It’s that time of the month again — the third (usually) Wednesday, when I do my Virtually Speaking Science gig.
This afternoon at 6 p.m. eastern time I’ll be talking again to Naomi Oreskes, historian of science and co-author of Merchants of Doubt,an account of how a small(ish) cadre of cold-war scientists became hired guns for Big Tobacco and the anti-climate change brigade.
Naomi and I spoke in 2011 about the threats posed by the spread of “scientistic” argument — the use of a science-like language, couched in the rhetoric of disinterested skepticism, to obscure critical knowledge for public audiences.
Well, flash forward a year and a half, and we come to an America in which we have experienced years of devastating drought, superstorm Sandy, this week’s tornado, and the breaching of the 400 ppm atmospheric carbon threshold, and it’s time to talk again about the cost of denialism and the misuse of perceived authority by our still-thriving doubt peddlars.
The tornado provides a great touchstone in fact — as Naomi and I have been emailing back and forth on the question. What’s happening is that there is a growing body of increasingly firm research on the impact of climate change on all kinds of circumstances. Changing and possibly deepening patterns of drought are pretty clearly on the table. A boost in the number of severe hurricanes too. Significant ice melt and sea level rise too. But what will happen to tornado patterns as climate change proceeds is still unclear. So what to make of that lacuna?
Here’s my take (not to put any words in Naomi’s mouth): If you are a rational person, you say we need more research on that particular concern, but the broad pattern is clear: human-driven climate change is in progress and it is causing a host of changes that directly conflict with the way we’ve rely on our built environment and on all the things we do (grow cereals in the midwest, e.g.) needed to keep our societies going. And we’ll get back to you on the twisters, asking you to bear this thought in mind: if you are a betting person, how much do you want to wager on the possibility that increasing the amount of heat trapped in the lower atmosphere won’t kick up some extra nasty storms?
We won’t confine ourselves to climate and the weather, by the way. Merchants of Doubt has given me a frame for looking at a lot of news, and I see the same desire to conceal useful knowledge the doubtists serve in the somewhat different technique of simply blocking research that might be used to produce inconvenient truths. See, e.g. the NRA – led ban on research on gun violence and the the recent Republican proposal to forbid the US Census from doing anything but a decennial count, thus eliminating, among other things, our ability to measure unemployment.
So come on down. Listen live or later here. Y’all can head over to the Exploratorium’s Second Life stage as well if you do that virtual world thing.
Image: Pieter Brueghel the Younger, Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, c. 1596.