Most science is not as simple as basic astronomy

Sometimes people accidentally make good points while believing they are making the opposite point.

Right before the eclipse, liberal activist David Pepper asked an easy-to-answer question whose answer is in fact informative — even if Pepper thought it was a stumper.

Very few arguments in the past few years have been as annoying and smug as “WE BELIEVE IN SCIENCE!!!!” and “Trust the science.” The people who say these things are prone, like Pepper, to having no understanding of science in general, or “the science” they are particularly prattling about.

We saw it during COVID, when the lockdowners screamed that “the science” required schools to be closed, fishing creeks to be off-limits, and children to wear masks outdoors.

Of course, these opinions were not scientific opinions. They were policy opinions based on extremely uncertain science. Specifically, they were opinions that the government ought to restrict people’s freedoms.

Pepper, the liberal activist quoted above, blasted as “anti-science” lawmakers who opposed mask mandates well after there was a vaccine.

COVID lockdown-mania was typical of the “trust the science” crowd in that way. “Trust the science” is most often deployed in defense of restrictions on Americans’ energy usage in the name of battling climate change. That’s exactly what Pepper did around the eclipse.

His argument is that climate science has precise knowledge of how the climate will change in response to certain human activities. Presumably the implication is that governments should tax, regulate, and ban the use of fossil fuels, and subsidize and mandate the use of lower-carbon technologies.

Climate science, of course, does not demand any specific policy. The policies created in the name of battling climate change are great proof: Plastic bag bans, electric car subsidies, and ethanol subsidies are all examples of green policies (which we were told were demanded by “the science”) that may actually have harmed the planet.

Science cannot prescribe policy, and often the folks accused of “denying science” are really just objecting to specific public policies.

But Pepper’s most telling error above is totally failing to grasp the complexity of climate science. He thinks it’s as straightforward as astronomy.

Here’s the thing: The moon’s path around the Earth is very predictable. The only real forces involved are gravity and momentum. Similarly, the Earth’s rotation on its axis and orbit around the sun is simple. The directions and magnitudes involved have been known for centuries. There isn’t other stuff in space to mess with the moon or the Earth.

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Climate is incredibly complex. There are seven main gases in the atmosphere. Weather and climate are determined not only by latent heat in the atmosphere, but also by the heat stored up in the oceans and in land. Some changes to the climate are self-correcting, and some are self-perpetuating. Sunspots, volcanoes, and even earthquakes can affect climate, and those can be totally unpredictable.

Uncertainty is a huge part of almost all science. But the “trust the science” crowd believes that science involves overcoming all uncertainty. They think that all science is as straightforward as the moon’s orbit around the Earth. That tells us how seriously we should take their appeals to science.

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