Whenever something like this happens the public level of debate runs along lowest common denominator lines. The question is asked: did our carbon emissions cause this? Like the Scottish Referendum it’s a yes/no question. But it isn’t a yes/no issue. It can’t be answered in that form.
All public debate where science is involved founders on the fact that those who have not received a scientific education regard common sense as the ultimate touchstone. We evolved to cope in a world perceptible to our limited senses and common sense has generally been a good guide to our survival. But as Lewis Wolpert pointed out most forcefully in his book, The Unnnatural Nature of Science, science flouts common sense: it is counter intuitive. But it’s true.
Common sense would never have have predicted that a small portion of matter could explode a city; that a tiny particle no one will ever see can decimate human populations, that our inheritance is based on a 4 letter code strung out in a 3 billion letter chemical molecule, that voice and moving picture data can be transmitted and reconstituted across the globe, either broadcast or targeted on a single individual thousands so miles away holding a plastic rectangle. And so on.
How common sense misleads: a rightwing US climate denier spluttered that by adding a bit of carbon dioxide to the air we couldn’t possible affect the mighty processes of the earth. But the mighty processes work in mysterious ways. When ice forms or melts over land it depresses or raises it. Scandinavia is still rising from its depressed position in the last Ice Age, which ended around 12,000 years ago. This heave is a matter of 1000 feet or more. And this massive release can cause earthquakes. We know that a small change in atmospheric carbon dioxide can melt ice: it’s happening very fast in the Arctic now. So small changes in airy gas real can move the mighty processes of the earth. And on top of superstorms, drought, forest fires, floods, rising sea levels, we are probably going to see an increased incidence of earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic action: an omniwhammy.
But the man around the family barbecue will not be won over. To go beyond common sense to understand how science came to the conclusions it has requires following a patient trail of evidence and reasoning. The man around the family barbecue, who appears en masse in opinion polls won’t do this. As Darwin wrote: “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge. “