This opinion editorial refers sometimes to events that may happen this month (September, 2019) as though they had already happened. Because the article was published on September 1, 2019, such references are, of course, speculation.
When the history of a discipline includes names like Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, Einstein, Hubble and Hawking, only a very uneducated or delusional person would claim it not be a scientific discipline. Since most scientists don't achieve immortality, there is an easier test of whether a discipline is a scientific one. For example, in the history of planetary science, black holes went from being unknown, to being theoretically predicted, to being postulated to actually exist, to observationally confirmed, to studied and, for the first time only this year, photographed. Such progress is unknown outside of science. The same point could be similarly made for other scientific disciplines such as neuroscience (e.g., stem cell therapy) and cognitive science (e.g., artificial intelligence). In a good education system, students are taught that some disciplines are open to scientific inquiry. If you have children whose teachers instruct them otherwise, you would be well advised to choose a different school.
This month, I lost count of the number of times I heard from mainstream media: "A new scientific study shows..." In almost every case that new scientific study did not show what was being claimed of it. Of course, that minor detail was unimportant to the media outlets reporting the scientific studies; their only concern was their viewing, listening and click-bait numbers. Since such reporting among much of the media has become normal, it is no surprise that the rising trend among democracies is increasing distrust in their media. This is a paradox that requires explanation. In the heyday of scientific discovery and its dissemination, the media reported, for the most part, accurately. So why does the media today, battling in an era of both competition and consumer distrust, continue to knowingly make false claims of science? It is the same reason that they are slow to debunk junk science: it helps them to sell advertising space if doubt can be sowed in the mind of the viewer/listener/reader/potential consumer.
This analysis explains why, last month, the media did nothing to debunk the conspiracy theory that the two lanterns found hanging inside the Empire State Building in New York were placed there by aliens. In fact, they did not even consider the more important question of why there were two lanterns and not one. The wise ones knew that they were placed there by an indigenous elder to warn us that the Greta was coming by sea. (The only factual part of this paragraph is the reference to Greta coming by sea; the rest is a narrative continuity device.)
"The Greta" is environmental and climate activist Greta Thunberg. Unlike the subject of Paul Revere's warning (the British), she did not bring arms. But she was, apparently, an even bigger threat. For she brought a message whose core is that climate science is a scientific discipline. Not since the ancient Greeks has there been so much interest in a tautology. Not since Columbus has there been so much interest in a trans-Atlantic journey.
Since science usually begins with observation, we can conduct the beginning of a scientific study ourselves; we can observe some of the recent commentary about her. "We hear but we're not remotely interested in what you say..." "No teenager is more freakishly influential than ... the deeply disturbed messiah of the global warming movement." "She's ignorant, maniacal and is being mercilessly manipulated by adult climate bedwetters funded by Putin." (That one is my personal favorite.) "... please remember: no electric fans, definitely no air conditioning. Greta has spoken." "Freak yachting accidents do happen in August." "Zero images or video witness the alleged journey of #GretaThunberg to New York on the 'substainable' [sic.] boat. Not a single credible and clear shot or feed from the moment they left to the moment they arrived." "... the very people who now bow down and worship at your feet would have been totally cool with your death had your mother decided you had no value before you were born."
The Hall-of-Shamers responsible for this and similar commentary seem to take pride in raising vitriol to a new level. But even they were shocked by their relative kindness compared to the commentary about Thunberg that appeared this month, including cries to "send her back [to Sweden]." Not since the height of the Taliban have so many adults felt so threatened by a young, educated female. Just as we correctly dismiss the Taliban's opinion about educating girls, so too should we dismiss their opinion that Thunberg is a victim of child abuse and, therefore, our only reaction should be to pity her. And, in case we need to be reminded, the last time a young, educated female threatened the Taliban she won the Nobel Peace Prize. (Thunberg is rumored to have been nominated for that prize this year. I hope the rumors are true and, if so, that she wins it.)
This month's photo was taken a generation ago when the subject was, like Thunberg is today, in her mid-teens. She was then an indigenous Mnong girl, but unlike Thunberg, nobody felt threatened by her when I took the photo. It is no coincidence that indigenous people have been warning us about climate change since before Thunberg was born. It is common in their communities for young girls to be tasked with fetching fresh water and food. She is now an indigenous Mnong woman and probably her daughters perform those tasks. Based on generations of observations of how empty the well is becoming, how dry the stream is becoming, how much the ice is melting, how much less fruit the trees are bearing, etc., it should not surprise us that indigenous people were the first to notice something was changing. As noted before, science usually begins with such observations. Most ignored their warning at the time; we are only now beginning to listen to them.
A second core part of Thunberg's message is that because climate science is a scientific discipline, world leaders should pay attention to the scientific data when forming policies. Let's use another method from science — the thought experiment. If every country except India were to halt, say, greenhouse gas emissions today, it would not be enough to meet U.N. global temperature rise targets. So we should hope, at a minimum, that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pay attention to climate science. He is instead competing with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro for the title of most scientifically ignorant world leader.
Science may seem emotionally depressing when we don't understand it or refuse to accept it. When it has seemed emotionally depressing it has challenged the establishment and the establishment has always fought back: we still want to be the center of our universe despite the science (heliocentrism); we still want to be created by a supreme being despite the science (evolutionary biology). Yet science has always prevailed. If we understand and accept science it is, instead of emotionally depressing, enlightening.
Thunberg is not a climate scientist. She has naively and unintentionally become the poster child for those who raise her to a status that she neither wants nor deserves. Those who express vitriol toward her cannot distinguish between the message and the messenger; most of them do not understand the most basic principles of science. They represent the establishment we know so well and for whom she has become the anti-poster child. Science, as always, will ultimately prevail. Thunberg will not save our planet — no more than any one person can; but science may.
I am also not a climate scientist. (I am, primarily, a cognitive scientist.) We scientists have a duty to educate and many scientists, unfortunately, cede that responsibility to the media in whose hands it no longer belongs. I don't. What we witnessed this month around the time Thunberg spoke at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York is nothing compared to what will follow in the coming months leading up to her speech at COP25 in December as well as upcoming elections of world leaders. In the US Democratic presidential candidate debates on September 12 and 13, the heavy focus on climate change policy was nothing compared to what will follow in the remaining debates. Thunberg is partly responsible for that. In the meantime, as she is given the usual media circus coverage due to her other activities, songs dedicated to her (Young People Marching) and books written about her (Our House Is On Fire), the establishment will continue to fight against her instead of against her message. They will also continue their attempt to relegate science to the status of unimportant.
You have a choice on how to react as these events unfold. You can listen to the voice of the establishment and believe irrationally that some chemical reactions selectively deviate from proven science because some chemicals are consciously aware of the year in which Thunberg was born or of her hairstyle. Or you can believe irrationally that Thunberg is omniscient. You should know, though, that you have then voluntarily ceded both your intellect and your choice. Or you can, like many did during last month's "Q&A" on Australian TV, take to social media and replace your intellect and your choice with your own personal insults and vitriol. Or you can choose to cede your intellect and your choice to your favorite media outlet and let them determine your reaction on your behalf. Or you can react rationally and educate yourself about science; the media, climate scientists and Thunberg will not do that for you. Choose wisely — or at least encourage your children to do so; like the daughters of the young girl in this month's photo, it's their future.