• Ian Sutton

Renaissance Man and Climate Change

Aristotle – Renaissance man. His way of thinking between about different ways of knowing and education are relevant to professionals in a post-climate change world.
Aristotle: A Renaissance Man

In Chapter 18, The Net Zero Professional, of our upcoming book Net Zero by 2050: Technology for Climate Change we explore which the attributes that professionals, particularly those in the energy industries, need to have in a climate-changed world.

Who to Believe?

At a time when international conferences are stressing the dangers posed by climate change and resource depletion, we learn more and more about how untrustworthy our news sources are. For example, just last month the ‘Facebook Papers’ revealed the degree to which Facebook and other companies that it owns were involved in the violence associated with the recent presidential election. As one Facebook employee said,

I came here <Facebook> hoping to effect change and improve society, but all I've seen is atrophy and abdication of responsibility

One of the many challenges that we all face, particularly those who are involved in developing climate change programs, is sorting out truth from “untruths/lies”, and from sincere, but misguided, opinions.

There are no easy answers to this conundrum — indeed, philosophers have been wrestling with these issues for as long as humans have been around. But determining what is true has a particular sense of urgency now. We are called upon to make enormous and irreversible changes to the way society is structured based on the predictions of anonymous experts.

A starting point in responding to this challenge is to distinguish between “scientific knowledge” and “educational acquaintance”. Non-specialists need to be able to judge the statements of specialists in areas such as climate change. Also, those specialists must recognize the limits of their expertise. For example, a scientist who has developed powerful and accurate models to do with the rise in atmospheric temperatures is not an expert in other areas, such as carbon capture and sequestration. When it comes to evaluating carbon capture technology that scientist is no longer an expert, but he can be sufficiently well educated in that technology to be able to offer a valid opinion.

Renaissance Man

In his treatise On the Parts of Animals, written almost 2,500 years ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle said,

Every systematic science, the humblest and the noblest alike, seems to admit of two distinct kinds of proficiency; one of which may be properly called scientific knowledge of the subject, while the other is a kind of educational acquaintance with it. For an educated man should be able to form a fair off-hand judgment as to the goodness or badness of the method used by a professor in his exposition. To be educated is in fact to be able to do this. 

Let us unpack this profound statement. The his book A History of Knowledge — Past, Present, and Future by Charles van Doren provides guidance.

  1. There is a distinction between “scientific knowledge” and “educational acquaintance”. With regard to climate change climate scientists possess the first, the remainder of us fall into the second category.

  2. A person who possesses “educational acquaintance” with a topic can differentiate between sense and nonsense.

  3. He or she has a working knowledge in a wide range of disciplines outside the area of immediate interest. Those disciplines include not just the sciences but what we now call the liberal arts such as philosophy, history, literature and art.

  4. This concept of “education” created the “Uni-” in “University” — a goal that has been pretty well abandoned now. It also defines the true meaning of the world liberal — someone who is liberated to think freely and form balanced conclusions.

For most of human history what we now refer to as the science and the liberal arts were not separate disciplines. The idea of a Renaissance person would have been taken for granted. However, in the 17th century the two ways of thought started to diverge and have continued to do so ever since.

Two Cultures

This polarization is sheer loss to us all.
C. P. Snow said that there were two cultures: science and arts, and the two were not communicating with one another.
​C.P. Snow (1905-1980)

In the year 1959 the author C.P. Snow gave a famous lecture on this theme at Cambridge University in England. The lecture was entitled Two Cultures, and was later published as a book with the same title. He himself claimed to have a foot in both camps (“By training I was a scientist: by vocation I was a writer”). The following quotation summarizes his argument,

I believe the intellectual life of the whole of western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups . . . At one pole we have the literary intellectuals, who incidentally while no one was looking took to referring to themselves as ‘intellectuals’ as though there were no others . . . at the other scientists, and as the most representative, the physical scientists.

Snow is critical of people in both camps, but he is particularly critical of the people on the ‘Arts’ side. Of them he says,

They still like to pretend that the traditional culture is the whole of ‘culture’, as though the natural order didn’t exist . . . As though the scientific edifice of the physical world was not, in its intellectual depth, complexity and articulation, the most beautiful and wonderful collective work of the mind of man. . . As with the tone-deaf, they don’t know what they miss.
Once or twice . . . I have asked how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of, Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s? I now believe that if I had asked an even simpler question—such as, What do you mean by mass, or acceleration, which is the scientific equivalent of saying, Can you read? — not more than one in ten of the highly educated would have felt that I was speaking the same language.

Science, he says,

. . . has got to be assimilated along with, and as part and parcel of, the whole of our mental experience . . .


I am a chemical engineer. For part of my career I worked on chemical plants that made plastics. Those plastics have good and bad consequences. Shrink wrap for foods is good because it keeps the food hygienic; plastic trash on the beaches is bad. However, as a person who was an expert in the manufacture of plastics I was no more qualified than any other citizen to have an opinion regarding the ethic of plastics and their use. So it is with climate science — a person does not have to be an expert before saying what they think about issues such as shrinking glaciers or devastating wildfires.

So it is with climate change and climate experts. These experts may have detailed knowledge in one limited area, but that is all. It is the responsibility of non-specialists who have an “educational acquaintance” with climate issues to judge the findings and conclusions of reports with a critical eye, and to put those findings and conclusions in context. When they do so, these non-specialists are behaving as Renaissance men and women.