originally published in the Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Universities (2009) Vol 2, 85-95.
Somewhat similarly, at least in some schools of Buddhism, teachings are transmitted from master to student through generations of an accredited lineage. Some distinguished Buddhist teachers are also remembered for generations. In each case the reasons for this transmitted respect are the quality of the teaching and the clarity of the insight.
Similarly, if we live in a temperate zone in the Northern hemisphere, such as the United Kingdom or Korea, we can confidently predict that July will be warmer than January. However, we can never predict with total accuracy the maximum temperature on any day in July, even on the day before. This lack of absolute proof of many aspects of science does not invalidate science itself.
In the same way, respect for Buddhism does not, in my view, require complete faith in all aspects of its teaching. Many Buddhist principles can be tested and understood from personal experience, such as the generally beneficial effects which thoughts of loving-kindness bestow on the thinker.
It might be tempting suppress thoughts about such people and animals confronting this scarcity, but if we do, then might we not create the cause for others to one day be indifferent to us? Similarly, if we start to empathise with the life of a slum dweller in a low-lying, flood-prone area or the insecurity of a debt-burdened farmer hoping for rain, then this reality (of adverse environmental change) becomes more real and more pressing. Many interlinked forms of evidence inform us of environmental crises in the large and growing literature on this subject.
Recently (at time I wrote this) the science of climate change attracted sustained and virulent criticism,22 following the theft of private emails from the UK’s University of East Anglia23 and the discovery of minor errors in the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.24 Sceptics of climate change claim that they have identified numerous errors in climate change science.
Some people might think that such debates are like those between rival religious sects. However, there is a crucial difference. With very few exceptions, the critics of science are not trained scientists. The few scientists that make speeches and write critical papers, do not publish on climate change in the scientific literature. Some critics of climate science claim that the almost universal failure of scientific critics to publish in the literature is due to a form of “groupthink,” a collective taboo maintained by scientific editors and peer reviewers.
It is true that some pervasive beliefs in science have taken decades to overturn, such as the view of continental drift. First postulated in 1858, this theory was dismissed until the development of plate tectonic theory in the 1960s.25 And, there are many similar examples from health and medicine.