Posted by: ericgrimsrud | June 9, 2012

Our smart idiots

As a former scientist, one of the most frustrating aspects of the climate change debate is that facts and clear scientific logic do not seem to make much of an impression on many exceptionally smart and well-educated people  who embrace a “bottom line” opinion that is based on other non-scientific factors.   And I am not referring only to the hard-core deniers of man-caused global warming who typically come from the far right wing of the political spectrum.  I am also referring to many from the left who, for example, are not open to the development of nuclear technologies for providing future sources of base-line power.  I will refer to both of these groups as constituting “smart idiots” meaning that they are generally smart people who intentionally remain in the dark with respect to scientific developments that they find “inconvenient” relative to their personal preferences.  While such people are smart in most respects, they intentionally choose to remain scientific “idiots” in selected areas.

Concerning the first group, a 2008 Pew report showed that among the politically conservative, those who have achieved higher levels of education are more likely to doubt the notion of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) than conservatives with less education.  As a scientist, I find this to be most disappointing, of course.  The most credible scientific communities of our country have made their own opinions and recommendations on this topic very clear in the numerous position statements they have issued.  Nevertheless, it appears that the very smart and well-educated people of this politically conservative group are no more likely to accept the advice of their acknowledged scientific experts than poorly educated people.

Concerning the second group from the more liberal side of the political spectrum, there is enormous resistance to even considering the future development of nuclear power plants in spite of their endorsements by our scientific experts in that field.  That resistance seems to have emerged largely out of a stance developed in mid-20th century when nuclear technologies were not nearly as advanced as they are now.  While all of the nuclear accidents of the past involved Class I or Class II reactors built several decades ago, the Class III reactors of today and the Class IV reactors of the near future are far safer, will produce far less radioactive waste, and will be capable of burning a wider set of heavy nuclides for which there is an almost endless supply.

My main point in offering this post at the onset of this blog is to demonstrate that the topics to be discussed here must go well beyond one’s political ideology.  What Mother Nature does in the future in response to the impacts of Man will have nothing to do with our personal preferences.  What She does do has historically been shown to be best described and predicted by the science involved.  Thus, we all should try as hard as we can to get the science right first and not just ignore it or make up our own preferred versions. Note also that the field of science differs from other endeavors of Man, such as economics or politics, in that there really is just one correct answer to any specific question.  That is, Mother Nature does things one way – Her way.  So even though Man can never know what that way is with absolute certainty, we must agree that our best chance of getting a useful estimate of that truth is likely to come through science.  Upon getting that part right, sure, then it is entirely appropriate to inject one’s political or economic preferences which, I totally agree are also relevant to any adjustments we might have to make.

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