Education, Environment, recent, Science / Tech

When a Question of Science Brooks No Dissent

Back in December 2012, six days after a mass shooting ended the lives of 20 students and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, President Barack Obama seized the opportunity created by our period of national mourning to hold forth on a surprising topic: catastrophic anthropogenic global warming. The deaths at Sandy Hook, he told a group of foreign diplomats, had elicited from the world community “a fundamental human response that transcends cultures and transcends borders.” The Earth’s rising temperatures, instructed the president, should induce a similar response from world leaders. “This must be our work,” Obama implored the assembled ambassadors and chargés d’affaires regarding the need to forestall climate change. “That, I think, is one of the ways we can honor all these beautiful children and incredible teachers who were lost this past Friday.”

Perhaps I should refrain from condemning too harshly a partisan figure’s routine decision to make political hay in the aftermath of a tragedy. For one thing, the president’s remarks may have been prepared by the same inept speechwriting staff who had coached him seven months earlier to refer to Auschwitz as a Polish death camp. But even if these mystifying sentiments did not originate from Obama himself, they strike me as so egregiously ill-timed I can’t fathom why he agreed to read them off the teleprompter. Nothing about his administration’s campaign to extend government subsidies to so-called green energy companies, establish a carbon trading scheme, or frighten voters with flood-and-fire climate scenarios was in any way connected, in my mind at least, to the slaughter of children by a mentally ill person with a semi-automatic weapon. Clearly, something strange is afoot in those fiefdoms of our culture where controlling forces face only weak or maligned opposition. Academics, journalists, entertainers, and politicians frequently make inappropriate pronouncements like Obama’s when they’re not actually censoring or harassing political opponents. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., for one, wants charges of treason brought against corporate executives unsympathetic to his environmentalist views—the punishment for treason being, if I’m not mistaken, death by firing squad.

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As a university professor, I am best positioned to report on the widespread incompetence and malfeasance found specifically in academe. A work colleague once corrected me on a matter concerning the greenhouse effect. With no scientific training, he had recently moderated a panel discussion on climate change in an attempt to convince students to support our university president’s Green Initiative, which as far as I could tell reduced carbon dioxide emissions not at all but placed undue strain on the university’s finances, which in turn put upward pressure on tuition costs. I mentioned to my colleague in passing that, from an educational standpoint, the term greenhouse gas was an unfortunate misnomer since the architectural design of an actual greenhouse is not closely related to the physical properties of tropospheric greenhouse gases. 

This has been my go-to analogy to explain how some people have confused the two phenomena:  The sentence “Like Placido Domingo, Bob Dylan sings for a living” does not convey the same meaning as “Bob Dylan sings like Placido Domingo for a living.” It’s true that carbon dioxide, methane, ozone, and other gases drive the Earth’s average temperature higher than it otherwise would be, just as the design of a greenhouse makes the interior of that structure warmer than the surrounding environment. But the processes by which the warming occurs in these two instances are quite distinct, in the same sense that a troubadour’s vocals in no way resemble an operatic tenor’s. The confusion resulting from the term greenhouse gas, I suggested to my colleague, made it that much harder to explain the general workings of our climate to students, who might end up believing greenhouse gases form a solid barrier to convection or, conversely, that a greenhouse reradiates invisible light energy as heat energy at select frequencies.

My colleague assured me I was misinformed. As a bonus, he did so in front of our department chairwoman just as I was about to go up for tenure. Greenhouses, he explained, are in fact warmed primarily by extra concentrations of carbon dioxide imbedded in the glass plates of the building. Well, I conceded, a small, perhaps even measurable amount of warming might occur in a greenhouse as a result of elevated CO2 levels in the glass panels; indeed, a greenhouse’s temperature also rises when a human being steps inside and exhales warm air. But these are insignificant considerations that have nothing to do with the structure’s basic design. During the day a greenhouse will be warmer than the surrounding environment regardless of whether a human enters it and breathes or whether the clear panels contain extra CO2 or are carbon free.

My colleague—our department’s self-appointed expert on climate matters—was undeterred. “It’s just like my front porch at home,” he insisted. “In the afternoon the porch is much warmer than the rest of the house during the summer—you really bake in there—because of the carbon dioxide in the windows.”

I wasn’t sure how to respond politely to this new assertion. Glass is an insignificant reservoir of CO2—that much was still true. Moreover, as the sun reaches its zenith on a summer day, perpendicular windows serve as fairly ineffectual portals through which visible light energy may pass. Under these conditions an enclosed porch becomes warmer than the rest of the house due largely to a third process, called conduction, owing to the porch’s uninsulated roof and walls, which receive the brunt of the sun’s rays and pass heat into the building. (Björk sings nothing like Bob Dylan or Placido Domingo, in other words.) If you’ve ever lived in an attic apartment in the summer, even if you kept the window shades drawn, you have felt the power of conduction.

I thought I saw signs of sympathy on our chairwoman’s face as she looked on, and a sense of relief passed over me, but it turned out her sympathy was not on my behalf but, rather, my colleague’s. After I reaffirmed that carbon dioxide was an incidental consideration in these cases, the chairwoman asked: “Well, how does a greenhouse work then?”

I first inquired whether she was serious, for I didn’t want to believe that two college professors in succession both lacked a basic understanding of the simple workings of a greenhouse, but that was the reality. I therefore explained, “Visible light energy passes through the transparent panels and gets converted into heat energy when it strikes the plants, tables, and floor. This warms the surrounding air, which rises, but the convection process is impeded by the solid glass panels, trapping the heated air inside.”

My department chairwoman glanced at our colleague, then at me. “Oh,” she said. Then she turned and walked away.

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When I was a college undergraduate, incidents like the following would happen with some frequency: Noticing how haphazardly fellow students punctuated their essays or how flustered they became attempting to compute simple mathematical equations in an introductory statistics course, I would wonder whether I had been the one member of my generation who paid attention in high school. Nowadays a different thought hits me: Perhaps I alone did not sleep through fourth-grade science class. It’s bad enough that an academic can be so thoroughly misled by the term greenhouse gas that he becomes confused about a physical process he probably understood correctly at one point (say, at age ten). But I don’t think my department chairwoman had been misled by that unfortunate term. I believe she had simply been going through life with only a vague notion of how a greenhouse works. Even decades of global-warming alarmism had not impelled her to give the pertinent physics much thought before now. Still, she understood precisely what beliefs were expected of an academic—that greenhouse gas emissions are dangerous, catastrophically so, and the science regarding such matters is settled—and these marching orders were good enough for her.

How are educated and credentialed people able to get things so wrong? By remaining ignorant about technical matters. And as I see it, trained scientists offer scant help. At yet another campus event intended to alert our students to the threat of climate change, the speaker, an earth-science faculty member, expressed at the outset his irritation at being challenged on occasion with skeptical questions when he had spent decades educating the public on this matter. During the discussion period that followed his talk, I took the speaker to task for making what I saw as a preemptory strike to silence young people in attendance who, perhaps giving climate change serious consideration for the first time, might have wished to press him on his more provisional assertions. As an educator, he should have welcomed challenging questions from them, I maintained, not tried to shut them down. “We hear it said often enough,” I concluded, “but still we forget what our job is: Not to tell the students what to think, but rather to teach them how to think for themselves.”

“I totally disagree,” interjected one student in the audience. All eyes shifted. “I don’t like having to evaluate complicated material,” she admitted. “I prefer when my parents teach me to recycle or when my professors tell me how to fight global warming. That way I know I’m doing the right thing.”

Neither the scientist on stage nor any faculty members in the audience took issue with this student’s passive approach to learning, offered as it was in defense of a political agenda everyone supported. Perhaps my university colleagues sensed they could simply close ranks and ride out the embarrassment in silence. They certainly understood that environmentalist orthodoxy was accepted almost universally among faculty members and that students live in fear of retribution from professors in the form of low grades, indifferent letters of recommendation, or a bad corridor reputation, so there was minimal risk of this young woman’s damning admission serving as an effective red-pill moment for others. Finally, a student sitting next to the woman who had spoken broke the silence by remarking, “But we’re not children anymore.”

Oh, but we are, if being a child means assuming a credulous and grateful attitude toward experts who assume a parental role. The episodes I have recounted above don’t begin to suggest the extent of the submissiveness shown by educated people toward Those Who Know Better. A friend of mine, having been offered a teaching position at a university in the Deep South, confessed her reluctance to relocate and buy a house there for fear that rising ocean levels would reduce her investment to driftwood, leaving her homeless—some ninety miles from the Gulf coast. Similarly, an English department colleague—not the porch owner, but one of our co-workers—once warned me that our river town in southeastern Minnesota was likewise threatened by flooding, not from rising oceans in our case, but from glacial run-off. I asked how this could be when there are no glaciers between the headwaters of the Mississippi River and our town—no glaciers within a thousand miles of Minnesota, for that matter. She had no answer but she didn’t need one, for as almost always happens when a leftwing academic’s discreditable statements are challenged, a colleague of equal ignorance jumped to her defense. “But glaciers feed the Great Lakes, and the Great Lakes feed the Mississippi River,” her rescuer claimed, “so flooding could become an issue as the glaciers melt.”

Let me break this down. The Great Lakes are not fed by glaciers and haven’t been since ice from the most recent glacial maximum receded thousands of years ago. Nor do the Great Lakes feed the Mississippi River upstream from our university town. Leaving aside for a moment my colleagues’ shared ignorance of geography, I believe their misstatements derive from a more fundamental confusion. They don’t understand the difference between annual snowpack melt (which does feed the Mississippi River and replenish the Great Lakes every spring) and glacial melt, which is the eroding of a semi-permanent icepack built up over many winters. Glacial melt, of course, cannot occur in the absence of glaciers, which outside of Greenland, Antarctica, and their neighboring islands require fairly tall mountains in order to form. The topography of Southern Ontario and the Upper Midwestern states features no such mountain peaks. Even worse, my colleagues seemed not to understand how climate change would ultimately affect places such as Switzerland, Nepal, or Alaska, where glaciers actually do exist. Additional heat energy from a warming climate does not cause a wall of water to come sluicing downriver all at once. Snow has an insulating effect on the layers underneath, so every spring the accumulated annual snowpack melts gradually as warmth from above reaches the next exposed layer. Should the winter’s accumulation of snow become depleted before summer’s end, the semi-permanent icepack would then begin to melt at roughly the same pace the snow had, extending the melt season by a week or two and eating away at the glaciers.

Under such conditions, rivers that swell every spring from snowpack melt would stay swollen into late summer from glacial melt. This is almost always a good thing while it lasts since the extra water helps people downstream irrigate their crops. (Moisture trapped in a mountain glacier is useless when it is not downright destructive.) This is yet one more reason why a warming climate is preferable to a cooling one. When the climate cools and glaciers expand, the melt season shrinks and farmers are deprived of some of their annual water supply.

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I could regale you with numerous additional anecdotes from my university experiences, so great is the ignorance of our nation’s elites and so widespread are their attempts at gaslighting friends and colleagues so as to camouflage the weak foundations to their arguments, but I will offer just two more. Several years ago, while eating dinner with an academic acquaintance, I directed our conversation to this exact topic: the scientific illiteracy of my work colleagues. Immediately, I detected a noticeable shift in my dinner date’s demeanor, as though he feared I might challenge him to design a primitive nuclear device without consulting notes. “Let me just say this,” he offered as a diversion, addressing the issue of carbon dioxide emissions more generally, “my philosophy is you shouldn’t shit where you eat.” He smirked at his own witticism, then asked, “Are you thinking of ordering dessert?”

I understood his point, as indelicately as he may have phrased it over dinner, but I couldn’t let the issue drop. “You are committing a logical fallacy called begging the question,” I explained. “Whether burning fossil fuels constitutes shitting where you eat is the larger issue under discussion. That’s what we’re ultimately trying to determine. You can’t sway intelligent people simply by declaring your fundamental assumptions valid.” Surprise: I never heard from that fellow again.

I realize I am sounding like an ornery person at best. Here’s why: I’ve decided not to tolerate groupthink among educators any longer, now that I’m a tenured full professor. These days, when my colleagues try to box me in, I strike back hard. My only other option is to start drinking heavily. (The anti-anxiety medication isn’t working.)

On another occasion, I was (what else?) kvetching to a friend, this time about being ripped off by my employer. As part of my university’s Green Initiative, faculty members had been offered a five hundred dollar bonus for including materials about climate change in their course curricula. Since I had for some time been assigning essays about the greenhouse effect to my freshman composition students in order to analyze the authors’ use of the three rhetorical appeals, this seemed like an opportunity for me to effortlessly ween from my school a small chunk of change—enough to buy a new bicycle, I figured. Unfortunately, a colleague serving on the Green Initiative committee got wind of my funding application. He warned me that my request would be denied, not because I wasn’t augmenting my reading list with new texts but because the financial incentive on offer was intended only for instructors whose pedagogy supported the university president’s political agenda. A rhetorician who planned to analyze and possibly critique the arguments of the environmentalists was therefore undeserving of a bonus.

Unfair, right? “No, it’s your own fault,” suggested the friend I was kvetching to. “You could have just pretended to agree with your university president’s views. If you had taught the material the way she wanted, there wouldn’t have been a problem. I’m really growing tired of your complaints,” this woman added. “It was a fairly simple matter to get that money. You really have no one to blame but yourself.”

Am I taking crazy pills? Or did I simply miss the memo about not being true to thine own self anymore? Apparently, I am expected to adopt the survival strategy featured in numerous film adaptations of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which instruct that, if you take care not to act in an authentically human manner, you can blend in among the pod people. Let me add that when I asked my friend how she justified accepting the most alarmist predictions about climate change when she had never devoted as much as ten minutes to studying the fundamentals of climate science, she replied, “Well, all my friends believe in global warming, and they’re good people.”

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Here’s my point: Intellectuals who brainlessly push climate-change alarmism need to wise up for their own good. By making disingenuous arguments in an echo chamber, university instructors undercut support for their own political agendas and facilitate the electoral success of politicians they abhor. I fully recognize Donald Trump’s unattractive qualities—his gauche demeanor, inflammatory rhetoric, and appalling braggadocio—but Obama’s successor has never suggested that educators must engage in demeaning forms of playacting so as to leave unchallenged a questionable scientific consensus. Nor has he implied that the unrelated slaughter of schoolchildren adds urgency to such a task. Condescension and bullying by the environmentalists may have worked for a while, but most voters are not children anymore. It’s time for the academic and especially the scientific communities to reembrace Enlightenment principles, the most important of which is intellectual honesty.

To that end, I hand out to my composition students every semester a list of questions testing their command of basic climate facts. What is the average global temperature? is one question. What do scientists call the current interglacial period? is another. A third is Which greenhouse gas accounts for more of the tropospheric greenhouse effect than all the other greenhouse gases combined? I don’t expect first-year students to enter my classroom knowing the answers to the questions on this list (and they never do). But I do hope they recognize that the courses they took in high school fed them conclusions rather than providing them with a solid base of knowledge from which they might launch their own scientific investigations. (Following, by the way, are the correct answers to the questions above: just below 15 Celsius; the Holocene; and water vapor. Gotcha.) Mastery of a subject, I explain to my charges, will allow them to let their minds wander over a wide terrain of data and construct tests of falsification that will either confirm or debunk the reigning orthodoxy.

Still, even a solid grounding in science seems to leave people unprepared for the rigors of autonomous inquiry. During the aforementioned question-and-answer session with the earth-science faculty member at my university—just before I harangued him for shutting down skeptical students—I asked a question I ask every scientist regarding climate change: “If money were not a consideration, what experiment would you conduct in an attempt to falsify the theory of catastrophic anthropogenic global warming? That is, what obtainable data would most usefully isolate the effects of natural, cyclical warming and, once those effects had been removed from the equation, leave us with a clearer picture of how much of the recent warming, if any, has actually been caused by CO2 emissions?”

“I don’t know,” the scientist replied. “I’ve never thought about that.”

 

Myles Weber is professor of English at Winona State University. He is currently completing a book about tragedy in an age of identity politics.

Photo by Zbynek Burival on Unsplash