Science is a process that reveals what’s true, whether you believe it or not.
How do we figure out how the world works? We have an idea, we test it and we find that the results either support our idea or they don’t. If we do multiple tests and don’t see the results that our idea predicts, we either reject the idea as false, or we modify it and retest. If we persist and refuse to accept any idea that we or others have shown is false, we close in on an explanation that is likely to be correct. We have all done this a million times for problems as mundane as why a recipe failed or the sink leaked. In fact, babies are the ultimate scientists—they learn how their strange new world works by incessantly testing possibilities until they figure out how to gain mom’s attention, how to sit up, how to walk, what happens when they touch that hot stove. This is the process of science.
Professional scientists use the same process—they repeatedly test every new idea, tossing out or modifying ideas that don’t work until they find an explanation supported by multiple tests. But before a scientist can make a public claim that an idea is true, it has to be reviewed by other experts in the field to ensure that the scientist’s tests and analyses of the results were appropriate. Usually, this peer review stimulates further independent testing by other scientists. This process ensures that scientists can’t go public with an untested opinion, or worse, with an idea that has been tested and shown to be untrue. Other scientists just won’t allow it. Through this iterative process, scientists throughout human history have figured out how our world works—that objects fall to Earth because of gravity, that the Earth revolves around the Sun, that germs cause disease. These ideas are now so well tested that virtually everyone accepts them as truth, even though each was initially denied by skeptics who wound up on the wrong side of history.
There have been many independent tests of the idea that the climate is changing due to the increasing concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels. We’ve measured CO2 levels that are far outside the range of any known natural oscillations, and tests reveal that explanations of non-human causes like increased volcanic action or more solar radiation just don’t match the observations. Multiple seemingly unrelated predictions about what we would see if climate change were caused by rising CO2 have been verified: Have glaciers melted? Check. Has the ocean warmed and become more acid? Check. Has sea level risen? Check. Has severe weather become more common? Check. Does spring come earlier? Check. And so on.
The idea that the climate is changing as a result of human activities has been tested so many times in so many different ways that 97% of scientists agree that it is true. Will we refine our understanding as scientists continue to probe? Of course. But the basic facts will not change—we are in a climate crisis caused primarily by burning fossil fuels for energy. Nobody knew that this would happen back at the time of the Industrial Revolution. But now we know, we know how to fix it, and it is our responsibility to act.
The process of science leads us to the truth about how our world works. When major new truths were discovered in the past there were always deniers who refused to accept them. But denial didn’t stop gravity, it didn’t cause the Sun to revolve around the Earth, it didn’t keep germs from causing disease, and it won’t stop climate change.
When national policy is based on the choice to deny well-supported scientific truths, we are all left vulnerable to the consequences. Denial won’t stop climate change, but it can certainly prevent us from finding and implementing solutions, to everyone’s peril. Solving problems is what Americans do best, so let’s get on with it!