01/20/2012 04:02 pm ET Updated Mar 21, 2012

Opinion, Fact and Hubris: Our Response to a Changing Planet

As a minor branch on a vast evolutionary bush, modern humans have been roaming the earth for no more than a few hundred thousand years of the earth's 4.5 billion-year history. Ours has been a brief presence, with too little time to demonstrate if the evolution of large brains is a successful strategy for long-term survival of the species.

Human beings are not inevitable, and our brief existence is not preordained to be extended into the distant future. As are all creatures, humans are a genetic experiment resulting from selective pressure, random mutations, and pure chance that our ancestors avoided extinction from catastrophic events, such as meteorite impacts. If Homo sapiens is to have a continued presence on earth, humankind will reevaluate its sense of place in the world and modify its strong species-centric stewardship of the planet.

Bush of Life

Humans are certainly unique, with our combined abilities to reason, to communicate with complex language, and to modify our environment on a global scale. But cheetahs are unique, too, in their ability to run over 100 km per hour (60 mph). Sperm whales alone can dive to 2000 meters (nearly 6100 feet) on a single breath, and hummingbirds are the only aviators that can hover in mid-air, shift sideways and fly backward by flapping their wings up to 200 times per second while precisely controlling the wing's angle of attack. Specialized bugs live in deep-sea volcanic thermal springs in temperatures up to 113 oC (235 oF), where no other creatures on earth could survive.

Each species, including humans, occupies a special place on the evolutionary bush according to its unique characteristics. Humans happen to possess a well-developed central nervous system as one of our defining traits, and this evolutionary development has provided us with the ability to contemplate ourselves and our future. But large, complex brains are simply another extreme in the development of animal traits, just as speed and strength are found in extremes in other animals. Our large brains do not confer upon us any special status among our living cousins, and it is the height of folly to claim that evolution was driven toward humans as the pinnacle of achievement. One could claim with equal validity that evolution advances toward a pinnacle of speed, or that bacteria are the perfect creation because only they can occupy extreme conditions of temperature, salinity, pressure and acidity. The evolution of large brains confers no exalted status on the human race.

But unlike cheetahs or bacteria, our particularly notable evolutionary achievement enables us to reason and communicate, and we therefore have a monopoly on making any claims about our status in the world. This monopoly has led to the self-serving and comforting conclusion that humans are somehow separate from, and superior to, the rest of the animal kingdom. The long-term survival of our species may require that we change this perspective.

The Age of Bugs

In an often-told story, a group of ministers asked the famous scientist, J.B.S. Haldane, to characterize god based on Haldane's knowledge of the natural world. He replied (in one variation of this story) that god apparently has an "inordinate fondness for beetles." He had this opinion because about 20 percent of all known species of animals in the world are beetles. But even in his great wisdom, Haldane was wrong. God apparently has a greater propensity for prokaryotes, organisms comprised of just one cell, so small they can be seen only in powerful microscopes.

While our sensitivities may be offended, we are living not in the Age of Man, but in the Age of Bacteria and Archea, or "bugs" as they are generically known. These single-celled germs are the most successful of all life forms, and have been dividing away for nearly 4 billion years. Bacteria have been found to live in virtually every conceivable environment at extremes of pressure, temperature, salinity, radiation, alkalinity and acidity. A spoonful of good quality soil may contain ten trillion bacteria representing more than ten thousand different species. More than 1 million bacteria are found in 1 milliliter of seawater, and these constitute most of the ocean's biomass. The ocean holds many drops. Even more abundant by number in the ocean's waters are viruses, packing in roughly 10 million per milliliter. That means that viruses lock up as much as 270 million tons of carbon, more than 20 times the estimate for the amount stored in the earth's supply of whales.

Unwittingly referring to bacteria, Mathew 5:5 says that "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth," and indeed they shall. For regardless of the fate of humanity, bacteria will likely survive. The urgent question becomes: for how long can we delay or prevent that fateful day when humans, and perhaps all mammals, are just another extinct evolutionary experiment, while bacteria continue their unparalleled dominance?

Unwarranted Hubris

Even acknowledging the obvious success of bacteria, changing our perspective toward a more humble understanding of the status of humans in the living world will be difficult. For millennia, peoples of nearly all cultures have been taught that humans are special in the eyes of their god or gods, and that the world is made for their benefit and use. For example, this is made clear in Genesis 1:1.

This early biblical passage is representative of many that give humans the special status of being made in god's image, unlike any other creature on earth, and clearly implies human dominance over all other living things. Humans are told to "subdue" the earth and "rule over" the air, land and sea. These religious teachings not only condone but actively encourage humans to view the environment as separate from them, put here for their pleasure. Such biblical bias about our place in earth's history is one reason why the religious right resists the idea of anthropogenic climate change; we could not alter something god put here for our benefit.

The explicit religious mandate to exploit natural resources remains clear and unambiguous, in spite of heroic efforts to harmonize religion and environmental sciences. Numerous academic and international organizations have made the futile attempt, including The Forum on Religion and Ecology, the largest international multi-religious project of its kind, and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, founded in 1936 by the Vatican to promote scientific progress compatible with the Church's teachings.

The argument used by those seeking reconciliation between religion and environmental protection point to the integrity of all creation, or reverence for all things created by god, insisting that religion and concern for the environment are not only compatible, but have been so all along. Those are welcomed sentiments. In fact, as is frequently the case, the Bible contains contradictory passages about the natural world, reasonably allowing for such an interpretation. Old passages can also simply be reinterpreted to fit the facts or to be compatible with newly adopted ideas. Pope John Paul XXIII said in 1961:

Genesis relates how God gave two commandments to our first parents: to transmit human life -- 'Increase and multiply' -- and to bring nature into their service -- 'Fill the Earth, and subdue it.' These two commandments are complementary. Nothing is said in the second of these commandments about destroying nature. On the contrary, it must be brought into the services of human life.

But the harsh facts of human history belie this benign revisionist interpretation of the meaning of "subdue". The preponderance of unambiguous passages in the Bible giving mankind dominion over nature's bounty argues against any idea that religion is environmentalism in disguise. As Renaissance scholar Lynn White famously wrote in 1967, "We shall continue to have a worsening ecologic crisis until we reject the Christian axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve man." His words remain true 40 years later, when religious conservatives in the United States view resource extraction as an inalienable right.

Why Opinion Is Not Fact

We face an even greater threat, though, than religion's skewed world view that grants special status to human beings. We have entered an age in which science offers the public nothing but another opinion, no more valid than the views expressed by any random radio host with a microphone and transmitter. In this brave new world climate change becomes just another liberal agenda item on par with discussions about gun laws.

Honest people with good intentions can legitimately disagree about the role of government and how to fund the public sector. We can argue whether drilling for oil in the Arctic is good policy. But there is no room for opinion when discussing facts. Facts and opinions differ fundamentally. The late Stephen J. Gould said eloquently that in the world of science, "fact" means "confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional consent."

Yes, of course "facts" change with advances in scientific knowledge; that is the very essence of scientific inquiry. But that does not mean that facts as currently established can be willfully disregarded as simply another opinion. Facts carry more weight than opinion; to modify or overturn something previously accepted as fact requires deep proof with convincing evidence that is widely accepted by the majority of experts in that field. Opinions can vary with every individual; facts are a broadly accepted body of evidence. Everybody can have a different opinion; not everybody can have a different fact. The two are fundamentally different.

Atoms are the building block of nature. That is a fact, not an opinion. Atoms are not a liberal agenda item. You can't see, hear or feel an atom, but we accept their existence -- because scientists have proven that atoms exist beyond any doubt even if using methods that we do not really understand. The average person cannot know from casual observation if the earth orbits the sun or the sun orbits the earth; but we accept as absolutely true that the sun is the center of our solar system. A heliocentric world view is not a liberal plot. Bacteria and viruses cause disease. DNA is life's genetic code. We accept all of this and more without demanding proof because we accept that the conclusions are widely adopted in the scientific community. Certainly as non-specialists we are not capable of proving or disproving that DNA is our genetic code; but we accept that as fact. We don't wait for more evidence because we've never actually seen DNA.

And now we circle back to religion, which contributes to the blurring of this clear distinction between fact and opinion. In the case of religion, faith is alone sufficient to substantiate a claim: "I believe in god therefore god exists." I need no proof, no evidence, no established fact to support my conclusion: I simply need to believe. Bringing this perspective to opinions outside the realm of religion is a tiny step. As with faith, my opinion becomes fact simply because I believe it to be true. In this worldview, the distinction between fact and opinion becomes meaningless. But just as with opinion, every person can have different faith, but not every person can have different facts. An atom is the building block of nature whether you believe that true or not. Your opinion does not matter here. Your faith does not matter here -- because a fact is not equivalent to opinion or faith. Facts do not change on the whim of every individual.

This confounding of fact and opinion has had real and sometimes tragic consequences. The odd "birther" movement can only exist on the fuel of confusion between opinion and fact. President Obama's birth in the United States is a fact when "fact" means "confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional consent." And so too is climate change. Thousands of climatologists from 166 countries agree without reservation that our climate is changing and that humankind is contributing to that change by emitting greenhouse gases.

Skepticism about climate change comes with a particularly rich irony. Many doubters cite the earth's past cycles of glaciation and warming to discount what we are seeing today as nothing but natural variation. How do the skeptics know of that climate history? From the very scientists whose conclusions they now doubt! As if the scientists themselves are unaware of their own conclusions about the earth's past, or if they are aware, did not take that history into account. Doubters preferentially believe one set of facts from those scientists but dismiss other facts as liberal nonsense. Doubters can do this because they confuse opinion and fact.

Really, on what basis do doubters base their views? Have they evaluated the evidence and decided based on their expertise that thousands of scientists are wrong? No, they listen to radio or talk show hosts with no background in climatology and simply adopt the opinion that climate change is a hoax. What if the same show host claimed atoms were a hoax? Would doubters be any more or less qualified to accept that opinion as fact? The opinion that climate change is a hoax does not carry the same weight as the fact of climate change established by experts around the world. Expert conclusions about our changing climate are not different than the results about subatomic particles that we see coming from the world's particle accelerators. Where are the doubters that stand up and say, "No, neutrinos really do not have mass - that is nothing but liberal propaganda." Why not? Doubters have no more expertise in particle physics than they do in climatology, so why doubt one conclusion from expert but reject the next? Because doubters confuse opinion and fact.

Missed Opportunity

Humankind had an opportunity to change course and prevent our climate from changing at a pace greater than our ability to adapt. We failed to act because opinion and fact were confused, and we believe that both are equivalent. The inevitable suffering to come is tragic because it was preventable. Worse perhaps is that we could have acted in ways that make sense anyway even in the absence of a changing climate but failed to do so while waiting for more "evidence." Meaning we ignored established fact while waiting to validate our opinion. We have been here before. The Catholic Church insisted for 1500 years that the earth was the center of the universe and that the sun orbited the earth. Eventually the accumulation of fact simply became too great to support that view. But that came long after the facts had actually been established by observation. In the case of climate change, by the time doubters throw in the towel in the face of rising oceans any hope of taking corrective action will have long been lost.

So when the fact of climate change becomes as evident to doubters as the orbit of the earth, or the existence of atoms, in the face of mass migrations, starvation, advancing disease, and wars over scarce resources, when climate change can no longer be denied, perhaps we will learn from this colossal mistake of elevating opinion to the status of fact. If we are lucky enough, we will have another chance.

Jeff Schweitzer is the author of five books, the latest of which is Calorie Wars: Fat,, Fact, and Fiction. Visit Jeff at his website.

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