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News The Big Bang and Global Warming

  1. May 12, 2008 #1


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    I'm not entirely sure that this belongs here, but none the less here are some thoughts I had today. I am a working cosmologist, which is important to know when reading the following.

    Most Cosmologists today are pretty sure about the Big Bang being roughly the correct theory that describes our Universe. Most would agree that an alternative is possible, but it's hard to see that something completely different could explain the data. There are a few on the peripheries of the field that still hold a view that some other steady state type model explains the data better, but these individuals are in the minority and almost all are either retired or were never genuine researchers to begin with. If you review the public press on the Big Bang though, this minority view is over represented, although the mainstream view is still dominant. To the public I don't think there is a great sense of controversy about this issue.

    When it comes to global warming, I think that the situation is roughly the same. This is not my own area of research (unlike cosmology) but from what I have seen I think that man made global warming is a theory that within climate science is roughly on par with the Big Bang in Cosmology. Most researchers are fairly sure of it, with a small minority against, with the minority being characterized similar to the anti big bang minority.

    The big difference however is that it seems that the popular press for global warming is even more skewed to given an unrepresentative view of the minority, that is to say that the minority gets as much if not more attention at times.

    What then is the general public to make of this? I am a professional scientist, yet I am not nearly equipped to make a genuine appraisal of climate science and the evidence for or against global warming. A member of the public has even less chance. The only way to make a decision is to base it on what is seen and heard in the popular media (since journal articles on the topic would be out of reach to almost everyone). There is no way than even a very well educated and thoughtful public can have any hope of making a genuinely informed decision about whether the threat of global warming is sufficient to justify them making the economic sacrifices necessary to satisfy the limits of carbon emissions science has told them to keep to.

    There is great controversy over global warming science in the general public, yet comparatively little about the Big Bang. The obvious difference is that one may well have a direct impact on us but the other is likely to be a mere curiosity. However, they are both branches of science and if the media was capable of portraying science accurately then we might expect that the public would perceive a similar level of controversy about them. Clearly then, something gets very easily lost in going from journal articles to the popular press.

    It is an impossible task to convey complex science in simple terms with no loss of accuracy, so I am not blaming the media here, but surely this is an enormous issue that society will need to learn to deal with more and more into the future. As the challenges humanity faces get couched in increasingly complex science, how can democracy possibly function? Neither the politicians or the people that vote them in and out have the slightest chance of making genuinely informed decisions about issues that require complex scientific knowledge. I fear this will prove to be a grave problem in the long run if a better way of handling the cross-over of science and public policy is not found. The way we do it at present cannot be the best way, though I can't think of anything better either!

    Thanks for getting this far, I realise that was a bit of a ramble but I hope I conveyed the problems as I see it. I don't pretend to know the answers though, what do you suggests?
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  3. May 12, 2008 #2
    I think string theorists are of the opinion that big bangs occur all the time due to the collisions of branes that exist within extra-dimensions, in a higher dimension. Thus, contrary to the big bang theory, I think many of them still believe the universe has always existed.

    Anyway, I do know that Antropogenic Global Warming is more like Darwinism, as it is tied to economics like Darwinism is tied to religion, thus both are inherently political. That's why you see a large amount of pundits and people who don't know what they're talking about commneting on it, and why the media feels the need to present "both sides" to the issue.

    Thus happens as much with evolution as it does with global warming, even though both are essentially "facts" in their respected fields and there is about as much evidence supporting AGW as there is supporting darwinian evolution.

    The solution would probably be to make the media realize that science isn't the same thing as politics.
  4. May 12, 2008 #3
    Even a generally well-informed public has an at best superficial understanding of the mechanisms that govern economic systems or other political issues, yet in democracies the public is expected to make critical decisions affecting these issues. It would be quite wrong to say that this approach has always been successful, but the fact that life in most countries is tolerable for most people gives some credit to the idea.

    I think this one sums up the dilemma pretty well:

    "Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." (Winston Churchill)
  5. May 12, 2008 #4

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    I am going to be contrary and disagree a bit with your premise. Today the big bang cosmology is fairly well defined, and even the few who disagree with it don't really disagree with it. Global Warming is a mix of causes, effects and proposed actions, and it's possible to agree with part of this. For example, "The 20th century was, on average warmer than the 19th" is a statement of fact (and scientific investigation can tell us if it is true or false). "This warming was caused primarily by human CO2 emissions" is an inference or possibly a theory. "This should be stopped" is a value statement, and "so we need the federal government (or a super-national government) to step in" is a political statement.
  6. May 12, 2008 #5


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    I get what you are saying, global warming is much more than just a scientific issue. The problem is that the (as you point out) political statement that we need government regulation to reduce greenhouse emissions is entirely motivated by scientific research. How can the policy makers make sensible policy if they have no hope of understanding the science? How can the voters choose between different policy makers if they also have no hope of understanding the science?
  7. May 20, 2008 #6
    Not being a "scientist" or "climatologist" or even a "meteorologist", I still think that most if not all available evidence indicates (1) the Earth is warming. (2) the warming is accelerating. (3) The warming will continue even if all use of fossil fuels and deforestation were to cease at this moment because of the inertia of the system.

    I can't say definitively that GW is caused by man, however, there is a remarkable correlation between the start of measurable temperature rise and the beginning of the industrial revolution.

    I guess until the consequences of the ignorance for GW slaps all of us in the face little will be begun much less done to be more eco-minded.
  8. May 20, 2008 #7
    By identifying and trusting reliable, nonpartisan experts. This is not a new problem, and is not limited to advanced science. In a democratic republic (as opposed to a "pure" or "direct" democracy), voters do not decide issues themselves; rather, they decide which candidate they trust enough to empower to decide issues on their behalf. And in modern times, that equates to empowering a candidate to evaluate the abilities of yet other people, who he will then empower to decide issues on his behalf. If everyone needed to understand everything, nothing could ever get done; division of labor, and the experts who make it possible are crucial to the function of large social systems. It's a drawback of our society's lionization of democracy and individuality that so many people resist experts and embrace cheap propaganda that tells them that they know better then some eggheads (this method is also embraced by various conspiracy theories, notably the Loose Change movie).

    As you mention in the OP, the contrast in this phenomenon between politicized issues (global warming, evolution, etc.) and apolitical issues (the Big Bang) is striking, and reminds us that, at bottom, people generally understand that complex issues are best left to the experts, but are nevertheless susceptible to politicized appeals that reinforce their identity or sense of person agency.
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