It is very hard for me to view the world without my Anthropological glasses, since I’ve been one kind of Anthropologist or another since I was 13 years old. Thinking about climate science deniers, I realized what makes them annoying to me. Let me tell you what I mean.
When Archaeologists (a kind of Anthropologist, in the tradition I was trained in) dig a site, they are constantly learning about what is under ground at that location, and throughout the process develop a model of what it all means. As an aside I should mention that increasing understanding is not the inevitable outcome. Sometimes more questions are raised than answered. Point is, as more and more earth is moved and more of the structure of the site and its artifactual contents are revealed, the conception among the diggers of what they are working on grows more detailed and often more complex. The archaeologists talk while they work. There will be experts and learners, novices and those with great experience, and as they dig the site speaks to them (a common metaphor in archaeology) and the diggers listen, knowing that what the famous Dr. House always says must not be forgotten: Everybody, including archaeological sites, lies. So at no point do good archaeologists come to a comfortable understanding of what they are uncovering. It is always uncomfortable, shifting, nagging, bothersome, challenging. And most importantly, this process is what archaeology is. The late James Deetz once told me that fieldwork was the most important thing to him and I asked him why. He said, “That’s where I think. I think standing in a hole.” And that is generally true of Archaeology. Archaeologists think standing in a hole, usually in groups, and they talk and between the ongoing results of the digging, the thinking, and the talking, stuff happens in their minds that advances our overall understanding (or complexity of questions about) something in the past. It also feels good. If you are doing that – digging holes in all sorts of weather, spending more time on your knees than a Catholic choir boy, always being dirty but not in a good way, sun burned, tick bitten, knuckle scraped, being mocked by the patch of earth you are busy destroying – and it does not feel good than you should do something else.
So that is what it is like to engage in the process of doing archaeology. Then a car pulls up.
The guy gets out of his car and comes over and asks, “Whatcha doing?” and somebody tells him.
“We’re digging an archaeological site, we’re archaeologists!” an enthusiastic less experienced member of the crew pipes up, walking over to the fence to engage with this member of the public, as we are supposed to do. “It’s an historic site from the early 19th century. There used to be a farm here. We’re tracing out the foundation of the house, and over there, we think we’ve uncovered the place where the farmers butchered their …”
“I found an artifact,” the interrupting visitor says, interrupting.
“It’s in my trunk, let me get it.”
The archaeologist is left standing at the fence. Sniggers can be heard by some of the more experienced crew members, and glances are passed around like some neat, newly uncovered object might be. There is a reason the least experienced person on the crew was the only one to jaunt over to the fence when the guy showed up.
Returning from his car, holding a huge very smooth ovate river cobble, nearly perfect in symmetry, probably quartzite, “This thing,” hefting it over the fence into the waiting arms of the young archaeologist. “I brought it to the museum but they told me it was just a rock. Obviously they don’t know their rocks! I’ve been running back hoe on construction for years. I know this is not just a rock.”
For some reason, smooth rocks and people who know things have an affinity.
The conversation goes on for a half hour. We learn this guy has been carrying around his rock for over two years, showing it to people now and then. He has a number of theories about what it is, but his preference is to link the rock to Celtic mariners who crossed the Atlantic in olden times and wandered across the continent teaching the hapless Indians how to build stone chambers in which to conduct ceremonies. Despite the fact that this rock is clearly very important, representing a trans-Atlantic connection that only enlightened people accept as true reality, he leaves the rock with the young field worker who promises to bring it to the museum and put in a proper storage drawer where it can be studied by future Archaeologists.
So that was one hour the entire crew can never get back, one hour of failed and eventually forsaken attempts to dissuade the guy of his silly misconceptions, one hour of not thinking about the archaeological site, and also, for reasons of security, one hour during which one or two of the diggers found something interesting but kept quiet about it lest the discovery be drawn into the useless and distracting conversation, or worse, prompt Mr. Backhoe to return over the weekend with his big yellow machine to see what he might find.
That’s what climate science denialists do.
At the moment, and this is probably almost always true, there are some very interesting things going on in climate science. Some of the current issues have to do with the effects of anthropogenic global warming on severe weather. Here’s a brief overview of what is going on.
- We know warming increases evaporation and thus potentially causes drought.
- We know warming increases water vapor in the air, which further increases warming (but how much is a matter of debate) and increases the potential for severe rainfall.
- We know sea surface temperatures are elevated, so when major tropical storms form, they have the potential to be bigger.
- We know sea levels have gone up and continue to do so, which means that storm surges from various kinds of storms are greater than they otherwise might be.
These effects have something to do with the Drought in California, some major flooding and rainfall events of recent years, and the severity of a handful of major tropical storms including Katrina, Haiyan/Yolanda, and Sandy.
For some time science has predicted changes in atmospheric circulation caused by warming that would likely alter major weather patterns. In recent years, this seems to have been observed. So-called “Weather Whiplash” is a phenomenon where the weather in a region goes extreme for a bit longer than it should, then shifts to a different extreme. Drought and flood, heat and cold, that sort of thing. We don’t know but strongly suspect “Weather Whiplash” is caused by global warming’s effects on major air circulation patterns. This is a hot area of research right now, and it is fascinating.
We argue about the likely effects of global warming on specific kinds of storms, from temperate tornadoes to tropical hurricanes. Numerous analyses of data and models of climate change have suggested that there may be more of these storms in the future, other studies ‘conclude’ that we can’t be sure, and very few studies show that storms will decrease. The most methodologically questionable studies are the ones that predict decreases in storm overall, though there are a few good studies that suggest that certain tropical regions will experience fewer major cyclones.
That is a rough outline running from greater to lesser certainty. Down there in the lower certainty range there is some interesting science going on. One thing that makes the science especially interesting is the unhappy tension between what climate scientists ideally would like to do and the urgency of understanding what will happen with severe weather in the future. On one hand, climate scientists would like to get a couple of decades of excellent data to supplement older, not as excellent data, to see how climate systems responding to warming reshape our weather patterns. On the other hand, we would ideally like to know now not only if we have to worry about increasingly severe weather, but we’d like to know what kinds of severe weather will occur, when, and where.
That’s interesting. Going back to the analogy of digging an archaeological site, this is like digging a site that is of a familiar type, finding mostly what you expect, but knowing you are adding important data to the overall growing body of information about Early Bronze Age Peloponnesian urban settlement, or New England 19th century farmsteads. But while you are excavating the site you find a stain deep in one corner of a test pit you thought you were about to be done with, and there’s an unexpected artifact in the stain. So you open up a larger area and find a homestead that is not on the map and is not supposed to be there, and as you excavate more and more of it you discover it is loaded with exotic unexpected artifacts and represents human activity that was not known to have occurred at this place and at this time. This would be the most fun you can have with your pants on, kneeling, in the field of archaeology.
And then some guy comes along with his stupid rock and takes you away from it all for an inordinate amount of time. But in climate studies, it is not some guy. It is dozens of denialists, who do appear to be at lest somewhat organized, showing up and doing everything they can think of to interfere with your work. When the scientists get together to discuss the very interesting and important uncertainties, to evaluate very recent work, to share thoughts about the interpretation of newly run models or newly analyzed data sets or newly observed phenomena, they have to spend a certain amount of that time dealing with the denialists. They may even have to spend a certain amount of time talking with lawyers. When they talk to the public or to policy makers they have to spend a certain amount of time, sometimes quite a bit of time, debunking denialist myths and explaining the basic science that should have been accepted as premise a long time ago.
Now imagine once again that you are an archeologist and you and your team have finished work on a major project. You’ve put together a symposium to be part of a major international meeting, at which 9 different papers will be read and discussed addressing various aspects of your findings. You go to the conference. But 2 out of 10 of the people in the room are this guy’s friends. They will insist on asking questions about the Celts and the Giants that once roamed the Earth, and Aliens that mated with earthlings in antiquity to form a race of Lizard People. And they are not polite. Only 2 of 10 in the room come to the conference with these ideas, but they are highly disruptive and control much of the conversation at the symposium, at the bar afterwards, at the airport waiting lounges where people going to and from the conference accidentally run into each other, on the twitter stream spewing from the conference venue.
This is why climate science denialists are so annoying. They are sucking a measurable amount of energy and resources from the process of doing the science and understanding the climate system. Another analogy would be this: Every department of natural resources spending 10% of its budget mitigating against negative effects on Bigfoot, and every news report of anything having to do with parks, hunting, bird conservation, etc. having a Bigfoot spokesperson to address bigfoot issues. When you take climate denialist fueled false balance and re-describe it in any other area of public policy or scientific endeavor, that’s what you get. Bigfoot or something like Bigfoot. Cold Fusion experts always included in any discussion of the Large Hadron Collider, Alien Hunters having equal time after every episode of Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos 2014, and so on.
There is plenty of uncertainty at the cutting edge of climate science. There is very little uncertainty at the core. This is because it is centuries old science and the scientists pretty much know what they are doing. Engaging in the false debate is a waste of time and effort, and that, I personally suspect, is the main objective of the denialists. They want to slow down progress, though they may have various different reasons to do so. None of those reasons are valid. They are not Galileo, though they want everyone to think they are. One wonders if they believe that of themselves.
That would be extra annoying.
Photograph of Eliot Park Neighborhood Archaeology Project by Jen Barnett.