IHS Chemical Week


Climate Change and Scientific Theories

2:06 PM MST | December 9, 2009 | By VINCENT VALK

Alex Scott's post earlier today about the 'religion' of climate change got me thinking about an odd parallel between climate change denialism and another debate here in the U.S.

Our U.S. readers may be familiar with the controversy earlier this decade about teaching evolution in schools. For those of you not in the States, here is a primer. Essentially, the right-wing in the U.S. mounted a fight against teaching evolution in high-school biology classes. While their successes were spotty, in some states 'intelligent design' was taught alongside evolution, and, in others, large disclaimers were placed on the cover of biology textbooks warning students that evolution is a 'theory.' This did not occur in New York, where I grew up, but I have friends from other parts of the country who saw this stuff first-hand.

The funny thing about these 'evolution-is-a-theory' stickers is that, technically, they are correct. Evolution is a theory. According to Dictionary.com, among the definitions of theory is:

1. a coherent group of general propositions used as principles of explanation for a class of phenomena: Einstein's theory of relativity.

Evolution is a theory. So is relatively. So is gravity. Evolution is technically a theory, but it is also the starting point of modern biology. If we were to dismiss scientific principles on the basis of being theories, we would dismiss the whole of modern science. Much of the argument against evolution is based on semantics.

What does this have to do with climate change? As Alex pointed out, a vast majority of the world's top climatologists have concluded that human beings are making the world warmer. This is based on statistical evidence, on advanced modeling techniques, on science. It's also a theory. The reason it is a theory is because, like evolution and gravity, we cannot observe it empirically. Perhaps it is not quite as well-established as those two theories, but the evidence is quite solid and the consensus is certainly there. To reject it is not a rejection of Al Gore, or of 'the left' – it is a rejection of science.

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