The Fundamentals of a Fundamentalist

by Bill Chameides | May 22nd, 2008
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | 5 comments

The Wall Street Journal called me and my ilk fundamentalists — “climate-change fundamentalists,” to be precise. So I did what any good scientist would do. I researched.

In the vernacular, fundamentalism is usually thought of as a religious movement. According to Wikipedia, such fundamentalism is a “’deep and totalistic commitment’ to a belief in the infallibility and inerrancy of a holy book, absolute religious authority, and strict adherence to a set of basic principles (‘fundamentals’).”

Religious fundamentalism and liberalism or modernism are polar opposites. Perhaps because of a liberal stereotype attached to scientists, climate skeptics have wagged an accusatory “fundamentalist” finger at us scientists because we acknowledge the serious threat of global warming. Last week, I saw the “climate-change fundamentalist” epithet in a Wall Street Journal editorial (“McCain’s Climate Market,” May 13, 2008).

Digging deeper into the meaning of “fundamentalism,” I found a broader definition not related to religion. Miriam-Webster defines fundamentalism as “a movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles.” For scientists, that kind of fundamentalism is the only tenable position.

Basic Science Surrounds Us in Technologies Old and New

Strict adherence to scientific laws does not preclude embracing subjective or faith-based beliefs related to spirituality or religion. Indeed many scientists claim to be religious. But rejecting the scientific method as a means of learning about the physical world makes no sense. Think about it. We all depend upon electricity. Magic doesn’t make the light come on when you flip the switch. The bulb illuminates because of basic laws of physics.

Newton’s law of gravity is based on his observation that apples fall downwards from trees — that was not Newton’s personal, subjective experience of apples but a universal one. The first law of thermodynamics, that energy is conserved, is not something one can choose to believe in or reject. It is a fundamental fact of life. Seen any perpetual motion machines lately?

We have harnessed these laws to improve our quality of life through centuries of scientific inquiry, learning how the physical world works through objective collection of empirical data. Future innovations and advances will largely depend on our ability to continue to use basic scientific principals as our guide.

Global Warming Science Goes Back More Than a Century

Our understanding of climate change does not derive from mere supposition or vague simulations either. It is based on more than a century of scientific inquiry:

  • Observations of carbon isotopes prove that burning fossil fuels is increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide;
  • Satellite measurements of the radiation leaving the earth provide irrefutable evidence that carbon dioxide is warming the Earth; and
  • Direct measurements show that “natural” explanations for global warming, like a hotter sun or extra heat from the ocean, are not viable.

So we are left with only one tenable conclusion: our dependence on fossil fuels is driving global warming.

The potentially serious consequences of global warming are already self-evident. Consider this rapidly unfolding scenario. High-altitude glaciers are melting around the world. Perhaps a billion or more people who depend upon those glaciers for drinking water, irrigation, and hydroelectric power will soon be left, literally, high and dry. In a globalized economy, that is a problem we will all have to deal with.

What a Science Fundamentalist Is and Is Not

So, I confess: when it comes to science, I adhere to an understanding of the physical world revealed through the scientific method. In the case of climate, science has shown to a very high degree of certainty that global warming is a problem largely of our own making and one that requires our attention and action. Continued observations show a much swifter response is needed.

Being a science fundamentalist does not shut out new ideas and findings. Indeed, science — a never-ending investigation leading to a constantly evolving understanding of the physical world — requires an open mind that enables us to shed old ideas and embrace new ones as the scientific evidence demands. Over much of the 1980s and 1990s I was unconvinced, even skeptical that people were playing a role in global warming. As with the discovery of the light bulb, the scientific method can take decades to unfold. Ultimately the evidence (outlined above) became overwhelming. Having studied the forces at play, I re-evaluated my view and recognized the very real problem of climate change.

If such adherence to scientific principles makes me one, then so be it. I am a climate change fundamentalist.

filed under: climate change, faculty


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  1. jscroger
    Oct 9, 2008

    I am a Master’s student, in Earth Science education. I am doing a research article on the myth of the scientific method/and or getting rid of the scientific method, and i am in the process of the research. There is an interesting Editorial comment on “the rhetoric of positivism versus inteperetivism.” by Ron Weber. You can find it online. Fundamentalism Science, is positivism and it’s strict adherence to the scientific method. Do scientist actually adhere to this model? Do they actually take all the necessary steps? Most of it is on the assumption that you can separate yourself from your research, that you have absolutely no bias. That is never the case, look at Haeckels work at fudging the data on his drawings of embryos to support evolution, when at the time there was not enough scientific knowledge on the subject. Later on in Germany, Hitler used this as part of his proof for getting rid of the “inferior” Jewish race. That leads me to this question, at what point can we separate science from our own free will and the actual phenomenon? I might have a view on something, and you could have a totally different perspective on it as well. The gestalt drawing is a great example, One person sees a young lady, the other a old hag. At a point, being fundamental in science can lead to controlling peoples behavior. For instance if we try and educate people that eating unhealthy will kill them in the long run, are we not trying to control their eating habits? Also, when do we come to the conclusion that there are superior races in the Human species? and that in order to survive, we should start by ridding ourselves of the defects, and others who deviate from the genetically superior lineage in humans. Science teachers have their assumptions of what the scientific method is, and they produce something entirely different from what it actually is. We do not actually teach students “how to do science” anyway, we teach them what scientists do, which is extremely variable compared to the scientific method. An interestingly bias, I found an article on Darwinians trying to get rid of Texas educators “questioning theories” part of the curriculum in science. They suggest that if they question it, they are opening up to religion. I do not think that evolution can trump religion in the first place, because 3/4 of the population, regardless of science, holds to a form of “God” or agnosticism. Even Dawkins when hard pressed stated aliens as a possible origin of the life on Earth, This in fact is a stand towards agnosticism, or a belief in a “higher being” I am not saying that we should teach any old theory that we wish in school, just that in scientific inquiry we should use models to represent the idea, and let the students find alternatives, test their alternative, and then come up with their own results. They will at one point come to the conclusion that is already what we find to be true. To say that you are a fundamentalist scientist puts you on par with what most scientists reject; belief in a supreme being, in your case science. Both lose rationality when emotions, or something dear to them/you is threatened. Where does rational ability go when we refuse to examine the evidence, or claim of evidence of an idea contrary to what we believe? Is that science to you?” title=”Do scientists now even use the scientific method?

  2. Paul Baerman
    May 22, 2008

    What? Wikipedia gave an inadequate definition? Be still, my beating heart. Even wired Web 2.0 guys sometimes have to turn from collaborative social media and the wisdom of crowds to a source that’s, well, vetted. Naturally, you consulted the dictionary online, at least. Which goes to show that facts are good–something that “climate change liberals” (what else could we possibly call them?) and others who ignore basic science resent.

    • Erica Rowell
      May 23, 2008

      Dr. Bill Chameides replies: Paul, please do slow your beating heart. The sarcasm is clear, the point somewhat obscure. Did we offend by invoking Wikipedia? If so, I humbly beg your pardon. But alas the definition provided by Wikipedia is virtually the same as what is in every other dictionary I have consulted — on the web and on paper. So you see, the facts cited in the post are correct. So while I humbly beg your pardon for the sin of Wikepedia, is it possible, I most humbly suggest, that you do overreact? To your credit, you are correct in one regard: facts are good, no matter what quarter they come from — even Wikipedia.

    • Michael
      May 27, 2008

      You know what else is good aside from facts? Reasoning. Check out these posts on Wikipedia. Conveniently, I found it in a matter of moments and can direct you toward it.

      • Daniel Wedgewood
        Aug 14, 2008

        I regularly post comments on the Green Grok – I usually have detail orientated questions, and sometimes I’m a bit blunt. I always attempt to be respectful – maybe I succeed, maybe not. However, in my wandering over the Grok, I came across this post and your response. I fancy myself pretty good at logic – my profession and personality demands it. Maybe I’m just deluding myself though… And yet, a point I feel compelled to make about your last post: you link to two excerpt:encodeds of fallacies (one general, one specific). I agree with you that learning about fallacies is critically important for reasoning skills. However, fallacies are “errors in reasoning,” specifically (to logicians) they are “common errors in reasoning.” Your last post did not describe, or directly point to, what reasoning is (or even what logic is). You described what reasoning “is not.” That’s a bit like saying that you’re hungry, and don’t like apples. Sure it’s information, maybe even facts. But, not as useful as it could be. I suggest, if you haven’t already, reading Irving Copi’s “Introduction to Logic” – it’s a textbook, and is considered one of the seminal works in the field. It is great reading and talks about reasoning, logic, arguments, and fallacies. I strongly recommend it. Also, the two links you cite, apparently as a counter argument or slam to Dr. Chameides, are from the very collaborative social media that you seem to criticize. Curious. I did not see any errors in Dr. Chameides’ reasoning. But, I’m not a pro (yet). Cheers – Dan.

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