Scientific illiteracy

Over the years I have frequently run quizzes for organisations of which I am a member, and am as frequently appalled by the lack of knowledge so many people seem to possess relating to scientific matters. As my career has been in IT I am not a scientist, but I think I have a reasonable grounding in what I would regard as basic facts about the world. However the responses I have received indicate that a majority of people have no idea about the age of our planet, its distance from our star, what its likely future is, or the extent to which we as a species have, or indeed can, affect its nature.

Nevertheless, despite this widespread ignorance of the facts, a large number of activists, backed by a gullible media, and a political class afraid to contradict fashionable opinions, are convincing our societies to take steps which risk undermining our economies, and reducing our quality of life in order to counter what, contrary to claims made by vociferous pressure groups, are uncertain theories about our climate. Those who are so certain in their belief that anthropological global warming is a reality, proved by scientists, should look at what the consensus of the scientific community was only a few decades, when the warnings were all of rapid cooling, and a new ice age.

There are fashions in scientific opinion, and these are exacerbated by the desire to obtain research grants, not to rock the boat, and to enjoy fifteen minutes of fame. I could give numerous examples, but two illustrate the point. In 1971 the journal Science published a paper by two eminent scientists which said "An increase by only a factor of four in global aerosol background concentration may be sufficient to reduce the surface temperature by as much as 3.5 degrees Kelvin, sufficient to trigger an ice age". In 1973 the Science Digest carried the following warning "At this point the world's climatologists are agreed on only two things. That we do not have tens of thousands of years to prepare for the next ice age, and that how carefully we monitor our atmospheric pollution will have direct bearing on the arrival and nature of this weather crisis. The sooner Man confronts these facts, the safer he'll be". The one thing which is undeniable about our climate is that we live in an interglacial, which could end at any moment.

One of the most repeated assertions come under the general heading of 'saving the planet', This is risible, given that the Earth needs no saving, as it has existed for approximately four billion years, and barring a massively unlikely event such a close encounter with a wandering dark star, will continue to exist for another four billion, until the Sun finally leaves the main sequence. That its climate varies, sometimes massively is not disputed, as it was once a spinning tropical ball, was a frozen snowball for millions of years, and, being a dynamic body, has experienced many climatic events, such as Ice Ages. These latter are generally thought to be caused by variations in the Earth's axis tilt, in the planet's orbit, and in the output of the Sun. Other large swings in climate can be due to vast volcanic eruptions, or even the relative positions of land and sea masses, with consequent effects on oceanic currents, and wind patterns.

Despite these realities we are asked to believe that the activities of a small biped, over a couple of centuries, are threatening the existence of life on Earth. The constant claims about the malign effects of carbon dioxide ignore the fact that the most prolific greenhouse gas is water vapour, and how do the green fanatics expect to do anything about that - turn off the Sun?

The reality is that there are several plausible scenarios. Conceivably there is not actually a sustained change in climate, but merely a variation, such as have occurred in historic times, for instance the Medieval Climatic Anomaly, followed by the Little Ice Age. Maybe there is a more long term change, but it could have nothing to do with homo sapiens, but be the result of subtle variations in the Sun's output, while perhaps there is indeed an effect resulting from our activities. If the latter is true then we need to do what we as a species has always done, adapt, but not to react in a way with a cure which is worse than the disease.

None of the above means that it is not a good idea to take measures to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels, as these are finite on a human timescale, whereas energy from the Sun, tides and wind are only vulnerable on a geological timeframe. However this can be done over a sensible period, taking advantage of technological advances, without throwing the baby out with bathwater, as we can make huge changes over the coming decades which will put our industrial civilisation on a more permanent basis.

It is regrettable that governments, including our own, have shown themselves willing to take the alarmist statements of the green lobby at face value, when the latter would only be satisfied if we were all back in the caves, rubbing sticks together for warmth, as they falsely regard humanity of being guilty of a disregard for the environment for purely selfish reasons. Many, although not all, are in fact beholden to the usual self hating ideologies of the Left.

The proposal that we should abandon petrol driven cars, and domestic gas ovens, for electric models within an absurdly short period is not merely impossible to achieve, but fundamentally insane, as, given the Greens outright opposition to nuclear energy generated by fission, where will the necessary electricity to come from but from the use of fossil fuels? In the future we may hope that fusion power, and the ability to capture massive additional energy from the Sun by use of orbiting power stations, will provide what we need, but these technologies are not yet ready.

Rather than treat little Scandinavian girls as some sort of mediaeval child saint, we need to adopt the attitude exemplified by the Queen of reacting rationally to problems, and, to use a wartime slogan, "Keep Calm".