(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
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I encourage us for the next few minutes to assume an unbiased and objective mindset. Let’s review a set of facts I’ll present and then make a reasonable conclusion about them.
We all know about the two recent hurricanes which struck the U.S. Never before have two hurricanes with such strength hit our country in the same year. Hurricane Harvey caused unprecedented flooding in Houston. Nearly fifty inches of rain fell in that area within a forty-eight hour period – the most ever recorded there in that amount of time. Weather experts say it was a one in one-thousand year event.
Hurricane Irma completely devastated multiple Caribbean islands. It became a category 5 storm earlier and farther to the east than any other recorded hurricane. At one point, it nearly exceeded the upper limits of hurricane strength categories with winds over 190 miles per hour – something unprecedented in history. When Irma reached Florida, it was over four-hundred miles across – entirely covering the state. Only by Irma losing some strength over Cuba was an even worse Florida catastrophe averted.
Many people believe climate change helped make these hurricanes stronger than they would otherwise have been. Proof of that connection is not direct or absolute. Nevertheless, both hurricanes traveled over ocean waters that were very warm – much warmer than what has been normal over the past hundred years. Warm oceans evaporate at higher rates – and water vapor is hurricane fuel. In fact, three hurricanes are churning in the Atlantic as I speak – one possibly following Irma’s path.
It’s not just tropical hurricanes that are causing worry. Storms of all varieties – blizzards, tornadoes and torrential rains are increasingly more intense. Their levels of rainfall or snowfall far surpass what used to be considered extreme.
On the opposite end of weather, droughts are more intense and longer lasting than historically normal. The California drought that ended this past winter lasted over five years. Water aquifer levels below ground were brought to never seen before lows. Parts of Africa continue to suffer longer than normal droughts that are rendering many areas uninhabitable.
Warmer ocean temperatures are also blamed for melting large areas of glacial ice – in Greenland, the North Pole and in Antarctica. Such ice is thousands of years old but it has only recently rapidly melted. In July, an ice berg the size of Rhode Island melted enough so that it separated from Antarctica. It’s now drifting north to melt and further increase sea levels.
In the North Pole arctic area, sea ice is now mostly gone during summer months when only a few years ago it never melted. The Arctic ocean is thus open in the summer between northern Europe across the North Pole to Alaska and Asia. A luxury cruise liner just completed a voyage across the Arctic sea for the first time in history. Once again, warmer than normal ocean and air temperatures are the cause.
Finally, rising sea levels due to melting glaciers and ice bergs are affecting low lying coastal areas. The city of Miami regularly has its streets flooded during full moon high tides. Sea levels across the globe have risen in the last one hundred years by almost a foot. At that rate of increase, cities from New York to Miami to London to Hong Kong will be under water a hundred years from now.
Few people doubt that climate change is occurring. Most scientists, however, assert climate change is caused by rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere which creates a greenhouse effect and higher temperatures. This, they say, is primarily due to one factor: human caused air pollution. Other human caused air pollution comes from gasses in spray cans, from the raising of cattle and other ruminant animals that produce methane flatulence, and from widespread deforestation of trees.
Scientists say climate change can be caused by natural factors such as increased solar radiation, a change in the Earth’s orbit, or variations in the reflectivity of the Earth’s land mass. In hundreds of studies, however, several facts have been proven. Natural factors that could cause climate change have been ruled out. Solar radiation hitting the earth has remained constant. So has the Earth’s orbit.
On the other hand, human caused factors that could cause global warming have all increased. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have steadily increased over the last hundred years. Gasses from aerosol sprays have also increased. And, large areas of the earth that used to be forested have been cut down to make room for the raising of livestock.
All of this has led the International Panel of Climate Change Scientists to conclude recently that, “It is extremely likely that human activities have exerted a substantial net warming influence on Earth’s climate since 1750. And by ‘extremely likely,’ we conclude a probability greater than 95%.”
Many people, however, strongly disagree with that conclusion. They believe climate changes are natural and that there is no direct evidence to link the events I’ve recited and human made pollution. Indeed, they claim the evidence is circumstantial and thus weak.
The definition of circumstantial evidence, however, is any fact that relies on an inference to connect it to a conclusion —much like a fingerprint at the scene of a crime implies someone who left the fingerprint is the criminal. By contrast, direct evidence supports the truth of a conclusion explicitly – like a video showing a person commit a crime. In other words, direct evidence is evidence that does not need inference to prove a conclusion.
To prove a scientific conclusion using circumstantial evidence – like human caused climate change, one piece of evidence cannot be relied upon. Scientists must use the sum of many circumstantial facts to reasonably prove something – much like the International Panel of Climate Change Scientists used hundreds of studies to conclude they are 95% certain people are causing it. Indeed, in criminal convictions that use circumstantial evidence, the standard is that the collected pieces of circumstantial facts must show guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. That does not mean guilt beyond any doubt.
According to the magazine Psychology Today, there are three kinds of human ignorance. One is ordinary ignorance which means that one simply does not know something. A fact has not yet been learned. There is nothing wrong with ordinary ignorance. Another kind of ignorance is called higher ignorance which means a person acknowledges his or her ignorance on a certain subject and has the intention to gain knowledge to erase the ignorance. Higher ignorance admits there are some things which cannot be 100% proven by direct evidence.
The third kind of ignorance is willful ignorance which means that a person intentionally knows what is reasonably true, but chooses to ignore that. Willful ignorance is when a person refuses to abandon their beliefs and instead learn or accept knowledge that contradicts his or her beliefs.
My point and the subject of my message today is this: our goal as spiritual people is to embrace higher ignorance and work against willful ignorance. For most of us, that is a common sense argument. Most of us accept the higher form of ignorance which says we cannot absolutely prove human caused climate change, but an examination of the facts says it is reasonably true. That contrasts with the willful ignorance of those who deny it.
The same is true of Biblical creationists who claim God made humans and animals only six thousand years ago. They refuse to abandon their beliefs even in the face of countless pieces of scientific circumstantial evidence indicating there has been a natural evolution of species over billions of years that has led to present day humans and animals. Are there direct pieces of fossil evidence showing a sequence of one lower life form having evolved to its more advanced cousin? There are a few but not a couple complete sequence of fossils. Just as with climate change, such direct evidence is very rare because its difficult in almost all matters to directly prove something. We almost always must rely on circumstantial evidence – and our reason – to conclude what is true.
It is easy for me and perhaps for you to point fingers at those who deny the science behind climate change or evolution. I’m a rational person who would never want to be willfully ignorant. And yet, if I honestly examine all my thoughts and actions, I am often willfully ignorant. I’m blind to many of my faults. I can refuse to heed medical advice, I don’t always act, speak or listen as I know I should – with decency, kindness and respect. I admit to holding implicit bias within me – stuff that I hate but it’s nevertheless there.
Psychologists say there are three reasons why I and others are willfully ignorant. First, I can be what is called a “cognitive miser.” I do not cognitively examine the evidence of something if I don’t feel I have to. As I related in a message last month, I avoided having a colonoscopy for over seven years even though I knew facts prove that for anyone over 50, it saves lives. When I finally did have the test in June, a small but treatable cancer was found and a few weeks later surgically removed. I will be fine. But had my willful ignorance continued, I could be standing here five years from now with a much worse prognosis.
I can also be a cognitive miser about my flaws and weaknesses. I often fail to examine my deficiencies and thereby don’t try to improve myself and grow. This willful ignorance about my health or my weaknesses is itself a flaw. Self-awareness, however, requires I embrace higher ignorance and admit the things about me that I refuse to accept. Only then might I embark on a useful endeavor to grow, learn and change.
A second psychological reason I can be willfully ignorant is that I – like many people – prefer conformity. Like many people, I frequently rely on group-think to direct my actions and thoughts. Conformity has positive aspects that can encourage us to cooperate, find common ground and live at peace. But it also leads people to ignore alternative facts, ways of life and things that go against popular beliefs.
The third and last reason people are willfully ignorant is that most hate to admit when they are wrong. White supremacists cannot admit the abundant studies that show Blacks, Hispanics and other people of color have equal or higher intelligence capabilities than do whites. Fundamentalist Christians cannot admit portions of the Bible are wrong. Far too many politicians and those who support them dangerously refuse to believe people are causing climate change. For these people, misguided or bigoted beliefs define who they are no matter what the facts otherwise show.
The antidote for willful ignorance is education and a willingness to acquire new knowledge. Indeed, the foundation of all education is a humble admission of ignorance. I assume that’s why many of us attend here. We have the humility to know what we don’t know and the courage to want to learn and grow. Our presence here is also an implicit admission that we are flawed – or at least I am! Any spiritual community is worthless unless it serves as a symbolic school for the flawed, as opposed to the pretense that it is a museum of the perfect.
In a gentle and loving community like ours, we encourage, inform and, at times, hold each other accountable. We do this not to judge, demean or shame. Instead, we come here with a common desire to be more self-aware and then to change for the better. And that in turn will help us change the world for the better.
That is why higher ignorance is crucial for us and for the world. It’s why willful ignorance is so dangerous. Higher ignorance is firmly rooted in using reason to conclude, with circumstantial evidence, what is true and what is not. And so I encourage us one and all to be be gentle educators of others about climate change, evolution, God and other universally important subjects. But I also encourage us to examine ourselves and find where we too can be willfully ignorant – in our flaws of bias, arrogance, disrespect, and unkindness that we refuse to acknowledge or change. By embracing a higher ignorance, we will create beautiful change – in ourselves and in the world.
I wish you all much peace and joy.