We’ve all seen the signs: “Science is Real”. Or at least I’ve seen them, because I live in a big city on the West Coast. This slogan basically means you’re an idiot if you don’t believe in climate change. Because – duh - there’s a scientific consensus!
Before anyone jumps to conclusions, let the record show: I currently accept the scientific consensus on climate change - and I respect many of those who do not accept the consensus.
Some people base their opinion on climate change on close examination of the evidence. They’re knowledgeable about the computer models that generate various climate futures, including the socio-economic assumptions used in the models. They’ve evaluated the plausibility of these assumptions (e.g. global population growth, technological advances, fossil fuel consumption). They’ve looked at the quality of data fed into the models. They’ve considered alternative evidence and theories to account for climate change over the past last century. And so on.
The rest of us rely on mental shortcuts to arrive at our opinions on climate change - mostly to do with trust and perceived plausibility. In other words, how we feel/think about climate change depends in large part on whom we trust or don’t trust, as well as what information, explanations, and opinions fit with our understanding of how the world works. This is not an irrational way for non-scientists to approach a subject as complex as climate change.
But we could do better. We could live the words “science is real”, which means to adopt the mindset of a scientist. That mindset is one of humility. You don’t know for sure. What seems to be the case may not be the case. In other words, a scientist appreciates her own ignorance. She has opinions but holds them at a distance, allowing the possibility she might be wrong.
And yet the scientific project is predicated on the hope one can get closer to the truth through careful application of the scientific method, an incremental process: propose hypotheses, make sure they’re falsifiable, systematically test each one, and consider alternative explanations for one’s findings.
Of course, scientists are people, so they violate the tenets all the time. But that doesn’t mean the ideal isn’t worth striving for.
Bottom line: leave the door open. Even if you feel you have to take immediate action. In that case, assume the mindset of a doctor:
Like scientists, medical doctors appreciate their own limitations. Yet they are tasked with making important decisions – possibly life-and-death decisions – despite not knowing for sure they’ve got it right. Doctors need to be willing to act boldly, willing to do nothing, and willing to change their minds. Because the health of the patient is what’s important – not a foolish consistency with past opinions. Think like a Scientist, Act like a Doctor
Conveniently, no one needs a PhD or MD to think like a scientist or a doctor. It’s just a matter of mental discipline.