Climate change: can we trust the scientists?

A vast accumulation of evidence substantiates the adverse effects that human activity is having on the levels of greenhouse gasses in Earth’s atmosphere leading to changing weather patterns. This evidence has been collected over the last few decades by scientist from a wide section of specialisms and all corners of the globe. However, behavioural psychology suggests that we (humans) can never be totally objective and that our values and beliefs affect how we engage with facts. The scientific community is split; some arguing that the facts need to be addressed and reversed, whilst others argue it is already too late and that we should, for example, be concentrating on alternative and renewable energy research. The distinction may seem somewhat blurred but is, nevertheless, an important one!

Contrary to the image that scientists collect data, gather theories and form a hypothesis totally objectively is, by the standards of social science and psychology, a misguided one.  Facts are open to interpretation, bias and the values of a particular scientist. They may be guided by what they want and expect to see rather than what they actually see – in other words they become subjective.

It is important, therefore, that the scientific community acts consensually, pooling knowledge and stretching the boundaries. In 1962 the American philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn (1922-1986), introduced the term paradigm shift – the move away from a particular theory or model. He argued that scientific knowledge does not grow linearly but is an accumulation of, sometimes opposing, theories. This opens up possibilities that would not have otherwise been considered. Science can never be exact and, by definition, a theory is only scientific if can be falsified, tested or refuted. For example ‘all the ducks I’ve seen have feathers, therefore ALL ducks have feathers’. Compare this with ‘all birds have feathers, therefore all ducks are birds’. Which is the scientific statement?

To answer the original question, yes, of course we can and must trust the scientists – after all who else is there?……………….to be continued.

Thomas Kuhn in 1972


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