350 years of science, now under siege
- December 7, 2009 12:28 PM |
- By Quirks
By Bob McDonald, host of the CBC science radio program Quirks & Quarks
The world’s oldest scientific institution, the Royal Society in London, is celebrating its 350th anniversary this year with the online release of original documents from its more famous members, such as Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and even Benjamin Franklin. Meanwhile in Canada, 500 scientists have sent an open letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper saying that their voices are not being heard as he heads to the climate talks in Copenhagen.
When it comes to climate change, science seems to have taken a back seat.
The Royal Society was formed to promote scientific discoveries through weekly meetings and discussions, assembling a library and publishing of the world’s longest-running journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society.
For a scientist, presenting to the Society was the ultimate test, the original peer review and a great honour when accepted. It was the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, when science was blossoming as the best tool to discover the wonders of nature. Newton explored the properties of light and calculated the force of gravity. Darwin saw through time, tracing the evolution of life through natural selection. Even the great explorers reported their discoveries to the Society upon their return. For example, Captain James Cook described how he used sauerkraut to maintain the health of his crew during the long voyages.
So how is it that after three-and-a-half centuries of amazing success, scientists are now struggling to have their findings accepted by the public and politicians?
The Canadian 500 are advising the Prime Minister that changes to the Earth’s climate are happening faster than predicted and that our country needs to take more serious action to reduce carbon emissions. These scientists are not voicing an opinion; this conclusion comes from direct measurements, field experiments and peer-reviewed publications. In other words, their body of evidence is in the tradition the Royal Society, founded 350 years ago.
The scientists feel the need to speak up because, somehow, their findings have been overshadowed by a powerful campaign to cast doubt in the public and political minds, thereby stalling further action.
Many of the 500 Canadian scientists have been on Quirks & Quarks describing their observations of the changing Earth. Dr. David Schindler, Killam Memorial Chair and Professor of Ecology at the University of Alberta, studies Canada’s diminishing fresh water resources. Dr. Andrew Weaver, a Nobel Laureate in the Department of Environmental Sciences at the University of Victoria, studies world climate data. And Dr. John Smol, Canada Research Chair in Environmental Change at Queen’s University, has been following changes in Arctic lakes. These are just three of thousands of well- qualified scientists who publish in respected journals. They are not expressing opinions; they are describing what they see.
We are often criticized on our radio program for not including people on the other side of the climate “debate" to provide balance. If there were good, peer-reviewed scientific publications that provided solid evidence to counter the climate science, we would run it. But such a body of evidence does not exist.
Instead, skeptics claim that the Earth is warming naturally, that volcanoes contribute more CO2 than humans do, that changes in the sun are responsible for warming the planet, and a host of other claims. Check out how the Royal Society answers these claims.
Here’s a similar rebuttal by Scientific American magazine.
The evidence for climate change is strong because air bubbles, trapped in Antarctic ice cores for 800,000 years, don’t lie about past climates. Satellites don’t lie about rising ocean temperatures and the laws of physics don’t change, just because someone said something in an e-mail. (Check out our latest documentary on rising sea levels for the real story).
Since 1660, the members of the Royal Society have understood that science is simply a tool to understand nature. Through it we have discovered the universe and our place in it, in exquisite detail.
Now that same scientific tool is seeing unprecedented environmental changes on a global scale. The scientists are waving a red flag. They are also pointing to sensible solutions to the problem. Let’s listen and give them the respect they’ve earned over the past three and a half centuries.
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