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Climate science is more valuable than the opinions of silly old men

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It's fairly easy to choose who to believe between the silly old men in politics or educated scientists (Image by Dan Jensen)

Politicians with real-world experience feel justified in denying the climate catastrophe in the face of scientific fact, writes Kyle Mervin.

OKAY, I'M CONFUSED. I was under the impression that the Right had come to accept climate change was a real thing and that things are heating up. The narrative they currently run is that, sure, the climate is changing, but it has always changed and we humans are not the cause.

That hasn’t always been their position, of course; their position has moved continuously. One minute they are claiming the climate is cooling, the next minute it’s warming. But it’s occurring because of the sun, or it’s the volcanoes, or the tectonic plates, or pretty much anything other than us humans and lurking around in the background is always the invisible hand of God.

Which is why I’m confused. Whenever the threat of catastrophic fires, devastating cyclones or crippling droughts pops up, they seem to fall back to the baseline of denial.

Why is it that when the big-ticket climate flare-ups happen, the denialists say stuff like Australia has always had fires, or Australia has always been a land of droughts. These are not arguments of accepting that the climate is changing, these are arguments that it’s not.

In contrast, the other side of the debate has been singing the same tune since the 1970s. A Cat Stevens tune, I think.

We consume an ever-increasing amount of fossil fuels, leading to an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. More of the sun’s radiant heat is trapped in the atmosphere and hey presto, the world heats up.

And it's no surprise that the world is heating up, as predicted by the one consistent side of the argument. One might even say the educated side of the argument.

A confronting generalisation

I am really reluctant to use stereotypes of any sort, but I just can’t resist. Silly old men.

There is a peculiar thing that happens to men as they get older. They start thinking that they know everything.

It usually starts with mediocre performance at school, they bypass actual higher education and get their degrees from the university of the “real” world majoring in “real” life. They do well in the real world and because they are doing well in it, their brain starts to value the real world more. It’s a positive feedback loop.

It also helps to have a friend who went to university and is not as well off as you are, because that is more proof that the real world trumps university. He’s book smart, but he’s no good in real life.

It’s all pretty harmless up to this point; in fact, it’s probably good for the soul. A man feels better valuing the things that he is good at, as opposed to the things he's not. But here’s the kicker — these blokes don’t seem to know the difference.

The University of Real Life has a way of churning out punters that think that because they are good at life (in other words, not dying or going broke). They are smarter than everyone else and they don’t mind telling you what they think, either. That climate change stuff is all just lies, the planet's been going in and out of ice ages throughout its history, the climate’s always changing. We've heard it all before.

I think we need to help them out before they stuff everything up. Here goes.

Real Life University is fake news. A great many people live to old age and don’t die along the way. That’s self-evident. You don’t have to be smart to live into old age. Take Malcolm Roberts, for example. If intellect were correlated with age, I doubt he’d have made it out of the stroller.

The not-going-broke thing is a little more tricky and I’ll let you know when I get there. Rudimentary maths and work opportunities will generally suffice, but it’s the work opportunities that really pay off here. If you’re not black, it’s a distinct advantage. I did that ancestry.com thing and I’m not black. Phew.

I would have thought spending 14 years of my life as a university student with no money, I would somehow learn to live frugally and when I finally entered the workforce and earned a decent salary, I’d be rolling in it. Not true. I think when you have no money, you cope with that by devaluing it in your mind. And if you haven’t got any, you don’t really learn how to use it. Easy come, easy go now.

But I digress.

The other kind of university is an actual real thing. In my first foray into the university world, I came across a topic called Mechanics 1e — how to calculate the impact of force applied to a 3D shape spinning in space. I failed that one, but in my defence, I was drinking an awful lot at the time.

The point is, university is not about real-life skills. It’s about figuring out how stuff works and making stuff work better. It’s about collating the vast array of information that has been accumulating over the millenia and packaging up into little segments called degrees, so a student can go on to make a meaningful contribution to their vocation.

As a scientist in a past life, I had a pretty handy knowledge of the brain. Two degrees to get you to baseline, then weekly journal club, weekly presentations, hours and hours dissecting journal articles and if there was a finding in a journal anywhere that had implications for your work, you repeat their work to determine how true it is. It’s was 70 hours a week on task.

Consider a different me in a different field of science like astrophysics. If they were putting in a comparable effort, how could my understanding of astrophysics possibly compare? It simply couldn’t.

Knowing what I knew and knowing what it took to get there has given me an insight into the scientific process. It would be the height of arrogance to believe I could just parachute in and know more than the people on the coal face.

Track record

Scientists have a pretty impressive track record on figuring stuff out. The internet — pretty sure that was scientists, not silly old men that figured that out. Putting a man on the moon? That was scientists, too. Created satellites and launch them into space? Scientists. Invented TV? Scientists. Built aeroplanes? Scientists. Harnessed nuclear power? Silly old men. Just kidding, that was scientists, too. Penicillin, eradicating smallpox, all but eradicating polio, keeping AIDS patients alive, MRI machines, iPads, iPhones, the list seems endless.

Science just keeps delivering. Silly old men don’t.

Don’t get me wrong, scientists and science can get stuff wrong, but you know who figures out when the scientists get stuff wrong? You guessed it — other scientists. That is part of a broader system that is the scientific process and that is pretty close to infallible.

Wrong doesn’t last long in science.

Alan Jones, in his back office with a calculator and a pencil, on the other hand, can be wrong and when he’s wrong, no amount of science can correct it. Such is the nature of silly old men.

Please stop listening to silly old men. And please stop voting for them.

Kyle Mervin is a married father of three, a dentist with a PhD in Neuroscience from the University of Sydney and has been in a relatively bad mood since 2001.

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