For years I have closely followed both the evolution debate and the global warming debate.* There are some important differences between the two debates, which may be the subject of a subsequent post. However, the number of similarities is striking. Enough so that for some time I have seriously considered writing a book detailing the parallels. I believe it would be highly instructive for many– particularly for those who accept the party line of one of the theories but not the other – to recognize the many similarities between the two debates.
Given the realities of other time commitments, however, I suspect my nascent efforts will never make it to publication before catastrophic global warming either fades with a whimper or results in our apocalyptic demise.
As a result, I offer this exceedingly more modest contribution. A short collection of preliminary notes and observations, if you will. If anyone wants to take these observations and turn them into a published tome, please feel free to do so. All I ask is a simple acknowledgement and, at my treat, a chance to sit down over lunch to discuss the fruits of your labor.
One key caveat for this post: This post is not primarily about the science. Nor, as I mentioned above, is it about the differences. This is primarily about the rhetorical, social, academic, and political similarities of the two debates – not the substance of detailed observations and mathematical calculations, but the underlying framework within which the debates take place. As always, I am happy to discuss the science in detail, but that is for another thread and another time.
Some of the observations listed below may apply with slightly more force to one topic than the other, but the observation is still readily apparent in both debates, I believe. If any of the stated observations are unclear, let me know and I will attempt to clarify.
Feel free to add additional observations of your own in the comments.
Without further ado then, here is my bullet-point list of similarities between the evolution debate and the global warming debate – in some rough grouping, but in no particular order:
Approach to the Theory
- Failure to clearly define terms and issues. Imprecise language that shifts meaning as convenient to support the story.
- Lack of clear, quantifiable predictions.
- Sweeping generalizations about claimed effects, without careful analysis of detailed steps in the physical process that would be required to generate the claimed effect.
- Contrary data ignored or re-framed as supporting “evidence” through ad hoc adjustments to the theory.
- Heavy reliance on models, instead of real field work. [Note: Much more problematic in the global warming context, although in the evolution context there is heavy reliance on made-up stories**.]
Behavior of Supporters
- Repeated and vociferous claims of “consensus”.
- Often refusal to engage in open debate. Claim that there is no debate, or that the science is already “settled”.
- Lack of openness regarding data, assumptions, and the source of conclusions. [Note: The actual hiding of data and refusal to share with the broader community seems to be much more prevalent in the global warming context.]
- Attempts to label skeptics of the theory as “deniers” and as “anti-science”.
- Aggressive attempts to prevent opponents from being published; pressure on journal editors and reviewers.
- Career protectionism. Attempts to get skeptics fired, banned, or ostracized.
- Vindictive, spiteful, personal attacks, instead of reasoned argumentation.
- Bad acting on the part of scientists; inappropriate emails; threats; etc. [Note: Behavior that actually rises to the level of criminal activity (e.g., stealing board materials, property damage) is more prevalent in the global warming context.]
- Attempts to protect arguments by academic institutional proclamations, by court cases, by governmental fiat.
- Attempts to claim the “scientific” side of the debate and to assert that skeptics are motivated by religious or other non-scientific motives.
- Small cabal of outspoken propagandists pushing an agenda, coupled with general silence by the majority of scientists in the field, in some cases due to intimidation or fear of rocking the boat.
- High-level political and institutional support, while lacking broad grass-roots support. This reflects a top-down, “we know best” attitude by politicians and academicians.
- Largely the field of academics and lobbyists. Little practical real-world relevance. However, strong ideological relevance.
- Extensive funding of the consensus side to the tune of many billions of dollars, versus a ragtag bunch of largely self-funded individuals and small organizations on the skeptical side.
Now, skeptics of the theories are not immune to negative behavior either. Here is a list of some similarities I have observed on the skeptical sides:
Behavior of Opponents
- Failure to carefully parse the theory to determine which aspects are supported by the evidence and which are not; tendency to lump everything into a single bucket and dismiss the entire topic.
- Assertions that supporters are motivated by anti-religious or cultural-political motives.
- Knee-jerk reactions against every aspect of the theory, due to prior bad experiences or assumed motives.
- Occasional contrary claims that, similarly, lack evidentiary support. [Note: This tendency seems to be more prevalent in the global warming context, particularly when discussing negative impacts.]
- Tendency to frame the debate into a larger narrative about class dominance, government oppression, or the like.
The number of similarities between the two debates is indeed striking and should provide food for thought — particularly for those who may be skeptical about one of the theories and not the other.
* The now-popular term “climate change” is really about global warming, the underlying premise being that a rise in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide will cause an increase in the global average temperature. It is important to keep our eye on this ball when discussing the science and not get misled by the vague term “climate change.”
** Note again for the record that we are talking about the theory of evolution, not basic biology. There is a tremendous amount of excellent work being done in the field of biology. Where evolutionary theory claims relevance is in trying to provide a historical explanation for how biological systems came about and, occasionally, attempting to propose a particular prediction.