Climate Through the Data Smog

Perhaps you know the story. . .

In 1854 the great Chief Seattle of the Duwamish, ruler of six tribes around Puget Sound, reluctantly agreed to the final sale of the tribal lands to the American Government. But he was so appalled by the greedy, grasping nature of the white man he gave a final passionate speech at the ceremony:

“The earth is our mother. Earth does not belong to man, but man to the Earth.

Will you teach your children what we have taught our children? That the earth is our mother? What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth.

All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.

I have seen a thousand rotting buffaloes on the prairies left by he white man who shot them from a passing train. What will happen when the buffalo are all slaughtered ? All the wild horses tamed ? What will happen when the secret corners of the forest are heavy with the scent of many men and the view of the ripe hills is blotted by talking wires ? Where is the thicket ? Gone. Where is the eagle ? Gone. The end of living, the beginning of survival.”

Not surprisingly Chief Seattle’s powerful and noble speech is often quoted by environmentalists. Al Gore quoted it in his book Earth in the Balance in 1992.

There’s one small issue . . .

Chief Seattle didn’t say a word of it.

The record of Chief Seattle’s speech was significantly rewritten by Texas screenwriter Ted Perry for his 1972 screenplay ‘Home’. Even the ‘original’ record of the speech, on which this rewrite was based, is regarded as being inauthentic, the reporter Dr Henry Smith was present to hear Chief Seattle’s speech, but didn’t publish his account of it until 33 years later in 1887 !

Chief Seattle’s impressive ecological speech became very popular, but unfortunately is only a  myth,  just snake oil.

It’s not that people normally set-out to deceive or mislead, it’s just that we all tend to believe what we want to believe – the so-called confirmation bias. The truth ‘might be out there’, but sometimes you just can’t beat the attraction of a good story !

I recently read the book The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr. Nicholas argues that the internet is changing the way we all think, learn and remember. He suggests that scanning and skimming has now replaced slower deeper review of longer articles and books, as our dominant method of reading. We also rapidly jump between multiple sources of information quickly – often considering them as if they all had equal authority, even though we know information on the web isn’t all the same . . . as on the web there’s little peer review and  few mentions of sources.

Before the internet, access to facts was the preserve of the expert – someone with the right books on their bookshelf, or who subscribed to the right journals. Now we barely need to remember anything, from capitals of the world to our friend’s phone numbers, all the facts we need are sat on servers waiting to be browsed.

As a result we all can now easily go fact surfing, seeking ‘evidence’ to support any of our views or opinions. The internet seems almost  to invite this ‘point-scoring’ type of debate.

Perhaps we should be humble enough to remind ourselves that access to the facts doesn’t equal understanding.

The, so called, DIKW hierarchy suggests that access to data (bare unconnected facts) is less useful than information (assessed, meaningful and useful data, with context), which in turn is less useful than knowledge (learnt and employed, organised and structured information), which in turn is less useful than wisdom (deeper understanding – not just know-how, but know-why).

These cautionary reminders could of course apply to lots of issues, but the hot-topic (pun intended) seems to be climate change.

The questions of  belief or skepticism in man-made climate change has become a divisive political issue in the upcoming US Presidential election. I’ve been both surprised and somewhat saddened to follow some of the debate on climate change, including assertions that global warming is a hoax (not just a scientific error – but a deliberate global conspiracy), that carbon dioxide cannot be harmful because it is a “natural by-product of nature” or that it cannot be harmful because it’s just a trace gas !

As I’ve stated previously, despite having a Masters degree in environmental science, being a Chartered Environmentalist, and being paid to do environmental science for my day job, I’m simply not able to state from personal, first-hand experience that man-made climate change is occurring, because climate science isn’t my field.

I suspect that’s true for most people.

So why do I accept man-made climate change is occurring ?

It’s not blind trust, I’ve obviously done my own reading, but the key thing is I see no reason to doubt the professional view of 97% or so of the world’s climate scientists. Perhaps I have a defective conspiracy gene, but surely if 97% of the world’s oncologists or heart surgeons all agreed what was wrong with me, I’d be inclined to listen . . . and I probably wouldn’t suggest it was just a scam so they could line their own pockets by doing unnecessary heart surgery and chemotherapy !

Below is a list of scientific organisations that accept man-made climate change is occurring.

If you’ve any climate denying friends perhaps you might direct them to this list, and suggest to them that if they’ve read something on the internet that proves all these organisations are wrong, they should urgently contact them to help set them straight.

Just a thought.

RELATED ARTICLES – Do You Believe in Climate Change ?

Photo by Dawn, via Flickr


  1. Gareth Richards says:

    Here is a nice video which shows just how bad the denniers are:

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