Part 1 – What he said
CNBC’s program “Squawk Box” recently interviewed the new EPA chief, Scott Pruitt. In an exchange about the shape of the earth, Pruitt said this:
I think that measuring with precision the shape of the earth is something very challenging to do and there’s tremendous disagreement about the exact shape, so no, I would not agree that it’s round… But we don’t know that yet. … We need to continue the debate and continue the review and the analysis. 
Part 2 – Wait, WHAT?
Did Scott Pruitt literally say this? No. He’d be a crazy person in the 21st century to insist that a planet around which humans have traveled for centuries, and which daily satellite images show us, has a shape unknown to us. He’d be out of his job in a second, his mental state called into question. “How can the earth be anything other than round when the overwhelming evidence says it’s round?” Believe it or not, there are still people who reject that the earth is round. But, of course, none of them have been Senate-confirmed as EPA Chief.
No, the above is parody, based on what he said in his interview about climate change with search-and-replace applied to remove the mention of climate change and exchange it with statements about the shape of the earth.
Instead, Scott Pruitt believes something that is equally scientifically invalid: that humans have no clear measurable impact on the earth’s climate, and that carbon dioxide (CO2) is not an established greenhouse gas capable of executing such change. This opinion is equally scientifically absurd to believing the earth is something other than an oblate sphere. While all opinions can be equally held, not all opinions are equally valid. The latter is a common misconception. You are free to hold an opinion, but the validity is to be determined by factors external to the person – for instance, evidence from the natural world that has been determined by some reliable methodology.
To a scientist – one, like me, who daily practices the scientific method, the best way we have of establishing reliable information about the natural world – hearing Pruitt’s words about human impact on climate and the role of CO2 in climate change is akin to hearing someone insist the earth is something other than round. It has the same jarring effect on a mind attuned to discerning fact from crap. My crap detector goes off so loudly it drowns out all other mental processes. I find this quite distracting. As you can imagine, this administration is generally quite distracting.
So here is the lesson.
- Everyone is entitled to hold an opinion.
- However, not all opinions are equally valid, because opinions can be judged against reliable information.
- Science is a method for establishing reliable information about the natural world, and thus discerning whether an opinion is valid or not.
- The opinion that the earth is flat is disproven by centuries of scientific evidence to the contrary. Holding such opinion is within your first amendment rights in the U.S., but it is equally within everyone else’s first amendment rights to assert the overwhelming evidence to the contrary and call out your nonsense. The good news is that few people any longer hold this opinion in the face of all evidence to the contrary.
- The opinion that humans have no measurable effect on climate is equally disproven by a huge body of evidence dating back at least a century. Linked to this is the overwhelming evidence that CO2 plays a major role in that change and is connected directly to human activity. Holding an opinion to the contrary is a bold-faced rejection of scientifically gathered evidence – mountains of it – and is the opinion-equivalent of rejecting the round earth.
My head spins whenever someone mutters these nonsensical statements out loud. I hope you understand why, and share a little of that intellectual vertigo from this parody example.