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Climate Science: Is There Any Room for Skepticism?

People tend to bandy around the term "scientific consensus" a lot, but what does it actually mean?

So the sciences are always revisable. It’s quite astonishing when we look back into the past how different the views, the quite well-defended views and quite successful views of people in the past were from the views that we have today. 

So science does change a lot. Now some people see in that grounds for doubt, but I like many other philosophers would want to say that no, what we see here is a considerable progression. It’s the ideas of the older generation get developed, extended, and refined in our newer views. And so it seems to me that what the essence of science is, is that it’s never final. Although it’s perfectly reasonable for the scientists at any given time to treat what they’ve got very strong evidence for as if it were the final truth because they know from reflecting on the historical development of the sciences that’s a very good way of getting to the views that will eventually supersede the views that they now have. So you can think about it if you like as a process in which taking very seriously the ideas that you now have after they’ve been subjected to all sorts of rigorous testing and rigorous reflection and then trying to build on those leads you to better and better views that give you more and more predictive power, control over the natural world and more success in the ways in which you want to intervene in various aspects of the world. 

A lot of people are worried about various claims that get made. I mean in the case of climate science what seems to me to be the case is that people quite naturally hear the climate science consensus as a very powerful warning, something that might incline them to change their views and change the ways in which they live. And they want to know perfectly reasonably whether the evidence is sufficiently strong so that they should perhaps sacrifice things that they’re used to enjoying and used to doing. So I think there’s a reasonable form of skepticism here. But any analogy with a sort of 'yesterday it was this, today it’s that, tomorrow it’s going to be something else' approach to this seems to be completely unfounded. Climate science is built on views about the atmosphere that have been developed very successfully and in a very rigorous way from the nineteenth century to the present. There isn’t any doubt about the mechanisms of the greenhouse effect. There isn’t really any doubt about the evidence behind the consensus that says that we have contributed enormously to the warming effects that are now becoming apparent not only in the present but also from the record of the earth’s average temperature. So all of that is as well founded as other things that people take for granted that science tells them like that water is H2O. Like the law of falling bodies. Like the fact that the earth is round and so on and so forth. There’s no more reason to be skeptical about the basic consensus of climate science than there is about any of those other things.

Now when it comes to making very specific predictions about where particular catastrophes are likely to come in the next decades that’s extraordinarily difficult. And on that all we can do is to try to simulate the earth’s climate and how it’s changing and to arrive at good predictions for the future. And where we get a lot of overlap in various ways of trying to figure out the dynamics of the earth’s climate then we can be reasonably sure that that’s something that is likely to happen. So some of the forecasts about the future – rising sea levels, much more frequent heatwaves, much bigger storms, really very serious dangers for the habitability of some parts of the world, droughts – all of that sort of stuff in general is very, very well supported by the evidence. Can we say for sure how many heatwaves there are going to be within the continental United States between 2050 and 2060. No, we can’t. What we can say is that there’s a really high probability of a lot of difficult disastrous events that are going to challenge future generations unless we deal with it. 

And we can’t say, for example, how much the temperature of the earth is going to rise by 2100 but one thing that’s really important to understand here is that 2100 isn’t some magical moment. I mean it’s not really going to matter that much if the temperature rises say four or five degrees Celsius if that comes in 2100 or whether it comes in 2120 or whether it comes in 2150 or whether it comes in 2200. That’s going to be a real disaster for human beings on our planet because five degrees Celsius above preindustrial temperatures is a world in which there’s no ice whatsoever and in which you’ve got reptiles that are able to live within both polar circles. It’s that hot.

That would be a world in which lots of the earth’s surface had become quite uninhabitable for us. So we’ve got to do something about it. And the evidence for that seems to be extremely strong. So I think the reasonable skepticism with which I began, the idea that, you know, people if they have to change their ways want to know whether there’s a good reason for it. That’s perfectly understandable. But if they looked at the climate science seriously and the evidence for it they would see what the tremendous risks to the future are.

People tend to bandy around the term "scientific consensus" a lot, particularly when talking about climate change. When 97% of the scientific community agrees that climate change is a real thing, you have to wonder about the remaining 3%. Are they being true skeptics, or are they holding out for ulterior motives? Philip Kitcher blows the "skeptics" idea out of the water; the scientific consensus that human beings have been making the world hotter has been agreed upon for close to 100 years, and climate scientists who disagree are disagreeing with the fundamentals of science itself. Kitcher goes on to predict what havoc future generations might have to face if we don't look hard in the mirror about climate change. We shouldn't wait until lizards start living at the north and south poles to change our human behaviors—we should be the change today. Philip Kitcher is the co-author of The Seasons Alter:How to Save Our Planet in Six Acts.

Remote learning vs. online instruction: How COVID-19 woke America up to the difference

Educators and administrators must build new supports for faculty and student success in a world where the classroom might become virtual in the blink of an eye.

Credit: Shutterstock
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • If you or someone you know is attending school remotely, you are more than likely learning through emergency remote instruction, which is not the same as online learning, write Rich DeMillo and Steve Harmon.
  • Education institutions must properly define and understand the difference between a course that is designed from inception to be taught in an online format and a course that has been rapidly converted to be offered to remote students.
  • In a future involving more online instruction than any of us ever imagined, it will be crucial to meticulously design factors like learner navigation, interactive recordings, feedback loops, exams and office hours in order to maximize learning potential within the virtual environment.
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White dwarfs hold key to life in the universe, suggests study

New study shows white dwarf stars create an essential component of life.

NASA and H. Richer (University of British Columbia)
Surprising Science
  • White dwarf stars create carbon atoms in the Milky Way galaxy, shows new study.
  • Carbon is an essential component of life.
  • White dwarfs make carbon in their hot insides before the stars die.
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"Forced empathy" is a powerful negotiation tool. Here's how to do it.

Master negotiator Chris Voss breaks down how to get what you want during negotiations.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Personal Growth
  • Former FBI negotiator Chris Voss explains how forced empathy is a powerful negotiating tactic.
  • The key is starting a sentence with "What" or "How," causing the other person to look at the situation through your eyes.
  • What appears to signal weakness is turned into a strength when using this tactic.
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Octopus-like creatures inhabit Jupiter’s moon, claims space scientist

A leading British space scientist thinks there is life under the ice sheets of Europa.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute
Surprising Science
  • A British scientist named Professor Monica Grady recently came out in support of extraterrestrial life on Europa.
  • Europa, the sixth largest moon in the solar system, may have favorable conditions for life under its miles of ice.
  • The moon is one of Jupiter's 79.
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How to catch a glimpse of Comet NEOWISE before it’s gone

Unless you plan to try again in 6,800 years, this week is your shot.

Image source: Sven Brandsma/Unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Comet NEOWISE will be most visible in the U.S. during the evenings from July 14-19, 2020.
  • After July 23rd, NEOWISE will be visible only through good binoculars and telescopes.
  • Look in the northwestern sky below the Big Dipper after dusk while there's a chance.

UPDATE: NASA is broadcasting a NASA Science Live episode highlighting Comet NEOWISE. NASA experts will discuss and answer public questions beginning at 3PM EST on Wednesday, July 15. Tune in via the agency's website, Facebook Live, YouTube, Periscope, LinkedIn, Twitch, or USTREAM.

Before last evening, July 14, 2020, the easiest way to see Comet NEOWISE — the brightest comet to zoom past Earth since 1977's Comet Hale-Bopp — from the United States was to catch it about an hour before sunrise. Now, however, you can see it in the evening, where it will remain for until the 19th. This is a definite don't-miss event — NEOWISE won't be coming back our way for another 6,800 years. It's the first major comet of the millennium, and by all accounts, it's unforgettable.

NEOWISE just got back from the Sun

Comet NEOWISE is named after the NASA infrared space telescope that first spotted it on March 27th. Its official moniker is C/2020 F3. It's estimated that the icy comet is about three miles across, not counting its tail.

NEOWISE is now heading away from our Sun, having made it closet approach, 27.4 million miles, to our star on July 3. The heat from that encounter is what's given NEOWISE its tail: It caused gas and dust to be released from the icy object, creating the tail of debris that looks so magical from here.

As NEOWISE moves closer to Earth, paradoxically, it will be less and less visible. By about July 23rd, you'll need binoculars or a telescope to see it at all. All of which makes this week prime time.

An evening delight

star constellation in sky

Image source: Allexxandar/Shutterstock/Big Think

First, find an unobstructed view of the northwest sky, free of streetlights, car headlights, apartment lights, and so on. And then, according to Sky & Telescope:

"Start looking about one hour after sunset, when you'll find it just over the northwestern horizon as the last of twilight fades into darkness."

It should be easy to spot since it's near to one of the most recognizable constellations up there, the Big Dipper. "Look about three fists below the bottom of the Big Dipper, which is hanging down by its handle high above, and from there perhaps a little to the right." Et voilà: Comet NEOWISE.

Says Sky & Telescope's Diana Hannikainen, "Look for a faint, fuzzy little 'star' with a fainter, fuzzier little tail extending upward from it."

The comet should be visible with the naked eye, though binoculars and a simple telescope may reveal more detail.

You may also be able to snap a photo of this special visitor, though you'll need the right gear to do so. A dedicated camera is more likely to capture a good shot than a telephone, but in either case, you'll need a tripod or some other means of holding the camera dead still as it takes a timed exposure of several seconds (not all phones can do this).

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