A fellow collegue of mine Darren Neimke has posted a rather interesting post on his blog, which has got me thinking. Now I have to admit, I do consider myself to be a "Greenie", however, far from having "jumped on the bandwagon, I have been a member of The Australian Greens now for well over 3 years, and in fact I can trace my pilgramage from the high slopes of comfortable numbness about environmental issues into the radical valley of the shadow of Greenie Activism to a course I took back at uni, almost 11 years ago. A philosophy course aimed at Engineers called Technology and Human Values in which we studied "systems engineering" approaches to the ways technologies are used and abused both here and in developing countries.
Anyway, my main reason for writing this blog article is to suggest to Darren, that I feel has has understated some of the issues slightly. I am ussuming that some of the understatements were intentional and for effect like " .... Or some ice melting in Antarctica." trivialising the disapearance of entire glaciers, however, I the one I really want to concerntrate on is the issue of research and the problems of people reading something and just believing it. From his post
Research is a skill that is being diminished by the one-click world of Google and the new media. People hear something and believe it to be true without even having the faintest clue of how they would ratify such assertions.
I think in this statement are a number of problems all rolled into one.
Firstly, yes we live in a society based on instant gratification. Google is a great tool, that can be used to justify any point of view you want to throw at it.
Secondly, I think it is quite difficult to "ratify" certain facts. The problem comes from the nature of the beast that is science. To really fully understand the latest scientific findings, requires you to pretty much be at the forefront of scientific reseach in that particular area, and this requires not only having a PHD, but being actively involved in hands on research. The problem is that even scientists at this level can't always seem to agree, and the way in which research projects get funding often requires researchers to make bold (sometimes even rediculous) statements to gain the attention of the various institutions that are willing to put up the money to fund this research. How is your average punter expected to be able to know what the truth is even if they have tracked down the information from people considered leaders in their field.
Not wanting to be all doom and gloom, I think that there are solutions emerging to these problems.
If I may use a buzz-word, with the web 2.0 paradigm, we are starting to understand the "wisdom of the crowd", in fact google has used this in its search algorithms for a while, but there are even more powerful tools that enable collaboration on an unprecidented scale, sites such as wikipedia are classic examples of this.
With respects to the scientific community, by its very nature, it is a dynamic exchange of ideas and theories. unlike other debates we encounter, such as religion, politics etc... there are not the same intitutionalised barriers to callenging the status quo. If a scientist or group of scientists have a theory, this will be critiqued by many other scientists who will then be able to repeat either the same experiment and validate the findings, or disprove them. Even if a scientist or group of scientist start to hold some political sway, and spread inaccurate theories for a time, eventually someone will be able to challenge the theory, and a better theory will prevail.
So where does that leave us with the environment debate. Well, my personal feeling is that the premise that us 6 billion humans are having a noticable impact on the world we live in has been kicking around for long enough now, and the vast majority of scientists who are working in the field seem to agree on some of the big ticket items that constitute climate change. What the results might be are admitedly speculation. Educated speculation, but speculation none the less. However, I think that we can no longer use the ignorance is bliss approach to keeping the status quo. We have to realise that systematic change is essential if we as a species want to continue to maintain the quality of life that we currently do. Even more so if we want to take any significant amount of non-human species into future. This then becomes a battle that sometimes needs to be fought on a political level, and sometimes on a personal level. So Darren, next time I'm bending your ear about how stupid it is to be logging our water catchments for wood chips in the middle of a drought, and you slip seemlessly into that glazed over look, at least you'll know where I'm comming from.