Culture Criticism with a Philosophical and Literary Flair. Diagnosing Moral Malpractice since 1989.
Part of the problem with public debates about complex scientific subjects like the anthropogenic cause of global warming is that non-experts think they are qualified to make judgments based on simplistic reasoning and incomplete evidence. “Of course there can’t be global warming,” lay critics claim, “because the East Antarctic ice shelf actually expanded.” The truth is that you and I are not able to make knowledgeable judgments about the specific claims of science, and that facts, like the growth of the eastern ice shelf, that would seem on the face of it to contradict the science in fact do not. Instead, the public must rely on the scientific community to inform us of the state of research and the degree of consensus and uncertainty. Certainly there are respected academic scientists—especially Richard Lindzen of MIT—who strongly disagree with the claims of many researchers in the field, and we need to be aware of such dissent. However, a great majority of the relevant scientific community believes that global warming is at least in part human caused, and that the environmental repercussions have a significant chance of being disastrous. One only need turn to journals like Nature or Science, rather than to the NYT, Gore, or Inhofe to get a more firm understanding of issues and the state of the scientific community.Now Lindzen’s claim that funding issues promote BS science is certainly on some level legitimate; but how much is it impacting the science of global warming? Don’t forget that Lindzen himself is one of few prominent scientists on record against global warming, one who owes his popular fame precisely to his opposition: he is the darling of all those who are critical of anthropogenic global warming precisely because there are so few of his kind. If we are going to let conspiracy theories rule the debate, it would be all too easy impugn his motives. How do you suggest that we weigh Lindzen’s claim in assessing global warming science? Scientific truth-claims can only be validated by specialized scientists working in a related set of disciplines. I cannot, for instance, form my own informed opinion on the problems that string theory analyzes. Certainly we should be aware of and to the extent possible fix structural biases, but just because Lindzen claims large-scale bias does not in fact mean that there is one. Only the scientific community can evaluate such claims. To the extent that Lindzen helps to exhort scientists to greater disciplinary rigor, the better; but we should not mistake his accusations as reason to dismiss global warming science.If liberals sometimes overstate the claims of the scientific community on global warming, it is because the public is too addicted to their prolific consumption, and Republicans too addicted to oil money and corporate interests, to care. We have a serious problem here, Mr. Kirk: the scientific community thinks there could be a real chance of major environmental consequences deriving from our current practices. Scientists aren’t sure of the extent of those consequences (a few admittedly think it will be zero), but many think there is real probability of disaster: the results may not just be ruining La Jolla’s year-round surfing weather, but large-scale displacement of populations in those areas least able to handle it: the third world. How then can we get this issue before the public in all its complexity? We need real public debate on this issue. Too often, the conservative tactic is too dismiss the near consensus in the scientific community, claiming that the science is insufficiently developed while simultaneously providing scant funding for further research. My point is not engage in political scorekeeping. Both parties have serious problems and moral failings. Rather, I want to know what you think should be done about global warming given the issues at hand. I would argue that: 1) there needs to be significant public airing of the state of climate science, the degree to which consensus exists, the uncertainty of models and predictions; the potential impact of various likely scenarios; 2) that there needs to be large-scale public debate around acceptable strategies for reducing greenhouse gas admissions given the risks and likelihoods of various scenarios. Unfortunately, the radical skeptics of climate science, of those who seek to dismiss the issue as purely conspiratorial, are major obstacles to such discussion. Let us not forget the global consequences that will follow if certain models prove right. The stakes for the future COULD be extremely high.
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