Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do…

One of the arguments often made by people who don’t understand science very well is that the evidence for climate change is “circumstantial”. Yes, the increase in global temperatures correlates with the increase in human-produced carbon emissions – but that could all be a coincidence! Yes!

My dad told me a story once, about one time when he decided to go over to the courthouse and listen in on the cases being tried that day. (Incidentally, if you’ve never done this, I highly recommend it. Most trials are open to the public, and it can be surprisingly edutaining to watch the justice system in operation.) (Yes, I did just use a very silly word. If we don’t use made-up words every once in a while, the prescriptivists will have won. Whatevs.)

So he went into a courtroom where a trial had just begun, and the prosecutor was in the process of giving instructions to the jury. “Now,” he said, “the defense attorney is going to tell you that the evidence against the suspect here is mostly circumstantial. And he’s going to say it in such a way as to try to make you believe that circumstantial evidence is flimsy evidence, hardly worth considering.”

Which is, indeed, how a lot of people interpret the word.

“I’d like to give you an example of circumstantial evidence,” the prosecutor continued. “Suppose you were to wake up in the morning to see snow on the ground, and in the snow, there’s a set of footprints going from one side of your lawn to the other. You might think this meant that someone had walked across your lawn during the night – but the evidence is only circumstantial! You didn’t actually see anyone there. For all you know, the footprints could be the result of extremely localized earthquakes, or a kangaroo wearing boots, or someone leaning out of a hovering helicopter and poking holes in the snow. But if you were to assume, based on this purely circumstantial evidence, that someone had walked across your lawn – then you would almost certainly be right.”

Yes, there is a possibility, albeit a wildly unlikely one, that global warming is being caused by strange unobserved solar activity of which we have no evidence, or cosmic strings, or it’s sent by God with no scientific cause whatsoever, or it’s all a mass hallucination actually. You could call the scientific evidence circumstantial, and, in the strict definition of the word, you would be right.

You could also call it convincing, and you’d be right about that too.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by jackinthegreen on January 14, 2010 at 8:29 pm

    Also known as Occam’s Razor: ” that the simplest explanation or strategy tends to be the best one” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occam's_razor

    Reply

    • Posted by moraleconomy on January 14, 2010 at 8:46 pm

      Exactly. Of course, some people will say the simplest explanation is always “God did it”, which is difficult to argue with…

      Reply

      • Posted by Jenny on January 19, 2010 at 7:45 pm

        I thought Quakers believed in God?

      • Posted by moraleconomy on January 19, 2010 at 10:09 pm

        I think most Quakers do believe in God, or at any rate in some divine presence (which an individual may call “Spirit” or “the Inner Light” or “the Christ Within” or various other terms – language isn’t always adequate for this).

        But a belief in God, even in an omnipotent God, isn’t incompatible with a belief in the human ability to affect our surroundings. Take murders, for instance. Even if we believe that any murders that occur are part of God’s ineffable plan, that doesn’t generally cause us to stop trying to decrease the number of murders that happen by giving our children a moral education, incarcerating and trying to rehabilitate murderers, etc. Similarly, climate change may well be a part of God’s plan, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t behave in a moral fashion towards the other cultures and other species with whom we share the world, and that means trying to protect the environment as much as we possibly can. I think that holds true whether or not you believe our actions can have real effects; we’ve still got to try to be good people.

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