What is the Role of Faith in Global Warming Debates?

Dr. E. Calvin Beisner | The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation | Friday, February 19, 2010

What is the Role of Faith in Global Warming Debates?


Dr. Roy Spencer, principal research scientist in climatology at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, and lead scientist on NASA's Aqua satellite program, is undoubtedly a scientist.

Unlike many scientists, though, he recognizes that underlying faith commitments guide the interpretation of observational data, thus shaping the formation of hypotheses and of new observations by which they're tested. The underlying faith commitments are not the result of observation, but the precondition of it -- or at least of its interpretation.

As Dr. Spencer here shows, different faith commitments can lead to very different hypotheses about the warming effects of added greenhouse gases, and those in turn can lead to very different conclusions about impacts and, consequently, policy.

This is why the Cornwall Alliance treats theology (underlying faith commitments), science (observations, their interpretation colored by underlying faith commitments), and economics (the analysis policymakers need to foresee the effects of various options) all together in A Renewed Call to Truth, Prudence, and Protection of the Poor: An Evangelical Examination of the Theology, Science, and Economics of Global Warming, our 76-page study underlying An Evangelical Declaration on Global Warming. All truth is God's truth. All knowledge is interrelated. As Francis Schaeffer put it, there is no "upper story" of theological truths divorced from a "lower story" of scientific truths with no overlap between the two.

Recognizing this doesn't mean observations can never correct faith commitments. But it does mean the more central and fundamental the faith commitment, the more difficult it will be for observation to correct it. One will probably have to find not only a paucity of observations consistent with one's hypothesis to have one's confidence in it shaken, but also at least one observation, probably several, that are inconsistent with it.

A statement by D.M.S. Watson, professor of zoology and comparative anatomy at University College, London, from 1921 to 1951, illustrates the point well. In his article "Adaptation" (Nature, vol. 124[1929], 231-234), Watson called evolution "a theory universally accepted not because it can be proved by logically coherent evidence to be true but because the only alternative, special creation, is clearly incredible."

Now, I'm not saying Watson embraced evolution by blind faith contrary to observational evidence. Elsewhere in the article he wrote, "Evolution itself is accepted by zoologists not because it has been observed to occur or is supported by logically coherent arguments, but because it does fit all the facts of taxonomy, of palæontology, and geographical distribution ..." That is, he embraced evolution because he found it consistent with observations.

But the consistency of a hypothesis with observations doesn't prove it true. To think so is to commit the fallacy of affirming the consequent. For example, "If it rains today, I'll stay inside. I stayed inside. Therefore it rained today." That's a fallacy because other things might also have led me to stay inside, even if it didn't rain. Watson reached his conclusion (Evolution is true) not only on the ground that the "facts of taxonomy, of palæontology, and geographical distribution" were consistent with it (the fallacy of affirming the consequent; something other than evolution might have caused those facts) but also on the ground that his underlying faith commitment had ruled out any other possible explanation.

What reveals the indispensable role of faith commitment in Watson's thinking is the clause that completed that sentence: "... and because no alternative explanation is credible." Watson's atheism made it impossible to consider a theistic explanation of the "facts of taxonomy, of palæontology, and geographical distribution."

It's no accident that no atheists are creationists, for their underlying faith commitment rules out creationism in advance. No creator, no creation. No matter how consistent observations might be with a theistic explanation, atheists can't entertain the theistic explanation because their underlying faith commitment rules it out.

It's also no accident that theists are found among both creationists and evolutionists, for their underlying faith commitment is consistent with both evolutionary and creationist explanations of the observational data. Other faith commitments (e.g., belief that the Bible is God's Word and that it teaches things contrary to evolution) may lead some theists to rule out evolution as an explanation of observational data, but such theists are doing nothing different, epistemologically, from what atheistic evolutionists are doing: interpreting data consistently with their underlying faith commitments, and other theists deny some of those other faith commitments and so be able to embrace evolution. One of the interesting consequences of this is that theists tend to be able to consider not less observational evidence and interpretation than atheists but more, because their theism is consistent with more.

Dr. Spencer's discussion of how faith commitments shape the interpretation of climatological data is helpful in that it explains how, using the same observations, different scientists can reach different hypotheses about future global temperatures. Dialogue about manmade global warming would benefit considerably from die-hard alarmists' coming to grips with this and ceasing their insistence that "the science is settled."

Also needed are some predictions based on the hypothesis of manmade warming that are observationally testable such that a negative result would falsify the hypothesis. Critics have suggested some and think the negative results have occurred. For instance:

1. If manmade warming is true, there should be a mid-tropospheric "hot spot" over the tropics. There isn't. Therefore it is false.

2. If manmade warming is true, warming should continue steadily, decade after decade, as carbon dioxide concentration rises. There's been cooling now for 8 to 13 or 14 years. Therefore it is false.

3. If manmade warming is true in its claim that recent warming has been unprecedented, then there will have been no Medieval Warm Period, no Roman Warming, no Holocene Climate Optimum. In fact, eliminating the Medieval Warm Period was a major agenda of those paleoclimatologists whose serious mishandling of data was recently revealed in Climategate. But these warm periods happened. Therefore it is not true. But there's a catch to this argument, since proponents can respond that other things might have caused those earlier warmings, while enhanced greenhouse gases caused the recent warming. But there's a catch to this argument, in turn: critics can then reply, "But how then can you rule out other causes of the recent warming?"

Whether their premises are found true or false, such arguments advance the discussion.

God is one. Truth — which is all that God affirms and nothing that God denies — is consistent. Creation is consistent. So in the end theology, science, economics, and all the other disciplines must be consistent. And one of the great delights of the human mind is seeking to expand understanding of that consistency. That's one of the reasons why Dr. Spencer's discussion is not only important to the AGW debate but also just plain fun.

Does faith have a role in global warming debates? Yes, of course it does. It has a role in all debates. It provides the underlying worldview, the framework, and the axioms one brings to the investigation, predisposing one to give more or less weight and even attention to competing data claims and explanations. For, as the late philosopher Gordon H. Clark argued in Religion, Reason, and Revelation and Three Types of Religious Philosophy, presuppositions are indispensable to all reasoning. No axioms, no starting points; no starting points, no reasoning.

E. Calvin Beisner, Ph.D., is National Spokesman for The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation. He has testified as an expert witness on climate policy before the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and the Energy and Environment Subcommittee of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and written and contributed to several books on population, resources, and the environment.

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