The Things We Believe
While the definition of an agnostic can vary by degree, this position might be reduced to simply stating that absolute knowledge about certain ‘things’ is limited. This website has discussed many things where certainty appeared questionable and therefore used a quote by Voltaire to highlight this issue.
“Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.”
Of course, it might be recognised that many people believe in things, which empirical evidence suggests cannot be true. However, there are other things that people believe that are more problematic because they encompass ideas that exist beyond physical verification, although we might still make some subjective judgment based on probability. In this context. We might accept that believing in a deity of some description is often a matter of faith, which may be psychologically important to an individual, or society, such that any criticism of their faith is often suppressed. However, this website has often referenced an essay by William Clifford entitled ‘The Ethics of Belief’ because it highlights a danger to society when we simply believe in things without sufficient evidence.
"The danger to society is not merely that it should believe wrong things, though that is great enough; but that it should become credulous, and lose the habit of testing things and inquiring into them, for then it must sink back into savagery. It may matter little to me, in my cloud-castle of sweet illusions and darling lies; but it matters much to Man that I have made my neighbours ready to deceive. The credulous man is father to the liar and the cheat."
Today, there are a myriad of beliefs that underpin the modern world, although we might start by recognising that this world was built on two central, but often opposing, belief systems, i.e. religion and science. As such, we might start by attempting some review of the beliefs that underpin these two different worldviews. While this discussion is not specifically about religious belief, it will initially question whether the foundations of belief underpinning three major religions, i.e. Judaism, Christianity and Islam, simply reflect human beliefs, which while possibly understandable in an uncertain world may be founded on either unsupported scriptures, superstition or even simple falsehood. Of course, from an agnostic position, it has to be accepted that the issue of whether some form of deity plays, or has played, a role in the universe is something that cannot necessarily be proved one way or the other, although the laws of physics might still question the probability of such beliefs. Even so, it might still be assumed that people have the right to believe in a deity of their own choice, especially if it brings solace or meaning to their lives. This said, we might realise that this personal choice is invariably biased by cultural upbringing, which some might described as education and others as indoctrination. So, while uncertainty must exist about the exact nature of the deity assumed by these religions, an earlier discussion entitled ‘The Probability of God’ attempted to consider some of the evidence for God's existence and the potential nature of God’s character.
Note: While the discussion cited is obviously biased towards an agnostic perspective, it is not unreasonable to question why the description of God in the Torah of Judaism, the Bible of Christianity or the Quran of Islam all appear to described ‘their’ God as having such a parochial preference for ‘a chosen people’ and what might also be described as a limited understanding of not only the workings of this world, but of the wider universe.
Of course, this is a personal perspective and therefore also a subjective belief, which does not necessarily reflect the influence that religion still has in the modern world. However, given the spectrum of religious beliefs, we might appreciate that people have come to believe in ideas that not only contradict each other, but also appear to contradict almost everything we now believe to be true about the physical world. Of course, religious beliefs were, and are still, powerful ideas that can influence people not only to believe in things, but to do things, which in retrospect we might seriously question in terms of any concept of morality.
Might we be more specific about such a suggestion?
By way of a historic timeline, witchcraft was made a capital offence in Britain in 1563, although it was deemed to be heresy from much earlier times. It is estimated that in the period 1484-1750 some 200,000 witches were tortured, burnt or hanged in Western Europe. Most of the accused witches were usually old women, invariably poor, who possibly fitted the stereotype of being crone-like, where simply owning a cat was also seen as circumstantial evidence. Of course, today, we realise that the belief in witchcraft was very real to many at that time, such that the accusation of witchcraft invariably led to the victims being hanged or burnt after undergoing appalling torture without their accusers being able to produce any real tangible evidence.
But surely this example has to be understood in terms of ancient history?
In 1991, the Roper Poll estimated that possibly four million Americans believed that they had been the victim of some sort of alien abduction – see article Abduction by Aliens or Sleep Paralysis? for more details. While this discussion will not challenge the accuracy of this poll, as subsequent analysis suggests it is over estimated, it appears that personal accounts of alien abduction started to increase after the publication of two books entitled ‘Missing Time’ in 1981 and ‘Intruders’ in 1987, which in-turn created wider media and public interest. In terms of the American population, 4 million would translate into 1 in every 80 Americans and while this phenomenon was not unique to America, or the English-speaking world, only 1 in a million of the Spanish-speaking world have made similar claims. While this discussion will not pursue this issue, it does suggest that people in the modern world are still susceptible to beliefs that are very questionable.
OK, but how are these examples reflective of the 21st century?
In order to start considering this question, we possibly need to switch the focus to other issues, which we might believe to be true, although possibly still surrounded by uncertainty. So, while we might understand that religious belief may be something that has to be accepted as a matter of faith, we do not normally expect this attitude to apply to science. However, we might also initially examine some aspects of theoretical science, which like faith, transcends our ability to directly verify and, as such, people may come to believe that some scientific theory has to be true and, in so doing, create a consensus that over time becomes mainstream acceptance. As a broad generalisation, theoretical physics may take two fundamentally different approaches in how it attempts to describe reality. First, it may try to describe phenomena from the relative perspective of an observer. Second, it may try to explain the nature of phenomena based on some form of cause and effect, which exists and operates independent of the observer.
What might be the consequence of the first approach?
Today, theoretical physics requires the velocity of light [c] to be relative to every observer in any coordinate system. In terms of special relativity, this required the laws of nature to be relative to an observer within an inertial frame of reference, while general relativity extended this idea to any observer, whether the frame of reference was accelerating or rotating. Subsequently, quantum theory would build on the idea that the most fundamental laws of nature were relative to an observer in the sense that the interaction of an observer within a quantum system would bring about its own reality. While this summary is obviously overly simplistic, there is a suggestion that the laws of nature depend on the measurements of an observer.
So, what might be wrong with this approach?
As outlined, there appears to be some ambiguity about the physical reality of the universe, if we remove the observer frame of reference. This approach can also lack an obvious cause and effect description, which might explain why light propagates with velocity [c] regardless of the velocity [v] of its source. We might also want to question why matter has inertia and cannot propagate at velocity [c]. Likewise, we might seek a better causal explanation of gravity, time dilation, length contraction and the fundamental nature of energy, which do not always appear to be fully explained by either relativistic or quantum theories.
So, how did we come to accept the relative approach?
Initially, from a historical perspective, science did seek causal explanations, even if in retrospect they were shown to be limited or simply wrong. By way of an example the model of the solar system was initially assumed to be described by the Ptolemaic system, where an Earth-bound observer was the centre of the universe. Subsequently, the Copernican system would create a frame of reference that was essentially independent of any observer. Later, Newton would define the basic laws of classical physics in which all matter had a velocity [v] relative to physical space and not just an observer, while Maxwell would model the phenomena of electromagnetism as a wave propagating with velocity [c] through physical space, as initially described in terms of a luminiferous aether. Lorentz also believed that light propagated with velocity [c] with respect to the ether and produced his transformations on the assumption that they might help explain the failure of the Michelson-Morley experiment due to a physical length contraction in the direction of motion. However, at this point, we possibly need to make some reference to the opposition of the Catholic church to the ‘beliefs’ of both Copernicus and Newton, as the development of classical physics was seen to suggest that God could be replaced with a description of cause and effect. This said, there has always been a philosophical opposition to a purely causal description of the universe, which might simply be highlighted in terms of the prime-mover argument.
So, when did modern physics start to believe in the relative approach?
While predating 20th century science, Bishop Berkeley (1685-1753) forwarded an argument, which was possibly both religious and philosophical in scope, suggesting that motion was not absolute, or even necessarily real, but rather a relative concept within our consciousness, such that time was also only a succession of events in our consciousness – see Relativity Arguments. However, in 1905, Einstein published his paper on special relativity and the photoelectric effect that extended Planck’s earlier idea of energy quanta to include light quanta before the word ‘photon’ was in use. While conforming to the scientific method, special relativity was essentially a mathematical model that introduced the idea of a relative frame of reference of an observer, where time and space might also be unified. In this context, the idea of universal time and space was side-lined along with the idea that space had any physical reality as electromagnetic waves were now simply assumed to be capable of self-propagating between two mathematical coordinate points. However, this approach appeared to be supported by the null results of the Michelson-Morley experiment, which suggested that the classical ether of space did not have any physical reality, at least, as a wave propagation media. While this might still be the mainstream consensus, the idea of a physical wave propagation media never really disappeared. For example, one of the postulates of special relativity was that light always propagates with velocity [c] in all frames of reference, such that a light shone from a spaceship travelling at near light speed would still perceive this light moving away with velocity [c]. While this discussion will not attempt to explain all the various arguments surrounding this idea, we might realise that light as a wave propagating through a physical media, e.g. space, would have a velocity [c] defined by that media. If so, light would always propagate at velocity [c] irrespective of the source, as required by special relativity, although we then have to confront the issue as to why the measurement of [c] does not change based on the velocity of motion [v] of the observer – see Doppler Effects and Other Transforms for more details. Relativity also describes time dilation as a relative phenomenon within the moving frame of reference of an observer, which then leads to a number of issues. For example, if two twins were travelling at near light speed in separate spaceships, but in opposite directions, might both assume that the other twin had to be experiencing time dilation. Of course, if the velocity of both twins could be measured against some cosmic reference frame, each twin would experience the same time dilation relative to this cosmic frame, not their relative observer frames. However, even after the publication of general relativity, in 1915, Einstein’s subsequent statement in 1920 appears quite ambiguous on the issue of physical reality of the ether.
“We may say that according to the general theory of relativity, space is endowed with physical qualities; in this sense, therefore, there exists an Aether. According to the general theory of relativity space without Aether is unthinkable; for in such space there not only would be no propagation of light, but also no possibility of existence for standards of space and time (measuring-rods and clocks), nor therefore any space-time intervals in the physical sense. But this Aether may not be thought of as endowed with the quality characteristic of ponderable media, as consisting of parts which may be tracked through time. The idea of motion may not be applied to it.”
While we might question the reality of a ‘ponderable media’, general relativity nevertheless suggested that gravity is not a classical force, but rather the effect of space curvature, which was later encapsulated in the adage of John Wheeler:
tells spacetime how to curve,
and spacetime tells matter how to move
However, this adage also appears to end up questioning its own premise, if we assume that space has no physical reality, such that we are left to wonder how the mathematical concept of spacetime might be curved. This issue then extends into modern cosmology, when described in terms of the Big Bang model, which requires the wholesale expansion of space within the universe to increase with time. We might also highlight that the concept of a black-hole also requires that the fabric of spacetime be distorted, such that the measurement of time and space become relative quantities defined by both the velocity [v] and position of an observer within the gravitational field.
Note: While this discussion does not have the authority to refute these ideas, it is important that all are allowed to question whether there is an adequate causal explanation to support a theory that is often primarily based on the assumptions underpinning a mathematical model. So, while there may be some evidence to believe in certain things, we possibly need to remember that theoretical science is not necessarily discussing things of which it is certain.
In the opening essay of website-4 entitled The Role of Scepticism, the following quote by William Clifford was cited as not only a justification for scepticism, but as a necessary component of the scientific method.
`It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything on insufficient evidence`.
Of course, while we may have to accept the weight of authority, if grounded in evidence at a given point in time, it does not mean that the duty of inquiry ceases to apply or that some reasonable limit to speculative inference should not be imposed. For if theoretical physics does not impose some constraint on the things it believes to be certain, then it may not be so different from the metaphysics of religious belief.
So, what ‘things’ does modern physics require us to believe?
While we might assume that Einstein believed in his own relativistic theory, even before there was any empirical evidence, he never really believed in the quantum model, where physical reality can disappear into the mathematical probability of a wave function and the philosophy of the Copenhagen interpretation. This said, today, most physicists presumably believe in the description of quantum reality that underpins the standard particle model, even though the idea of a physical particle is lost in the ambiguity of a wave-particle duality and a multitude of quantum fields. Despite this seemingly fundamental ambiguity, the particle model of the 20th century grew to consist of over 200 particle types, although most were variations of just 17 fundamental particles, i.e. 6 quarks, 6 leptons, 4 force-carrying bosons plus a Higgs boson, where each has an associated anti-matter counterpart.
Note: There is obviously much evidence in support of the atomic model, especially as its scales into the domain of chemistry. However, there are clearly open issues with the particle model as we adventure ever further into the sub-atomic domain described by quantum theory.
Again, it may be argued that we have a choice in what we believe physically exists in the quantum domain. Historically, there was the idea of waves propagating in the ether of space, which was originally rejected on the apparent evidence of the Michelson-Morley experiment and then further refuted by relativity. As such, the consensus in earlier 20th century physics was to reject the idea of a fundamental wave model in preference for the atomic particle model, even before the quantum model had been establish. However, this consensus was problematic to the initial development of quantum mechanics, where deBroglie was to establish the idea of matter waves and Schrodinger would forward the idea of a wave equation.
Note: See the history of quantum mechanics for how Heisenberg translated Schrödinger’s wave function into the mathematics of matrix mechanics and Max Born later interpreted the wave function as a mathematical probability density in a given region of coordinate space.
While, today, there are many interpretations of quantum theory, it might be argued that any belief might be separated into one of two philosophical positions on the wave function collapse. The first position might be described as ontological in scope and assumes that the wave function must have some form of physical existence, which is independent of any observer. The second and generally accepted position is described as epistemological in scope and assumes the wave function is not ‘real’ and therefore has no physical existence, it is simply a mathematical construct for determining probability, as per Born’s probability density description. Today, these original ideas appear to have been subsumed into Quantum Field Theory, which in-turn is subdivided into three distinct developments, i.e. Quantum Electro-Dynamics (QED), Quantum Chromo-Dynamics (QCD) and Electro-Weak Theory (EWT).
So, does anybody still believe in an ontological wave model?
While this discussion will not pursue this question, it will make reference to website-3 that reviews a number of different wave models and outlines the timelines and sources for these models. However, in the context of this discussion, the primary purpose was simply to highlight that we may believe in many things, in both religion and science, which go beyond our ability to prove beyond doubt, which is not necessarily a problem as long as we do not assign certainty to these beliefs.
Note: While the ‘beliefs’ of modern cosmology are too numerous to detail, reference can be made to an earlier discussion of the many issues within cosmology. Further reference might also be made to Cosmic Speculation and The Plasma Model for alternative ‘beliefs’.
So far, simply by way of example, the discussion has briefly touched on two ‘things’, e.g. religion and science, in which we might believe without necessarily knowing whether there was sufficient evidence for these beliefs. Of course, people can believe in many things, which others might question, if there appears to be limited empirical verification of the facts to support a certain belief or idea. However, there appears to be enough circumstantial evidence to suggest that a lack of factual evidence does not stop some from being certain about their beliefs, such that they will seek to establish and build a consensus by which they might promote their beliefs. Therefore, at this point, the discussion will change direction by asking a question.
What is the relationship between a consensus and an ideological belief?
We might recognise that many people are so certain about their beliefs that they integrated them into some overarching worldview, which might also include other ideological beliefs ranging across politics and economics. However, we might recognise that the influence of a single individual is limited, irrespective of the certainty of their beliefs, such that they might seek to build a wider consensus to support a specific ideological worldview. Of course, if this ideology is not initially accepted by a society, then we might perceive why a minority worldview might seek to develop a consensus, which may not only influence society to tolerate their worldview, but ultimately be forced to accept it.
Note: As a generalisation, both religion and science might be described as an ideological worldview, which were not initially accepted by society. However, at different times, each established a consensus that was able to influence the political governance of society to first tolerate its beliefs and then accept them as a new social norm.
Of course, not every idea gains the acceptance of society, such that its supporters may either have to abandon the idea or restructure its ideology, such that it might rebuild a different type of consensus. In terms of an example of ideology with both political and economic dimensions, we might consider the case of Marxism, which appeared to fail in the 20th century, but which may possibly be restructured in order to build a new consensus in the 21st century.
Note: There are obviously many sources of information about Marxism that can be referenced, such that it need not be repeated here. However, for continuity of the discussion, Marxism might simply be described in terms of a class struggle between the proletariat, i.e. working class, and the bourgeoisie, i.e. upper class, where the latter, not the former, owns the means of production and therefore acquires a disproportionate percentage of the wealth of a nation – see The Limits of Morality for wider details. As another generalisation, Karl Marx might be best described as an academic, whose ideas developed as an ideology encompassing both economics and politics. Only later did Lenin and Stalin in Russia and Mao in China use the Marxist ideology to create the socio-political revolution of communism, which would have a major impact on 20th century history.
While there is much debate as to why Marxism failed in both Russia and China, especially as an economic ideology, Marx’s prediction that the working class would ultimately reject capitalism and take ownership of the means of production never really happen on a global basis. For history suggests that communist governance, based broadly on a Marxist ideology, proved less effective in comparison to capitalism, especially if the latter adopted various social policies to protect the collective-interests of society from the excesses of capitalist self-interests. So, while both Russia and China both continue to maintain a centralised approach to political governance, they were forced to adopt a more free-market capitalist approach in order to better compete in global economic trade.
OK, so much for the past, what about the future?
After the death of Mao Zedong in 1979 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, many on the left of the political spectrum were forced to reassess some of their ideological beliefs, which we might initially described as Neo-Marxism. However, it was not obvious that a consensus could be built on just these ideas, such that they might appear more acceptable to western societies. Therefore, many continued to analyse the failure of Marxism and the prediction that the working class would ultimately rise-up and take control of the means of production, such that wealth could be redistributed on a more equitable basis.
Note: It might be highlighted that equitable does not necessarily mean equal. For, in practice, there is little in the way of historic evidence that all in any society have truly been equal. As such, the aspiration of a fair society might simply attempt to ensure that all are equal in law and opportunity, but not necessarily achieve equality of outcome, as individual ability has always been a differentiator - see IQ Controversy for more details.
However, today, many have come to question the assumption that all are not born equal in ability – see Nature and Nurture for wider details. Likewise, many now argue that true equity in law and opportunity has not been achieved by a growing number of perceived minority groups in society, e.g. racial, gender and sexual. In addition, these minority groups continue to be victims of the wealth inequity inherent in the capitalist system, which the 2008 financial crisis simply aggravated.
So, how might such beliefs forge a new and powerful consensus?
What the history of Marxism might have highlighted for those seeking to change society is that the working class could not necessarily be relied on to help them. Therefore, the idea of a wider consensus might be perceived, which could include any minority groups being characterised as victims of inequality along with those who might have environmental concerns related to nuclear energy and fossil fuels, which they believed to be the main contributor to climate change. However, at this point, it possibly needs to be highlighted that there is often a clear distinction in the objectives of an activist trying to forge this type of consensus and the objective of an activist within a minority group. As such, we might perceive two distinct types of activist, one who may be seeking to fundamentally change society, i.e. politically, economically and socially, and another who is simply advocating equality for some minority group. However, we might also recognise that some minority group activists often assume that they speak on behalf of all within a group. For example, feminism activists often assume that they speak for the equality of all women, while an activist for the LGBTQ community might assume that all the different forms of sexuality implied by this conceptual community must have a single goal for which he/she has somehow become the unelected spokesperson.
But what has this got to do with the things we believe?
We started out discussing religion and science in an attempt to show that both could be subject to beliefs that could not necessarily be verified, even though we might recognise that one is predicated on the idea of faith and the other on the assumption of facts. Of course, once we open up the conversation to discuss a wider range of ideological beliefs, the concept of verification can become almost entirely subjective and where open debate may often be suppressed by political correctness or the idea that some form of consensus somehow equates to certainty, such that further debate is unnecessary.
Note: In part, many of the essays in website-4 are discussions of the implication of unjustified certainty, where anybody seen to be sceptical of the evidence is branded a denier of the truth established by a consensus. Within this context, the righteous certainty assumed to be conveyed by a consensus then feels justified in suppressing further debate and essentially denying freedom of speech, which so many have fought and died to attain and preserve.
Of course, it has to be recognised that many issues are difficult to discuss in open forum, but this does not mean that they are not genuine issues that can simply be ignored because it does not fit within the belief of some ideology. For example, we might want to consider the equality of women in society, which is still a genuine issue in some cultures, although it might be suggested that this battle has been broadly won in most western societies. In the UK, women won the right to vote based on two laws passed in 1918 and 1928. While this is rightly seen as a landmark for the equality of women, it is not commonly recognised that most working-class men did not have this right much before this time, which was only granted in 1867 in urban areas, but delayed until 1884 in rural areas. However, there were still another 42% who were denied the right to vote, again until the 1918 act, because they were not householders, which included anybody living with their parents, servants in the homes of their employers or soldiers in barracks. In this respect, we possibly need to consider the fight for various rights in the context of historic developments and, at least, acknowledge that progress has been made in most areas. Of course, some may still rightly raise the issues of equality of pay and opportunity, which some appear to want to only attribute to an ongoing conspiracy by men in positions of power. However, while these issues do have historic roots that continue to persist in some professions, we possibly need to recognise that some attitudes were instilled in earlier generations and cannot immediately be changed overnight.
Note: Another point of debate might be injected simply by way of reference. Today, there is much statistical evidence that many women may have very different life goals, when compared with men due to gender differences. However, it is highlighted that gender differences are a statistical generalisation, not an absolute stereotype that applied to all women or men. However, today, some will immediately challenge this position based on a belief that gender is not fixed but rather a matter of personal preference. A similar debate also centres around the issue of sexuality, which is a ‘rabbit-hole’ that this discussion will not go down at this stage. However, see Nature versus Nurture Debate for more details of the potential impact of both genetic and environmental differences.
While the mathematics of statistics can possibly provide some form of tangible evidence in support of certain beliefs, especially within the realm of the social sciences, such analysis has often been portrayed as an excuse to propagate a racist agenda against certain minority groups in society – see The IQ Controversy for more details. Again, it will simply be stated that there might be any number of minority groups that today’s so-called social justice warriors might use in their campaign for change, some of which is undoubtedly justified, but in many other cases it can appear as either misinformed or simply used to advance a political narrative without necessarily having a true regard for the interest of these minority groups or even an understanding of the potential impact on society as a whole.
Note: One potential impact of this activist-led consensus appears to be the increasing demand for ‘safe-places’ and ‘no-platforms’, which was initially deem necessary within all educational institutions, but is now starting to restrict almost all forms of public debate. As a consequence, we may not only be losing degrees of freedom, but as Clifford warned, society will come to ‘believe’ wrong things and lose the habit of inquiring after the truth.
Might we now return to a more specific example of consensus and ideology in action?
In the last section of the discussion an attempt was being made to highlight how a ‘belief’ in a social ideology might attempt to get a relatively radical idea accepted by trying to create a wider consensus. In the past, this was difficult because the establishment invariably controlled access to the main forms of mass media, i.e. radio, television and newspapers. However, today, there are many forms of social media, which are proving particularly effective in influencing younger generations to accept and become part of a consensus without necessarily understanding all the ‘pros and cons’ of the issues involved. While we might understand that many of the ideological ideas being associated with the social sciences might be subject to statistical interpretation, the general assumption is that the physical sciences should be predicated on hard facts, which are subject to empirical verification. In this context, this website has attempted to consider the evidence surrounding the climate change debate in two previous discussions, see The Climate Change Debate and Consensus and Climate Change, such that this discussion will try not to replicate too much of this detail. However, we might consider the issue of climate change as an example where an assumed consensus is cited as a justification for radical action on the basis that this consensus beliefs that CO2 is the primary cause of an impending environmental disaster, unless CO2 emissions are reduced to zero within the next decade.
So, what is the nature and scope of this consensus?
At face value, those who have attempted to construct this consensus cite the support of 97% of scientists, which earlier discussions questioned on the basis of two references entitled ‘Claim Against the 97% Climate Consensus’ and ‘Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming’. However, for the purpose of this discussion, we might simply try to clarify two positions by first stating that both sides of the debate accept the reality of climate change, but differ in the cause(s) and scope of the change. Unfortunately, despite the need for clarity by qualified scientists, much of the subsequent debate has been reduced to name calling between the ‘climate alarmists’ and the ‘climate deniers’.
But why can we not simply resolve the issues of concern by reference to known facts?
The first issue of concern centres on the increasing concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere due to man-made industrialisation. Generally, there appears to be broad acceptance of the data that CO2 has risen from about 0.03% to 0.04% in the last 100 years. Clearly, as an overall change in the makeup of the atmosphere this appears quite minimal, but may appear more dramatic if expressed as a 25% increase over the baseline 100 years ago. However, the implication of this increase, no matter how it is presented, requires a detailed understanding of the science of greenhouse gases, which this discussion will not address. However, it might still be highlighted that a greenhouse effect is often cited as a potential causal mechanism for a global temperature increase, which while still debated might be estimated to be ~ 0.7oC over the last 100 years. In this context, CO2 is only one of about a half dozen identified greenhouse gases, where water vapour is often estimated to account for between 36-70% of the greenhouse effect depending on atmospheric conditions, i.e. cloud cover.
Note: To add to the confusion in the outline above, some argue that it is very difficult to be precise about the percentage of warming that can be attributed to anthropogenic CO2, i.e. man-made, as there is insufficient detailed understanding of all the interactions that might fully explain the effects. Of course, it might also be argued that greenhouse gases are but one of many potential mechanisms that may be causing climate change – see Energy from the Sun and Climate Change Mechanismsfor more details.
So, what conclusions can really be drawn from all the potentially conflicting facts. Well, one obvious, but simplistic assessment of the climate change might be that it involves numerous complex issues, such that certainty might appear to be an unreasonable conclusion either way. However, we might realise that those who want to create the impression of a 97% consensus did so for a reason, which we might speculate was to instil a sense of urgency, if not panic, such that radical action might be taken to minimise, halt or even reverse climate change.
So, what action is being proposed and at what cost?
First, we might recognise that climate change, irrespective of the cause, is a global issue. In this respect the current Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recommendations might be described in terms of the 2017 Paris Accord, which has the goal of limiting the increase in the average global temperature below 2oC above that of pre-industrial levels. However, while it was assumed that most countries of the world had signed up to this goal, despite the US subsequently withdrawal, it would appear that few countries are living up to their commitments – see Climate Action Tracker for details.
Note: Under the Paris agreement, developed countries such as the US originally pledged both funding and technical support to developing countries, such as India and China, to assist with emission reductions. India declared its goal to reduce emissions by 33% by 2030, but it was estimated that India might need $2.5 trillion to achieve this emissions target. China also declared a goal to reach peak CO2 emissions by 2030, while recognising that China is the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter. Despite this goal, China increased its fossil-fuel consumption in 2018 leading to an estimated 2.3% increase in their CO2 emissions. Paradoxically, while China is the world’s largest consumer of coal, it is also the largest producer of solar technology, which some might suggest is a win-win for their economy.
Of course, anybody over the age of twelve might realise that what politicians promised and what politicians deliver can be two very different things. Therefore, we possibly need to be more realistic in acknowledging that rapidly developing countries, like China and India, will have many competing issues, both political and economic, such that we may only speculate about the reality of their projected 2030 goals at this time. Likewise, reference to the Climate Action tracker suggests that no significant developed country is currently meeting its Paris Agreement target, although many politicians in these countries are now promising a plan to reduce CO2 emissions to zero by 2030.
Might we, at least, consider one of these plans?
Despite, the US withdrawing from the Paris agreement in 2017, the Democratic party has now launched its plan for a ‘Green New Deal’, which as a national plan has to be seen in context to the total global CO2 emissions of all the other countries, which are estimated in the pie-chart right. If we take the Green New Deal at face-value, its goal is to meet all of the US energy demands with renewables by 2030. As such, this plan would require a complete phase-out of fossil fuels, fracking of natural gas and nuclear power to be replaced by a mix of solar and wind energy. While the reader must makeup their own mind about the actual reality of this plan, various sources have estimated that it might cost anywhere between $50-100 trillion and may only help to reduce the global temperature by about 0.14oC by 2100.
So, what are we to believe about climate change?
Despite the assumption of a 97% consensus, the science is still a matter of open debate, such that some commentary might be made on the issue of this consensus. We might recognise that the IPCC would have been central to this initial process since its creation in 1988 and therefore we might consider the implied ‘raison d'etre’ of its original charter.
The IPCC is chartered to investigate whether certain human activities could change global climate patterns, threatening present and future generations with potentially severe economic and social consequences. It should also investigate whether continued growth in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases could produce global warming with an eventual rise in sea levels, the effects of which could be disastrous for mankind if timely steps are not taken at all levels.
Given this charter, some might question whether it was always biased towards a certain conclusion. Today, the IPCC has a financial budget of approximately $50 billion and considerable political influence, as an inter-government agency, to direct the focus of much scientific research. Within this framework, others such as James Hansen and Michael Mann also push the climate change agenda throughout the 1990's, although primarily within the context of the scientific debate. At this point, the role of Al Gore might be highlighted in helping to influence the opinion of the wider public. In 2006, Gore released the global warming documentary entitled ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ for which he was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with the IPCC. The film was to receive a positive, albeit understandably concerned reaction from the general public, who we might assume, like Gore himself, only had a limited understanding of the science underpinning the film’s apocalyptic predictions, which in hindsight have proven false along with the premise of Michael Mann’s hockey stick graph.
Note: After Al Gore lost the 2000 US presidential election, he appears to have taken up a new role as a climate activist without necessarily having any obvious scientific qualifications. However, it is estimated that Gore's subsequent wealth went from $700,000 in 2000 to an estimated net worth of $172.5 million by 2015, primarily thanks to his new career as a climate activist and from a carbon trading company, which he co-founded. This financial return has to be considered in the light that much of what Al Gore’s document cited as ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ was later proved to be untrue, even though it undoubtedly influenced a new generation, such that some have come to believe that they are now destined to face an apocalyptic future that older generations simply wish to ignore.
So, what are we to belief?
This is now tabled as a rhetorical question as it alludes to all the ‘things’ we might possibly believe. So, in this wider context, the discussion has only attempted to illustrate, using just a few selected examples, the scope of various beliefs that can extend beyond the confines of religion into almost any aspect of the modern world. Of course, while the metaphysical aspect of religious belief may be relatively obvious, the reasons why some people believe in any particular religion, and others do not, can depend on a multitude of cultural influences. However, some attempt has also been made to illustrate how a scientific theory can quickly attain a wider consensus of support without necessarily any detailed understanding of the scientific arguments – see An Unqualified Commentary for wider discussion of some perceived problem areas. It might be suggested that the following quote by Einstein might also reflect a similar level of concern.
"Concepts that have proven useful in ordering things can easily attain an authority over us such that we forget their worldly origin and take them as immutable truths. They are then rubber-stamped as a 'sine qua non of thinking' and an 'a priori given'. Such errors often make the road of scientific progress impassable for a long time."
While Einstein was making specific reference to science, we might realise that beliefs, which when engineered into a widely-held consensus can also block the road to real progress in almost any area of modern life. In this respect, the real concern is that a consensus may seek to silence any other viewpoint, such that society regresses towards censorship, which still exists in so many areas of the world. So, it is therefore suggested that we heed the words of Abraham Lincoln.
Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for