I was at Ravencon in Richmond, Va on Friday and Saturday. It's a great con. Very well organized, good attendance, and I thought the panels had interesting topics. There were plenty of actual science panels to go with the writing panels and gaming panels, etc. As a science fiction writer, and a science geek in general, I like being in the company of people who know what they are talking about.
On Friday, I moderated a panel on Global Warming. I went into the panel well prepared to make my argument that the case for man-made global warming isn't the slam-dunk, no further arguement needed conclusion presented by folks like Al Gore. I anticipated being a lone voice of dissent on the panel, so I tried to gather as much data as possible before going into the room. Instead, out of about 30 folks in the room, it turned out that fewer than five thought that man-made global warming was a reality.
I was actually somewhat bothered by this. Anytime I find myself on the side of a majority opinion, an instinct kicks in that makes me start questioning my own beliefs. And, beliefs is the operative word here.
One of the panelists who doubted global warming kept referring to scientists she knew who thought that man-made global warming was BS, so, ergo, it was BS. But, while I like talking to experts, I dislike relying on faith in experts as a foundation for my beliefs. To me, this is more faith than reason. Plus, it leads to the standard media "news" treatment of dueling experts. "My authorities are better than your authorities" begins to pass as reasoned debate. People no longer listen to evidence--they listen to "leaders," and this strikes me as a risky way to run a world.
I'm human. I have limited time and limited resources with which to judge the world. On a lot of important issues, it really isn't reason that guides me, but gut. I suspect the same is true of most people, and I don't find this a particularly bad human trait, as long as people retain the ability to listen to reason when they hear it, and follow reason instead of thier guts if needed. Over the years, I've found that I keep asking myself one simple question about my beliefs. As long as I know the answer to it, I feel that my beliefs are reasonably ones for me to hold; I'm not just being dogmatic to believe in evolution, or libertarianism, or whatever.
That question is: What evidence would convince me that I'm wrong?
As long as you are open to evidence that your beliefs are wrong, then you know you've still got a sliver of reason guiding your guts.
So, if you believe in God, what evidence would it take for you to believe that you are wrong?
If you don't believe in God, what evidence would you need to see to doubt that you were right?
If you believe in global warming, what evidence would make you think that the theory didn't have merit?
If you don't believe in global warming, what would it take to convince you that it's real?
Here are a few of my core beliefs. Here's what evidence I could encounter that would make me pretty sure I'd been wrong:
1. Atheism. This is simple: If I were to witness the rapture, I'd just sigh and say, "Well, I called that one wrong."
2. Evolution. This is also pretty easy: If we were to discover, clearly, repeatedly and predictably, human fossils through all geologic strata, then I think there's be a good case that humans were seperate creations from the rest of the world's biology.
3. Global Warming. This is a tough one, alas. I don't think you could gather enough data over a human lifespan to genuinely document a cause and effect relationship between the current warming trends and human emissions. You would need centuries of hard data; right now, the numbers before the last few decades are somewhat muddy. We're documenting changes of tenths of a degree. Today, we have thousands, if not millions, off hard data points from all over the globe, measured with digital instruments that are accurate and calibrated against all the other instruments. Unfortunately, we are comparing our increasingly precise numbers against data that was gathered for much of the last century by somebody looking out a window at a red-line on a thermometer and writing down the number it showed.
Still, I can think of one thing that could persuade me: As we get better data from Mars, if we were to document a multi-decade cooling trend there, or even temperature stability, while at the same time documenting a warming trend here on earth, then you could make the case that the warming isn't due to natural flucuations in the sun. Right now, though, Mars is showing a warming trend as earth is showing a warming trend. Of course, again, the data for Mars for more than a few decades isn't great data. Still, if I must form an opinion on this in my life time, then that seems like a good starting point. If Mars cools or remains stable between now and 2020, and earth warms over the same time span, then I think I'd swing over to believing in global warming.