Those of you who don’t work in scientific research for a living would find many parts of it quite puzzling. For example, the major publications are written only for other scientists to read, which is why the mainstream media often misinterpret what these articles mean. Also, meaningful knowledge often takes decades, and sometimes even centuries to produce accurately.
Today I read an interesting article on climate change that could have a dramatic impact on our understanding. To put that finding in context, let me first offer the perspective of the human body. We know vastly more about the functioning of the human body than we do about the change in climate of the earth. Still, here is an abbreviated list of the “mistakes” we have made in conclusions from early scientific findings about the human body just in my lifetime. What is interesting about this list is that it isn’t just that the science was off by a certain percentage. The science was actually wrong. In other words, early scientific findings showed that something was beneficial when it was actually harmful, and vice versa. I have experienced all of the following personally.
- Until about 7th or 8th grade, my school provided salt tablets and encouraged us to take them after extensive exercise – we now know that they are completely unnecessary, and possibly harmful
- I took vitamin E supplements for over 20 years because vitamin E was supposed to decrease the chances of prostate cancer. Later, better studies have concluded that vitamin E supplements increase the probability of prostate cancer.
- In an effort to lose and maintain weight, for years I followed the scientific guidance to reduce fat in my diet. I had entire days in which I consumed almost no fat, eating bagels, tuna, pretzels, vegetables, and pasta. I gained weight while eating almost no fat. Now we know that the bagels and pretzels were highly fattening (many other people gained weight eating fat free Snackwell cookies).
- Likewise, for years I followed the scientific advice to avoid cholesterol and high fat in my diet (Amy can tell the story of a Thanksgiving when I adamantly insisted that we could not put slivered almonds on a casserole because of their incredibly high fat content).
- I have a great uncle who was one of the first open heart patients at the Cleveland Clinic in the 1960s. For the rest of his life he at only margarine, not butter. I remember as a child wondering whether he would die if he ate some butter. It didn’t bother him individually since he lived into his 90s, but we now know he should have been eating butter all those years instead of margarine.
- For years I avoided eating eggs, shrimp, and avocados because they all have extremely high levels of cholesterol. We now know that the cholesterol they contain does not get converted to cholesterol in our blood streams.
- Growing up in South Florida, essentially outdoors, I am a likely candidate for skin cancer and have had some brushes with it. For a couple of decades the dermatologist told me to avoid the sun whenever possible, always use sunscreen, etc. More recently, he advises me that I need to get more sun because, ironically, I need a certain amount of vitamin D from the sun to help me not get skin cancer.
I could go on and on with advice about frequent small meals or not, muscle uses more calories (now we know the brain uses the most by far), diet sodas, baby formula vs. nursing, etc.
My point in saying all of this is that early scientific findings often come to conclusions that are not just slightly off, but 180 degrees off.
I don’t know where the climate of the planet is heading, but I can testify that anyone who tells you the “science is settled” is not a true scientist or being intellectually honest. We scientists must always be open to the possibility of newer research taking us to different conclusions. At some point, though, we do need to enact policy based on what we know. It should be abundantly clear to anyone who looks objectively at the lifecycle stage of climate science that we are not at the point where we should engage in policy prescriptions based on what we’ve learned so far. We could end up advising the equivalent of using baby formula, eating pretzels and Snackwell cookies to control weight, taking Vitamin E supplements, avoiding the sun whenever possible, etc.
You can access the paper I read today at: http://journals.ametsoc.org/doi/abs/10.1175/JCLI-D-14-00656.1
Essentially, if the findings of this study are generalizable, the largest estimates for climate increase for the rest of this century are off by a factor of two.
We also need to realize that with almost every cause there are positive effects and negative effects. For example, hormone replacement therapy for post-menopausal women has some great benefits but also poses some great health risks.
With climate science, the early models have somehow completely omitted or grossly underestimated some of the great benefits. For example, the larger percentage of CO2 in the environment has resulted in the largest increase in biomass (reforestation, etc.) our planet has experienced in our lifetimes. A considerable amount of that CO2 has been sucked up by vegetation, giving them an unprecedented growth spree.
Is the planet heating up in a way that should cause us great concern? The short answer is, we don’t know yet. I certainly recommend that we take all prudent actions to maintain clean water and clean air, because we know, fairly well, the dangers of polluted water and dirty air. We should also generate energy in a way that has the least amount of impact on the environment. Fossil fuel usage is another phenomenon that is good to analyze in terms of pros and cons. There is an argument that without burning fossil fuels, most of the planet would not enjoy nearly the standard of living that it does today.
So, for those of you who aren’t scientists, try to determine where any scientific exploration is in a knowledge lifecycle and always think about both positives and negatives with any change under consideration.