What would change your mind?
The current nominee for the head of NASA, Rep. Jim Bridenstine from Oklahoma, has denied the scientific evidence that human activities are responsible for increasing global temperatures.
In a 2016 interview he was asked if there was any data that would change his view.
That was a great question. This query represents a basic principle of science. For any valid scientific idea there must be some criterion that, if met, could demonstrate the idea to be incorrect. In other words, there must be a way to prove it wrong — if it is wrong.
The question requires an evaluation of what we know, why we know it and how certain we are. It demands that we face our prejudices.
It also allows others to evaluate and address the evidence upon which a view is based. If Representative Bridenstine were to suggest, for example, that he would change his mind if there was proof that a fluctuating sun is not causing today’s global warming, he could be provided with that well-established proof.
If there is no new information that could challenge a person’s point of view, one is not looking for truth, reality or objectivity, but instead, defending belief or ideology.
An example was in a debate some years ago between Ken Ham and Bill Nye concerning the viability of biblical creationism. The individuals were asked what would change their minds.
Mr. Ham responded that he was a Christian, and no one could change his mind about God’s word. Mr. Nye, on the other hand, listed several scientific principles (expanding universe, radio dating, rock layers being formed over millions of years) any of which if proved incorrect, would cause him to re-think our current understanding of evolution.
In short, Mr. Nye was referring to concrete evidence from which he developed his conclusions and, at the same time, expressing a willingness to be open to new information. This is how science (or any kind of critical thinking) works.
Certainly, legitimate scientists could point to established tenets of science that, if thrown into question, would cause them to reconsider anthropogenic global warming. One example is the ability of CO2 to hold infrared radiation. Should new, authentic research render that oft demonstrated principle untrue or questionable, the role of human CO2emissions in climate change would need to be reassessed.
Therefore, it was valid and important to ask Representative Bridenstine what data would cause him to reconsider his view that fossil fuel emissions do not cause global warming.
His response to the question was telling. He referred to the carbon emissions of China, Russia and India, and asserted: “The United States does not have a big enough carbon footprint to make a difference when you’ve got all these other polluters out there. So why do we fundamentally want to damage our economy even more when nobody else is willing to do the same thing?”
First, it must be pointed out that Rep. Bridenstine was misinformed. The US has the largest per-capita carbon footprint of any country, and virtually all other countries have signed on to the Paris agreement to take action against climate change. We have recently ceded global leadership in this 21st century energy revolution — probably to China.
Further, regaining our leadership in this area would not damage our economy. Those heavily invested in fossil fuels will face financial reversals, but we would expect to see growth and improvement in our economy once we break free of the costly yoke of fossil fuel energy.
However, the more important revelation of Representative Bridenstine’s answer was that he responded as a politician — “Answer the question you want, not the question you are asked” — rather than as a scientist. A scientist is expected to justify his views with evidence, not deflection.
As a man chosen to take the helm of NASA, which succeeds or fails based on the quality of its science, it is important he understand this new job would require scientific leadership and integrity, not a penchant for avoiding difficult questions.
Representative Bridenstine should be asked that question again and, as taxpayers funding NASA, we need to hear his answer.