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Too Complex

Entry 992, on 2009-04-20 at 21:14:36 (Rating 3, Skepticism)

Many people believe the wrong thing because the truth (or as close to the truth as we can get because nothing is ever 100% certain) is too complex. Its either too complex for them to understand at all or it just requires more effort than they are prepared to expend.

A classic example of this is having religious and other superstitious beliefs instead of logic and science. If you wanted to understand the origin of the universe, which is easier: God did it; or the subtleties (and uncertainties) of the Big Bang, inflation, quantum physics and relativity? Being able to sum up the whole topic in one sentence "God did it" is certainly easier.

But its not creationists I want to criticise this time (well I always want to criticise creationists but I'll avoid the temptation this time) its another one of my favourite opponents in debates: global warming deniers.

I noticed an article at Slashdot a couple of days back which claimed "A report from The Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research says that Antarctic ice is growing, not melting away". Of course, this immediately lead to a pile of posts saying things like: see global warming is fake, global warming scientists treat it like a religion, this is proof warming isn't happening, etc.

Luckily there were a few entries later on which clarified the whole issue. The most interesting thing about the whole debate was how superficial the deniers' analysis was and yet in some ways they couldn't be blamed because the issue is actually quite complex and counter-intuitive in some places.

So the first question is: is the claim true? Well it is and it isn't. The detail is that the sea ice in some parts of Antarctica is thickening and this isn't anything new. But in other areas it is reducing rapidly. So the claim that the Antarctic ice is growing is misleading at best.

But even if the sea ice was growing would this disprove global warming? Actually it wouldn't because paradoxically warming in Antarctica can lead to greater precipitation as snow. In many areas it is too cold for snow to form in most conditions and only an increase in temperature can lead to greater amounts of snow falling.

Another factor worth considering is that sea ice isn't such a big concern as land ice. Because sea ice floats in the sea (it has only a slightly lower density than water) if it melted sea levels would not be greatly affected. If land ice melts it flows into the sea and does increase the level. So the state of sea ice isn't necessarily a major concern by itself anyway.

Then there is another claim made by deniers. That is that the global temperature fluctuates naturally over time and it is either useless trying to reverse this tendency or the warming is natural and not caused by human activity.

It is true that temperature has fluctuated a lot in the past but the critical point here is how quickly it is happening this time. All indications are that it is happening far faster than on any previous occasion. If the temperature changes too quickly we cannot adapt easily and that will lead to major global disasters.

Finally there is the claim that warming might be happening and could be caused by humans but who cares: we all want higher temperatures don't we? Yes, some people do but many don't. There are areas already affected by drought which are only going to get worse as global warming becomes more established. Plus there is the point that its great to have warmer weather but is it worthwhile if a large number of our cities are flooded?

So my recommendation to deniers is to look into the facts a bit more deeply and to look at the big picture, not just individual details, even if they do fit what you desperately want to believe.

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