On twitter, journalist Dave Roberts wrote:
Evolution is not a free-floating “theory.” It underlies all of modern biology & ecology. Similarly for climate change: it’s a foundation.
I agree (hence @NCSE’s work on both). But AGW is less foundation than integrative and crucial knowledge, built on other foundations
As NCSE shifts to combat attacks on climate science in classrooms, I’ve been thinking about the similarities and dissimilarities of these sciences, as well as the denialisms surrounding both.
Evolution is foundational to modern biology because all life evolved. That means that every cell, every molecule, every gene, every bone, and every ecological interaction exists in an evolutionary context. Evolution explains everything in biology (at the right level of abstraction). You can’t teach a biology class without teaching about evolution, not if you want it to make any sense. Evolution is the grand unified theory of biology (recalling that a theory is an explanatory framework that integrates evidence, hypotheses, and predictions, not just the loose thing it’s taken to mean colloquially).
As a consequence of all that, it’s highly integrated with other sciences. What we’ve learned about evolution ties into what we know about radiometric dating of rocks, and about molecular biology, and medicine, and ecology, and mathematical game theory, and engineering, and a host of other topics. If someone wants to uproot evolution, they have to tangle with the consequences for all those other fields as well. If the evolution is wrong because the earth is only 6,000 years old, it means radiometric dating is wrong, which means that very basic physics is wrong. It also means astronomy is probably wrong.
Climate change is not a scientific foundation in the same way. It is not meant to be a grand unified theory of climate, but it arises as a necessary consequence of basic climate science. Carbon dioxide traps heat. This is basic science, first demonstrated as Darwin was putting together The Origin of Species. We’re adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, as was known through the 19th century, and documented in detail in the 1950s. The effect of that added carbon dioxide is to increase global temperatures, a concept first described in the late 19th century by Svante Arrhenius, whose estimate of the effect of added carbon dioxide on global temperatures was pretty accurate, for being essentially a back of the envelope calculation.
The precision of that estimate, and estimates at finer resolutions, have improved markedly with global climate simulations, but the result hasn’t. And those simulations integrate everything we know about climate. So when people say that human activities couldn’t be causing climate change, they are challenging fairly basic issues in physics, either the basic physics of molecular bonds, or the flow of energy through the atmosphere.
But the real analogy comes in considering the consequences of climate change. Because the climate influences just about everything, and energy production influences pretty much every part of human society. Which means that no matter what you’re studying, there’s probably a way that climate change connects.
That makes it an important topic to address in schools. Not because it underlies everything, but because it links to everything. It integrates different parts of science, and of the social studies curriculum. Done right, it reinforces and helps make sense of complex but critical concepts in earth science and in biology. It’s a topic every student in school today will have to be dealing with for the rest of his or her life, which makes it interesting and relevant, and makes it all the more important to grant it a central role in science education.
I’m at a workshop on climate change education today and tomorrow, and the first speaker is arguing against placing such a premium on climate literacy, arguing in particular that it’s a “waste of time” to focus on climate change outside the context of a comprehensive earth systems course. As you might expect, this seems to have some people riled up. More on that anon.
Analogies between evolution denial and climate change denial are a bigger topic, and I’ve got a paper in prep that I don’t want to scoop, so I’ll leave that for later.