issue right off the bat. After all, if some parties (and indeed some nations) are in fact profiting off of the production and use of fossil fuels while their actions are having destructive effects on other human beings (including disproportionately the most powerless, namely, those yet unborn and the poor and those in third-world countries), then that is surely a matter of concern for justice and for the common good. Of course, if you don’t think that is happening after all—if there’s nothing there science-wise—then, by the same token, there’s nothing there politics-wise. But in that case, to say it shouldn’t be politicized is to beg the question. If the problem is real—if the science is right—then it is a political problem, and we should expect the political issues to get entangled with the science pretty quickly. Read More

Are Christians Anti-Science?

Fewer slurs against Christianity are more common today than the accusation that Christians are anti-science.  You know the portrayal—Christians as Bible-thumping fundamentalists, so sure of themselves they don’t give a darn what science says; Matthew Brady in Inherit the Wind.  A few, perhaps are happy to accept the stereotype, while others regret it, but see this as the price they have to pay in order to be faithful to Scripture on issues of creation and evolution.  Others more cockily insist they care deeply about science, but it’s just mainstream science that isn’t to be trusted, and they trumpet their own idiosyncratic scientific theories instead.  Outside of evangelicalism, and increasingly within, many have nervously shifted out of the firing line, doing their best to renounce all that is scientifically unrespectable in traditional Christian teaching.  On the wisdom of this latter strategy I do not intend to comment here (clearly, I have described it in rather unflattering terms, but on many issues, such accommodation may involve no trace of unfaithfulness).

On reading Merchants of Doubt, though, I was troubled by just how much truth there might be to the stereotype, and I have begun to wonder how true is the claim of American Christians that “We’re not anti-science in general; we just cannot accept mainstream science on Darwinian evolution.”  For when it comes to environmental skepticism, there seems little question that evangelical Christians have been in the front ranks.  To be sure, I speak somewhat impressionistically and anecdotally, but as I look back, it seems to me that not only was skepticism (or downright hostility) toward climate change issues the norm in my evangelical background, but also skepticism regarding the litany of other issues surveyed in Merchants of Doubt—the ozone hole, acid rain, the dangers of secondhand smoke, the dangers of pesticides, etc.  Certainly, “red states” that are strongholds of the religious right also tend to be the places where one would encounter the greatest opposition to mainstream science on such issues.  Much of this may be correlation without causation, and indeed, no doubt the chief source of evangelical skepticism toward environmental science is the same as it was for Fred Seitz and Fred Singer—allegiance to free market ideology, which is threatened by environmentalism.  

But still it seems so incongruous that Christians would so instinctively rally to the side of Big Tobacco or Monsanto that I couldn’t help but ask whether or not there might be a deeper cause.  Two might be identified.  First, I suspect that being a conservative Christian in today’s world cannot help but encourage a certain contrarian tendency, a tendency to “root for the underdog,” so to speak.  We are counter-cultural, we are despised and rejected among men, we insist on positions that are unpopular or anathema in respectable public opinion, etc.  And so we tend to have a predisposition to sympathize with others who hold minority or out-of-the-mainstream views.  If the majority is not to be trusted in matters of morals, then why should we think it is to be trusted in matters of ____ (fill in the blank—science, history, economics, aesthetics)?  Not only do we lend a favorable ear to such voices on the margins of respectable opinion, but we often go on to identify with them, and to extend some of the martyr complex that we may have developed to the resulting scorn we receive.  Within the Reformed world, I wonder if the passion for “Christian worldview thinking” doesn’t contribute to some of this—Christian claims, we are told, will shape how we think about every aspect of life and the world, so if our Christianity is counter-cultural, then why shouldn’t we expect ourselves to be counter-cultural on nearly every subject we take up?

Now, I should immediately add that I have a deep contrarian streak myself, and think there are often sound reasons for doubting the received orthodoxy on any number of issues.  But I have to be honest with myself and always ask how much of my reflexive skepticism might be due to this deeply engrained way of thinking. 

Second, I think we might have a particularly bad case of this contrarian pathology when it comes to science.  The culprit is not hard to find; perhaps the popular Inherit the Wind stereotype is not so far off.  To be committed to creationism (especially young-earth creationism) requires a determination to stubbornly contest almost everything that mainstream science—geology and biology in particular—most confidently affirms.  It may well be true that such contrarianism stems not from any particular anti-science animus, which is earnestly disclaimed by many, but it would be hard to imagine that it does not tend to generate a kind of instinctive skepticism.  After all, if mainstream science can have been so dead wrong on so many fundamental matters, as creationists must insist, then how are we to have much if any respect for it?  It is as if we were convinced that our history professor didn’t know whether Martin Luther or Constantine came first, or whether it was Hitler or Genghis Khan that ruled the Third Reich.  Would we really be disposed to trust him on other matters, however much we denied any particular bias against him?  Indeed, some creationists may feel that to be intellectually consistent, they have to denigrate the reliability of science across the board; if they place great faith in science on climate science, for instance, how can they consistently refuse to trust carbon dating?

 I write this not at all as an attack on creationism; but if creationists are going to hold their heads high and deny the charge that they are simply anti-science, then they’re going to have to find a way of resisting these tendencies; they’re going to have to show that they can take science seriously when it deserves to be taken seriously, and will not just join every contrarian chorus that comes along.  When they do refuse the conclusions of scientific orthodoxy, they’re going to have to be willing to articulate why with theological and scientific precision, without simply resorting to broad-brush attacks on science as a mere “naturalistic religion” or as the tool of some left-wing agenda.  My friend Bradley Belschner makes just this plea in his comment on my Merchants of Doubt post below (in another of our remarkably frequent intellectual deja vus, I was working on this post already before I saw his comment):

It’s important that we know what we’re doing when we oppose a “scientific consensus.” If we oppose global warming willy-nilly without even weighing up the scientific evidence carefully, then how will folks treat us when we start criticizing Evolution? Oh, there they go again—the idiot Christians who refuse to look at real science. . . . I would like for Christians have a reputation for rigorous science, which in my opinion would involve the realization that global warming is real and evolution isn’t.”


Even better are the words of Augustine, writing fully 1600 years ago in De Genesi ad litteram, and still incredibly relevant

“Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth. This knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn.

The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think that our sacred writers held such opinions. Then, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well, and hear him maintaining foolish opinions of his own about what our books say, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on matters of fact which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?”

Merchants of Doubt: A Review

This immensely important and timely book demands attention from anyone determined to think critically and intelligently about the current interface of politics, economics, and science, which one might describe as the three gods of our time.  The book is not flawless, to be sure.  As a complete layman in such issues, I can detect certain ideological flaws, which I shall come to in due course, and it is hard not to think that the authors present a somewhat one-sided perspective on a highly contentious issue, and that their opponents would have rather more to say for themselves than Conway and Oreskes imply.  Indeed, in such matters, it is always essential to keep Proverbs 18:17 in mind: “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.”  Nonetheless, from what I know of the world, and from the compellingness of the narrative set forth in this book, I am for now provisionally convinced that their basic picture is accurate. 

This picture, it turns out, is considerably more complex and interesting than I had expected when I picked up the book.  The basic gist I thought I knew: climate change denial is largely funded by Big Oil and industries with a vested interest in staving off any policy shifts in a green direction.  The science is being corrupted by greed.  And, should you be skeptical of such cynicism, just look at how Big Tobacco did the same thing in the 60s—and the 70s and 80s and 90s, for that matter; doubt is a highly durable product, it seems.  

A sordid story, but alas, a somewhat believable one.  Yet, such a story has the troubling consequence of making scientists look like they’re for sale to the highest bidder.  If Big Tobacco and Big Oil could simply bribe scientists into distorting the facts, then why should the moral of this story be “Trust the scientists,” as it must be for climate change orthodoxy?  Thankfully, Conway and Oreskes’s story is, as I said, considerably more complex, and on reflection, more disturbing.  


The denial of climate change and the denial of the dangers of smoking do not merely share links to big business; they (and the denial of the ozone hole, of acid rain, of nuclear winter fears, of the dangers of DDT, etc., all covered in this book as well) share something more insidious—a blind faith in markets, technology, and progress.  In each of the doubt-sowing narratives that Conway and Oreskes survey, they find a very small cast of lead actors, chief among whom are a cadre of high-profile Cold War physicists, Frederick Seitz, Fred Singer, and Bill Nierenberg.  It was Frederick Seitz, at that time aged 84 and retired from active scientific work for 17 years, who penned the damning public slander of Ben Santer and his chapter of the first IPCC report on climate change in 1995, after having spent most of the 1980s supervising contrarian research on behalf of the tobacco industry. 

Of course, the very fact that the same few names keep cropping up again and again, in radically different contexts, is enough to raise a few eyebrows as to whether we are dealing with real scientific opposition or some kind of conspiracy.  (Admittedly, it may well be that the authors overemphasize somewhat these few main characters so as to make the contrarian community seem smaller than it really is; however, they do not seem to be incorrect in assigning a leading role to these figures.)  How many solid-state physicists, after all, can claim to be experts on oncology, the effect of acidity on ecosystems, and the distribution of heat in the earth’s atmosphere?  And indeed, part of the burden of the book is to show how just a few well-connected, sufficiently outspoken, and somewhat unscrupulous scientists can create the illusion of a whole community of scientific dissent.  They note how a credulous and naive media and public is often willing to credit the testimony of any leading scientist as a relevant expert, even if his expertise is in another field entirely, as if an expert plumber could settle a controversy on the best way to construct the roof, just because he’s involved in the homebuilding industry.   

Why is it that these physicists should be so determined to attack environmental concern wherever it should arise?  It is here that Conway and Oreskes are at their best, subtly and insightfully introducing us to the Cold War mindset that drove these men.  They were all formed within that black-and-white view of the world, capitalism vs. communism, freedom vs. statism.  And for them, as for so many hawks of that era, superior technological innovation was the means by which freedom would triumph.  Seitz and Nierenberg both got their start working on the Manhattan Project, and were heavily involved in subsequent weapons-development research in the early Cold War, as was Singer.  Not only did this early work help set their ideological trajectory in a hard-right direction, but it also catapulted them to positions of remarkable political influence, which they maintained.  (Oreskes and Conway wish to leave us in no doubt that when it comes to the charge that our politicians are being manipulated by influential insider climate change alarmists, the shoe is most definitely on the other foot.) 

Since most of the rising concerns about the harmful effects of certain industries on health and environment necessarily implied the need for government regulation of those industries, men like Seitz, Singer, and Nierenberg thought they spotted a Red agenda at the heart of the Green movement.  Dedicated as they were to the freedom of capitalist industry and to a confidence that technology was our savior, they bitterly resisted the implications that capitalist industrial technology might be harming the planet and might call for government intervention.  In the Reagan era, such convictions easily won the day on issues such as acid rain, whatever the vast majority of the scientific community might say, and those who held them gained established footholds of influence.  


Conway and Oreskes also draw close attention to the strategy behind all this anti-environmental science.  The objective, most of the time, has not been to directly deny the various claims of harm being advanced.  The tobacco industry spent little time trying to prove that smoking was fine for you, and Singer and Nierenberg did not try to claim that acid rain was harmless.  Rather, their product was doubt.  The point was always to persuade the public that, yes, there might be a problem, but there was so much we didn’t know that we couldn’t be quite sure what its origin was, how serious it was, and what the best solution might be.  The downsides of our current course, then, were uncertain.  Accompanying this was the argument that the upsides of our current course were obvious, or the downsides to changing our present course were quite clear and certain, and certain to be serious.  As a delaying tactic, this argument served the tobacco industry astonishingly well.  Would-be smokers could be reassured that, although they couldn’t be sure one way or another of the science surrounding the safety of cigarettes, at least they could be sure that they really enjoyed smoking them, and it was probably worth a little risk.  Juries could be persuaded, for more than forty years after the extremely carcinogenic effects of smoking had been scientifically demonstrated, that there was still enough uncertainty to render the tobacco companies legally immune.  

Again, Conway and Oreskes insightfully show how psychology can lead us astray here.  We tend to fall prey to short-term thinking, willing to face future risks for the sake of present enjoyment, and disposed to always prefer the known (what we are already doing) to the unknown (any proposed change), assessing the latter as riskier than the former, even when the evidence clearly suggests otherwise.  (Many of the contrarian scientists described in this book  were clearly driven by this kind of thinking, particularly those with a particular interest in economics.  The economic costs of environmental protection, they felt, were so high as to outweigh the evidence of future harms.)  These psychological tendencies are if anything even more true on the social level than the individual.  What this means is that anyone claiming that we must stop the enjoyable things we are doing in order to avert future or unseen calamities, and must start ordering our lives in different ways, has to meet a very high burden of proof indeed to be listened to.  Our political leaders, who are supposed to take the future into account and thus make these difficult decisions for us, are unfortunately just as much the slaves of short-term thinking.  Economic growth in the present, not environmental protection in the future, is what is likely to win them their next election.  The merchants of doubt, then, have a comparatively easy task.  All they have to show is that there is enough uncertainty in the science that perhaps we had better sit back and wait for more evidence before committing ourselves to a costly change of direction, or, heaven forbid, sacrificing our freedom to government bureaucrats.

Unfortunately, it is extraordinarily easy to prove uncertainty in the science, because all science is always uncertain.  Conway and Oreskes are refreshingly upfront about this, and criticize the outdated positivistic view of science that imagines that science “proves” facts with logical certainty.  Even when the basic facts are well-established (though never absolutely proven), there exist all sorts of details that still need to be worked out, and ongoing scientific work will of course be dedicated toward investigating these remaining areas of uncertainty.  Anyone with a dedicated agenda of skepticism, then, will have no difficulty in finding evidence of uncertainty and debate in the current scientific literature, even when there is a firmly established consensus about the key points.  Moreover, given that the front lines of scientific work are so far beyond the ken of the average citizen, it is easy for him to be duped into treating as equally authoritative the testimony of popularizers and think tanks with some kind of scientific credentials.  When we look at this cacophony of voices and see evidence of widespread disagreement, we shrug our shoulders and say, “Who are we to believe?”  


So what is to be done about this?  Conway and Oreskes suggest some answers in their epilogue, pointing out how many areas of our day-to-day in which we recognize the need to trust experts and act on their advice, despite the inevitable uncertainty.  They conclude

“So it comes to this: we must trust our scientific experts on matters of science, because there isn’t a workable alternative.  And because scientists are not (in most cases) licensed, we need to pay attention to who the experts actually are—by asking questions about their credentials, their past and current research, the venues in which they are subjecting their claims to scrutiny, and the sources of financial support they are receiving.  If the scientific community has been asked to judge a matter . . . then it makes sense to take the results of their investigations very seriously. . . . Sensible decision making involves acting on the information we have, even while accepting that it may well be imperfect and our decisions may need to be revisited and revised in light of new information.  For even if modern science does not give us certainty, it does have a robust track record . . . modern science gives us a pretty decent basis for action. . . .

“Don’t get us wrong.  Scientists have no special purchase on moral or ethical decisions; a climate scientist is no more qualified to comment on health care reform than a physicist is to judge the causes of bee colony collapse.  The very fathers that create expertise in a specialized domain lead to ignorance in many others. . . . So our trust needs to be circumscribed, and focused.  It needs to be very particular.  Blind trust will get us into at least as much trouble as no trust at all.  But without some degree of trust in our designated experts . . . we are paralyzed, in effect not knowing whether to make ready for the morning commute or not. . . . C.P. Snow once argued that foolish faith in authority is the enemy of truth.  But so is a foolish cynicism. . . . We close with the comments of S.J. Green, director of research for British American Tobacco, who decided, finally, that what his industry had done was wrong, not just morally, but also intellectually: ‘A demand for scientific proof is always a formula for inaction and delay, and usually the first reaction of the guilty.  The proper basis for such decisions is, of course, quite simply that which is reasonable in the circumstances.”

In other words, we need to accept that painful, costly public policy decisions will have to be taken on the basis of uncertainty.  In fact, they always are, for economic projections about the future (perhaps the most frequent basis for public policy) are at least as uncertain as scientific ones.  If the consequences of inaction appear sufficiently serious and probable, the prudent ruler (and the prudent society) will begin to undertake corrective action even while acknowledging the possibility that subsequent research will reveal such action unnecessary; better safe than sorry.  


My one major misgiving about the book: despite their attempts to demystify the scientific enterprise, and acknowledge that it is human, all too human, not blessed with some special gift of infallibility, it is hard not to feel that the authors continue to speak of “the halls of science” in somewhat reverential tones.  Scientists are repeatedly eulogized as pure uncorrupt seekers after truth, even while a few contrarian scientists are shown to be quite the opposite.  But of course, if Seitz, Singer, Nierenberg, and others could let their ideology and the interests of their benefactors get in the way of doing honest and objective science, who’s to say that most other scientists are immune to this.  Conway and Oreskes do enough to suggest, I think, that the accusations that climate alarmists are acting out of self-interest or political ideology are a case of the pot calling the kettle black; however, that doesn’t mean that the kettle may not be black as well.  I have no doubt that most climate scientists are conscientious researchers who do their utmost to be objective and avoid unnecessary alarmism.  But not all, and not always.  The authors always speak of “peer review” the same way that Catholics speak of “Our Holy Father,” and it irks me just the same way.  Peer review is certainly better than the lack thereof, but it’s no magic epistemological bullet.  Scientists, like anyone else, are subject to the herd instinct, to confirmation bias, and sometimes to something as prosaic as mere laziness.  After just a couple years in academia, I have seen enough of the failings of the peer review process in theological studies to be skeptical that it could work as perfectly in scientific studies as many seem to think.  


So pardon me for still being something of a skeptic about the reliability of mainstream scientific opinion at any given time.  That said, I concede the overall point Conway and Oreskes are trying to make—you can’t refuse to act just because there will always be grounds for skepticism.  Mainstream science may be riddled with errors, but when the stakes are high enough, you’ve got to make decisions based on the best resources available to you, and until God deigns to issue an oracle telling us the truth about climate change and the best solution to it, we’d best pay attention to the scientists.

Vegetables are Food

So, I posted this entire quote 2 1/2 years ago.  However, I re-read the chapter containing it, from O’Donovan’s Resurrection and Moral Order, the other day and was just as mesmerized this time as I was the first time, so I thought it good enough to warrant sharing again:

Abstraction from teleology creates a dangerous misunderstanding of the place of man in the universe. For it supposes that the observing mind encounters an inert creation–not, that is, a creation without movement, but a creation without a point to its movement. Thus the mind credits to its own conceptual creativity that teleological order which is, despite everything, necessary to life. All ordering becomes deliberative ordering, and scientific observation, failing as it does to report the given teleological order within nature, becomes the servant of techne. Of course, man continues to eat vegetables; but he no longer knows that he does so because vegetables are food, and comes to imagine that he has devised a use for them as food. And so he looks for other uses for them, which will seem to him to have as much validity as that one which was, if he could only have remembered it, given in nature. That vegetables exist as food for other animals than himself will not impress him–unless, of course, the continued existence of other animals too falls within his deliberative purposes for the world, in which case both vegetation and animal life will continue to hold their value as a feoff from himself. Thus arises the irony of our own days, in which the very protection of nature has to be argued in terms of man’s ‘interest’ in preserving his ‘environment’. Such a philosophy offers no stable protection against the exploitation of nature by man, since he can discern nothing in the relations of things to command his respect. And, of course, this unprincipled domination must extend itself to include his own psychosomatic nature, all that is not itself the devising mind, so that humanity itself dissolves in the polarization of the technological will and its raw material. Man’s monarchy over nature can be healthy only if he recognizes it as something itself given in the nature of things, and therefore limited by the nature of things. For if it were true that he imposed his rule upon nature from without, then there would be no limit to it. It would have been from the beginning a crude struggle to stamp an inert and formless nature with the insignia of his will. Such has been the philosophy bred by a scientism liberated from the discipline of Christian metaphysics. It is not what the Psalmist meant by the dominion of man, which was a worshipping and respectful sovereignty, a glad responsibility for the natural order which he both discerned and loved. (52)

Extreme Weather and Climate Change

A long-standing pet-peeve of mine is the way that, in the endless tug-of-war in the media and blogosphere over climate change, both sides try to score cheap points by pointing to isolated extreme weather events as evidence for or against the phenomenon.  “Ha, there were several big blizzards this winter!  Global warming my foot!”  “No, actually more blizzards is evidence of global warming, believe it or not!”  Extreme events like Hurricane Katrina or the Great Russian Heat Wave are waved as poster-children for the dangers of climate change, so right-wingers gleefully poke holes in the science of attempted attribution.  You may recall that I posted on this subject, with particular reference to hurricanes, a few months ago.

Ricky Rood over at Weather Underground, the source for the best weather blogs around, has posted an excellent essay on the “Perils and Pitfalls of Event Attribution.”  Although personally convinced of the reality and seriousness of climate change, Rood argues that the tendency of some climate scientists and the media to focus on individual extreme events and attribute them to climate change is counterproductive, bad science, and indeed impossible by definition.  It reduces this crucial public discussion to cheap sound bytes and blaring headlines, drawing attention away from substantive verifiable claims:

“It is hard to see how playing the game of defining extreme events and then attributing that event to “climate change” can ever be won. In fact, it seems like it is a game that necessarily leads to controversy, and controversy is the fuel of talk radio, blogs propagating around the world, and the maintenance of doubt.”  

The essay is well worth reading for weather buffs or environmental ethics buffs (yep, I’m talking to you, Byron. ;-))