Today is the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Putting footsteps on the Sea of Tranquility was an inspiring, improbable enterprise made possible by hard work, extraordinary problem-solving skills, and rigorous grounding in hard science.
About 1 in 15 people, however, hold to a belief that NASA faked the moon landings on a sound stage somewhere. There is not a shred of evidence to substantiate their belief. There is any number of explanations for clinging to such an absurdity. Gullibility. Lack of trust in big institutions. The visibility and ease of access to bad information in the Internets musty corners. The allure of possessing what is thought to be secret knowledge.
One of the moon landing hoax debunkers, astronomer Philip Plait, offers an intriguing explanation. Understanding why the hoax believers' plausible-sounding claims are hogwash takes work. You have to know a few things about photography. You have to understand the weird optics of the moon's airless environment. You have to know how the moon landing equipment was designed. You have to be versed in the biology of spaceflight. And so on.
You have to dig deeper and exercise critical thinking skills.
Its similar to grasping the science of climate change. Which might partly explain the persistence of beliefs, from the hallowed halls of Congress to the corner saloon, that climate change linked to human activities is a hoax.
It can be blasted difficult sometimes to make clear the reasons why alternative global warming explanations that are regularly trotted out by climate skeptics don't work. The climate's workings, driven as they are by various forcing mechanisms, feedback loops, and differing time and space scales, make simplified explanations hard work.
Like some in the moon-landings-were-a-hoax crowd, some climate denialists exploit complexity to assert claims that appear reasonable on the surface but require a bit of parsing to tease out the nonsense hidden within.
Heres a common example: If meteorologists can't forecast the weather more than a few days out, how can climatologists project what the climate might be like decades in the future?
The answer, which takes some explanation, is that climate and weather are two different animals. An important distinction is that they operate at different time scales. Weather takes place in the short term, when chaotic variables make it nigh impossible to make an accurate forecast beyond a week. Climate operates in the long term, when variables tend to smooth out and trends can be discerned.
You can't predict precisely what the high temperature will be in Phoenix on the next Fourth of July. Thats a weather issue. You can, however, safely project that Phoenix on the Fourth of July will be hotter than Minneapolis on New Year's Day. Thats a climate issue.
In todays world, when so much is riding on making good decisions about environmental management, science literacy is a must, starting with our elected leaders. As The Economist noted in a recent profile of Energy Secretary Steven Chu: You cannot negotiate with nature. Nor can you ignore it, for it will not go away.
As obvious as the full moon.
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