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.

Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.

LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER

"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.

JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW

There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

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Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
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