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I know what I know

August 19, 2011

I was sitting with a couple of friends the other day, talking about I don’t know what, when one said about the other, “Well, she doesn’t believe in global warming.”

I gave my friend, let’s call her My Skeptical Friend, the hairy eyeball. She squirmed, but all I said was, “So you think you know more than the combined membership of National Academy of Sciences?”

Then my other friend, let’s call her My Tactful Friend, changed the subject. This is Texas, after all. In one way, it’s become a riff, a joke with us. “Well, you don’t believe in global warming,” I tease My Skeptical Friend, and sometimes she retorts, “Well, sometimes your clothes don’t match, and you are rude, and you go to the grocery store with bad hair and no makeup, so ppptht.” Actually, being a Texan, she never says anything like that, but she thinks it, and I can see the little cartoon bubble above her head saying so, and it also says, “But I love you anyway.”

Her cartoon bubble also says this: “I’m not very good at science, and I don’t understand what people are talking about when they analyze the chemistry of greenhouse gasses, but I understand that people I trust think that global warming is a conspiracy of fanatic left-wingers, tree-huggers and bug-huggers who want us all to stop bathing and stop wearing deodorant and start wearing Birkenstocks.”

My own cartoon bubble, on the other hand, says this: “I wish the National Academy of Sciences had a spokesperson who looked and sounded and dressed like Sara Palin so that people like my friend could understand more clearly what the stakes really are in this debate.”

I’m no scientist either, and if I were, there is no way I’d be in the National Academy of Sciences. I don’t have what it takes  — but I have friends and colleagues who do, and that is how I am different from My Skeptical Friend. My scientist friends tell me they’re worried, and so I turn off my lights and set the thermostat of our house at 85 degrees, and I think about my own carbon footprint when I choose not to buy fruit imported from Chile, or cheap useless crap imported from China.

I don’t believe that manmade pollution is causing the earth to heat up because I did the research myself, or even because I read the studies — I did, but I didn’t understand them well enough to hold my end of a point-by-point debate. I believe in global warming because people I trust tell me it’s real, that we’re heating up our world, and we’d better stop trashing our atmosphere or else it’s just gonna get hotter.

And it’s not just global warming. I believe in evolution because I know geologists who do, and because I believe that the people who work for the Museum of Natural History in New York knew what they were talking about when they put together that fantastic exhibition, because I trust the institution. I believe in social justice in South America because I know people who are from there, and people who have worked in the Peace Corps there. I believe that central Africa is an intractable mess because people from Africa have told me it is, and they have told me, repeatedly, that the solution to it has to come from within Africa. I believe that Northern Africa is a hotbed and a powder keg because the news told me so, and I saw the pictures, but more, I trust the people who run the news stations, except for Fox News.

We can only educate ourselves so far, and I am growing to realize the extent to which everything I believe is based on faith, in individuals and in institutions. I believe that most conservatives are good people. I believe that most Tea Party members really do have the best interests of our nation at heart. I believe that most liberals really do think they are smarter than other people, and I believe in many cases that we are, but I also believe that being smart and well educated is not enough.

I believe that the answer is humility.

I’m going to try to make the cartoon bubble above my head say this, “I might disagree with you, but I could be wrong, and I am sure I could learn from what you have to say, so please speak, and I will listen.” It’s a lesson I’ve learned from my friend who doesn’t believe in global warming.

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  1. Aunt Lee permalink

    Whether or not human activity is the cause of global warming, human activity can ameliorate it. And the more we work on coordinating with natural forces, the better our lives will be in so many ways.

    I don’t argue about the cause/s of global warming because I think it’s beside the point. And – several years ago, I read that Mars is also experiencing global warming. Haven’t been able to track this down, and I don’t remember where I read it. But even without a good footnote, I really like the idea.

    In the same vein, I remember watching Mount St. Helen’s blow up over and over again on the tv, pleased to be seeing, from here in the midst of human self-centeredness (NY City), the truth that human beings do not control the world. We are smaller than we think.

    Somehow, that’s comforting. It doesn’t deter me from thinking we are just stupid to ignore doing those things we ought to do or to fail to face those things we ought not to do. But, even so, it’s comforting that it’s not all about us.

  2. Diane permalink

    As an engineer – and a daughter of a meteorologist – I have little patience for non-scientists who think their gut and a few newspaper articles somehow make them experts on this subject.

  3. Caroline Kirkpatrick permalink

    I can’t even get beyond the part about how Texans dress when they go to the grocery store.:) I would make the WORST Texan EVER! I know that wasn’t the point of this blog entry, so I will read the whole thing in its entirety later, but I just had to say that I am glad that Huntsvillians and Madisonians (or whatever you want to call the people in my town) are occasionally seen in there PJs and slippers at the grocery store.

    • Mary Knapp permalink

      The people in your town(s) are called the coolest geeks.

  4. Mary Knapp permalink

    When I drive in the West and see seabeds in the mountains, I realize this isn’t the first, or probably last, time, the earth will experience global warming or sea level rise.
    When I walk on bare ground in Banff National Park past signs in the gravel noting where the glacier was in 1940, 1960, 1980, I believe that glaciers are retreating.
    The earth tells me what’s going on. It’s nice that science confirms what the eyes can see and what common sense realizes.

    But on this and many other issues, I love your last cartoon bubble. May I have one for my own use, please?

  5. Becky T. permalink

    I think you made an excellent point that the NAS needs a spokesperson that looks like Sarah Palin. Too often scientists are of the opinion that if you put the facts out there people will hear them and be persuaded. Um, doesn’t work like that. To me, and this just might be because it’s my profession, “marketing” the facts is the key. Though I’m not volunteering to be the “Sarah Palin” of the NAS, I just couldn’t live with that god awful hair style!

  6. It’s not just that we believe in global warming or not. It’s hard to refute the melting of Greenland or Iceland, the breaking up of glaciers there, and seeing the polar bear clinging to a block of ice floating freely in the ocean.

    The hard part to believe is that mankind had a lot to do with bringing it on. We must trust the scientists to look at the causes of this global problem to find out and to know that our unsustainable use of energy is accelerating global warming. The ‘hockey stick’ graph clearly shows that global warming suddenly accelerated during the time of the industrial revolution, especially from the late 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. It doesn’t matter if you believe it or not… it’s happening. The answer we give to the Why? question makes all the difference in the world.

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