Pundits, Advocates and Apocalypse
Originally a "pundit" was a learned man who knew Hindu scripture and Hindu law and whose authority is respected in discussions concerning question of religion and justice. An "advocate" is one who pronounces in favor of a cause (or a client). The former takes his authority from received wisdom. The latter selects evidence to serve his purpose. The word "apocalypse" means "revelation of the future" and has come to be associated with visions of utter destruction. Many pundits and advocates use apocalypse to sell their ideas, books and newspapers.
Punditry and advocacy are pervasive, especially in the debate over global warming. Nothing that one reads in an editorial of a business magazine or newspaper can be taken for granted. Almost nothing that one might read in a lead article even in respected newspapers is necessarily true or researched with the same care a scientist is expected to apply to their research. Thus, we shall save much effort and space by not wasting time on non-scientific editorial contributions in this course. Such writings are mainly of sociological and political interest, in that they reflect opinion makers, who ultimately inform the decisions a nation chooses to make for better or worse. That said, editorials and opinion pieces on climate change, juxtaposed through the decades, can make fascinating reading independent of their scientific validity.
To some degree, scientists, especially those who find themselves in the media, can't help being both pundits and advocates. Firstly, a scientist cannot check out every piece of knowledge nor repeat every experiment and relies on trusted colleagues. Since some colleagues are more trustworthy than others, any scientist is likely to be selective regarding the sources of information. In this sense, while perhaps more highly skilled in avoiding rubbish, a scientist writing for the public is hardly different from a newspaper editor, and the same caveats apply to all such writings no matter what the background of the author.
Secondly, in the debates of science a reversal of opinion relative to one’s first impressions on a topic may actually be advisable at times. That being said, a scientist who is actively studying a subject like climate change is quite likely to have strong convictions about his/her private hypotheses. Like opinions about politics, economics, and philosophy, scientific hypotheses are susceptible to becoming so coveted by their adherents that some scientists refuse to change their minds even when the evidence is contrary. In addition, heightened awareness for rubbish is needed when reading an author with impressive credentials who is writing about a scientific field other than the one in which they were trained. For example, certain specialists trained in atomic physics, organic chemistry or physiology are not shy about making statements in widely diverging fields in which they are not trained such as climatology, sociology and education, without more claim to deference than the person who runs your local bank, who in fact may have more common sense than many a scientific pundit.
Nevertheless, punditry and advocacy must not be confused with scientific discussion and argumentation. Writers whose opinions may be discounted rather readily are likely to invent adversaries who hold untenable views which they then demolish brilliantly. Examples of such imaginary adversaries are "environmentalists," "the environmental movement," "government," "business," and "industry." They claim that these entities are doing things (or advocating things) that either lead nowhere or make things worse in the view of some of the more zealous advocates. One ought to ignore such exaggerations: the aims and goals of environmental associations range widely, as do those of local, state and national governments, and especially those of business people and of corporations. Looking for a scapegoat is a waste of time, as is looking for an all-embracing solution (such as the "free market").
How to Approach Climate Change with Students
Given all the negative predictions, school teachers explaining climate change to their classes may wonder how to deal with such apocalyptic visions of the future that may have a negative impact on a young person's attitude and expectations for the life ahead. Such concerns can be faced squarely when considering that practically all predictions about the future are uncertain, at least in their timing. For example, while there is little doubt that sea level will rise as the global climate warms, it is not clear that it might not fall a bit first and only rise later, or whether the rate of rise will be rapid. Rather than dwelling on all the problems associated with a sea level rise, it may be more appropriate to discuss the question of how one would decide whether the sea level is rising and what one could do to cope with a rise.
Another strategy is to emphasize Earth’s history and the great changes it has brought (including a sea level rise of 400 feet which ended only about 7000 years ago). This strategy also has the advantage that it discusses something that is, in principle, known or knowable, rather than an apocalypse which belongs in the realm of speculation.
Furthermore, the changes that human activities are bringing to the planet are not all bad (for many humans, anyway), and they are interesting in themselves as experiments on a global scale. We scientists are learning about how the Earth systems actually work on an unprecedented scale and at an incredible rate of progress. In this context, a changing system is much more fascinating than a static one. That the Earth will never be the same after having passed through its experience with its most advanced and manipulative species, Homo sapiens, is a foregone conclusion. Already, we have lost almost all the great mammals in Eurasia and North America presumably as a result of a combination of spontaneous climate change and human over-hunting. However, Earth has gone through great changes before, and new worlds have emerged afterwards. The same will happen following the great changes wrought by an expanding human population in our own time. We will inhabit an Earth that we deserve, as a species. In the end, Earth will take care of itself: in scope of geologic time, we humans do not occupy center stage, just as we are not in the center of the realm of space, a lesson already learned from Copernicus and Galileo.