For every scientific theory, every story on the news, there's a point where it pays to be cautious. When a news event is still underway, the information is often jumbled or inaccurate. When a scientific theory is fresh from the mind of its creator, it's might have rough edges, loopholes. Heck, it could be downright loopy.
There was a point where it made sense to question the counterintuitive aspects of quantum physics. String theory is still unproven, after years of mostly theoretical wrangling, many -- maybe even most -- physicists are still skeptical of this idea, no matter how good a job it does at simplifying the ever messier "standard model." (I would add evolution to this list, but the truth is that when Darwin proposed it, the theory so neatly solved a problem that had been obvious for decades, and he presented it with such intellectual vigor, that there was little to do from the start but fill in the details.)
When science enters the public space, it's often presented as if scientists are slaves to existing theory -- guardians of the status quo, unwilling to admit that any current thought could possibly be wrong. Nothing gives a better sense of the divorce between scientific academia and popular journalism than the ease with which this hoary chestnut is passed along. Academia -- and especially scientific academia -- is a pool of sharks. It's a collection of people who not only think they're smarter than everyone else, but must prove it to advance in their careers. The scientist who goes through life dotting i's and crossing t's on someone else's theory is the scientist who is doomed to have "associate" forever hanging from the front of her title.
If I could come up with a convincing, alternative theory to explain the diversity of current and previous life on Earth, one that could stand even a smattering of argument (and note, I'm not talking about "disproving" evolution, merely offering a reasonable alternative), I would instantly be the most famous person on Earth, bar none, politicians and supermodels form your wannabe lines on the left, thank you. Scientists don't spend their time spackling over problems with theories, they go at them with axes. Think of every scientist you can name. They're the ones that chopped down some old theory and planted a new one.
However, there's also a point in every story, or theory, where those still standing in opposition are revealed as not dogged searchers for the truth, but (and there is no better term available) simply fools. You can devote all the time you want to building a perpetual motion machine, but don't be surprised if you've got a wee bit of trouble leveraging that into even a part-time position at Podunk Community College. Your hand-illustrated theories for that stack of turtles holding up the world is unlikely to be published in a leading journal.
There is no point at which a theory gains the certificate of "fact," and there's also no point at which it earns an official imprimatur of idiocy. However, there are moments when you can see theories making their way through the gray area at the edges of respectability.
Climate change, the simple idea that Earth's climate is not stable over long periods, has been well demonstrated for decades (if not centuries). The evidence of these changes is as varied as the remains of palm trees found at the poles, and the marks of passing glaciers that cut across America. Global warming, the idea that we are in a period where the world's temperature is going up, has been almost as clear for the last twenty years. Neither of these is disputed in any scientific forum outside the spit circle surrounding Rush Limbaugh. Anyone standing in opposition to either of these points is simply in denial of so much evidence, that they've passed beyond the boundaries of reasoned debate.
The idea that much of this warming is the result of changes to the atmosphere made by human beings, has had a slower climb through both academic and public circles. Some of the reasons for doubting man's hand in this mess are logical, based on looking at the scale of our production vs. massive natural events. Others are simply emotional. After all, the idea that we will be responsible for flooding many of the great cities, for turning broad swaths of forest into desert, and for sewing turmoil that could end the lives of billions is among the most hideous thoughts we have ever had to confront. Stand on the Appalachian Trail and peer off across the rounded, ancient mountains cloaked in green blanket of trees. Then think that, within your lifetime, this forest may be replaced with patches of scrub land and scoured stone. The cause? Our thoughtlessness, our pursuit of comfort, our greed. Is it any wonder there are so many who have not wanted to accept this idea?
That distaste for this idea is part of why it's been one of the most tested theories in history. It's hard to find a climate scientist who hasn't swung their axe at this idea. Sadly, all those blows have been deflected. It's really only within the past few years that the idea of global warming as an effect of man's activities passed from interesting theory into broad belief, but capped by a series of UN reports, there really is no room for doubt. Even the most skeptical scientists have been forced to lean on their axes and agree. The world is getting warmer. It's our fault. And it's the biggest threat we've ever faced. Even major oil companies have come to their senses on this point.
If there is any consolation in accepting such a horror, it's that -- now that those in opposition are left sharing a room with those still poring over the Zapruder film or hunting for Bigfoot -- we can work on the next step.
The percentage of Americans who recognize the threat from global warming is growing. There has even been a recognition that global warming is a security threat that both supports and exceeds terrorism. But making the next step will require us to go beyond recognizing our culpability. We have to for our planet. For everything on our planet. If we have it in our power to wound the sky, we have it in our power to nurse it back to health.
With Earth Day coming tomorrow, this is a good time to not only rededicate ourselves to this world, but redirect our energies. We've had an extremely unsuccessful go at playing policeman to the world. Why not try doctor?
(Just a little note: I'd like to point out that one of the links above, one that goes to a discussion of global warming conducted by Kofi Annan and held in Norway, is from the Akron Farm Report. That's a pretty good measure of how this issue has reached down to those directly affected in the US.)