No, Swift Action on Coronavirus Is Not a Good Model for Action on Climate Change

How Coronavirus Science Differs from Climate Science

Last week we saw where young people (some young people, not all) were behaving recklessly during a pandemic in ways that placed themselves and others at risk. There’s another idea floating among the younger set that looks at the pandemic from an opposite perspective – not one of apathy, but of heightened fear. The idea goes like this:

Hey Boomer! You know how you feel about coronavirus right now?

That’s how we feel about climate change all the time!

One of the questions being asked is, since the world is relying on scientific authorities, such as the CDC, epidemiologists, and physicians, and taking swift action based on their recommendations to fight COVID-19, why aren’t governments taking equally swift action based on the recommendations of science to fight climate change? British activist ClimateAdam, for example, said the coronavirus outbreak gives us “a direct comparison” to climate change. But does it?

This presumed parallel “because science!” provides a good opportunity to think about, well, science. And that requires first asking, what is meant by “science”? As it turns out, the word means different things in different contexts.

Kirk Durston wrote an excellent series of articles explaining this in simple terms. He divided modern science into three major categories – experimental science, inferential science, and science fiction, or what he also calls “fantastical science.” Here’s a brief summary:

  1. Experimental science refers to processes involving real experiments and observations. With experimental science, results can be published and independently reproduced and verified (or not) by other scientists. Because results can be tested by third parties this way, the accountability and trustworthiness of experimental science, assuming it’s practiced honestly, is very high. We can thank experimental science, Durston says, for all the technological advances we enjoy today.

  1. Inferential science takes in the results of experimental science and then makes inferences. However, an inferred conclusion cannot itself be experimentally confirmed or disconfirmed. It can only be said that, given the data, there is good reason to think it might be right. An example might be a group of geologists looking at a region of rock formations. Geologists can observe the structure as it exists today, but they cannot rewind the clock and observe what caused it to take on its current form. Different geologists might infer different causes and thus arrive at different conclusions. Forensics, archeology, and the origins sciences are all examples of inferential science. With inferential science, the inferences (and assumptions that figure into them) must also be examined critically.
  1. Science fiction or fantastical science is what happens when the line between good science and imaginative storytelling gets blurred. Durston cites the proposed multiverse as an example of this. “The multiverse, it seems, is modern science’s ‘god of the gaps’ … if it is too wildly improbable … if we have no natural explanation — especially if it points to God, then the multiverse must have done it. The interesting thing is this … an infinite number of unseen, untestable entities are proposed to avoid just One Unseen Mind behind the universe.” With the multiverse, something utterly fantastical has been put forth under the guise of science, but there is no science-based reasoning to support it or even any science-based way that it could be tested.

Durston’s three categories of science give us a filter through which to evaluate the parallels being drawn between the pandemic (to which we are seeing a real-time, coordinated response informed by science) and climate change (for which we have seen decades of debate and dispute). With respect to the pandemic, virologists and epidemiologists can directly observe and experiment. After the combination of hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin virtually cured a small number of COVID-19 patients in France, for example, a larger group of patients were set to be treated with the drugs last week in New York (results are yet to be determined). Coronavirus science is heavily experimental, and it’s narrowly focused on one specific virus.

Climate science, by contrast, is extremely broad in scope and relies heavily on computer modeling, with the models themselves based on assumptions and inferences. This is not to say that any particular climate science hypothesis is right or wrong, only that climate science is orders of magnitude more complex and that its vast array of inferences and assumptions must themselves be critically examined.

Durston’s categories are super helpful for thinking clearly about all manner of issues being discussed in our culture. Whenever you hear things like, “Science says ...” or “Believe science,” or even the epithet “anti-science,” evaluate what it being said through this filter. Also, bear in mind the words of the indefatigably cheerful John Lennox, “Statements by scientists are not necessarily statements of science.” These two exercises alone can help you cut through a lot of fog and bluster flying under the banner of “science.”

Kirk Durston’s three articles can be found here:

Or you can hear him discuss them on the ID the Future podcast here:

has a BS in Computer Science and worked as a software engineer with IBM until she hopped off the career track to be a full-time mom. She lives in Indianapolis, IN, and writes on apologetics and matters of faith.

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