Here’s an ANONYMOUS POST that was written in response to the INHOFE GLOBAL WARMING ARTICLE linked below. Since the post raises points worth addressing, I’m publishing it here. My response follows.
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.
The first point on which we differ is the deference you show toward scientists who presumably deal with matters about which laymen must be silent. This reverential attitude is a serious mistake that puts scientists on an almost superhuman level. In my prior blog posting, INCONVENIENT TRUTHS—FOR AL GORE, I argue that the consensus of scientific opinion is as susceptible to social influences and self-delusion as the general populace. That article refers specifically to the “scientific” backing for eugenics that was common in the 1920’s. I’m glad that folks back then weren’t as deferential to the “men in white” as you seem to be. C.S. Lewis’ classic work, THE ABOLITION OF MAN, is a helpful antidote against this attitude, as is also Aldous Huxley’s BRAVE NEW WORLD.
Secondly, you suggest that Richard Lindzen is almost alone in his views and you confidently assert that a “consensus” exists in the field of atmospheric science on global warming. Additionally, you imply that Lindzen objects to that consensus because of the publicity he’s getting. (Using your own standard of expertise, I think you ought to refrain from engaging in psychological analysis unless you have the appropriate credentials.) What you don’t acknowledge is that a large number of “dissidents” exist, scholars mentioned specifically by Senator Inhofe. These scientists emphasize specific data that is ignored by global warming enthusiasts and, of course, by the media. Your willingness to leave the hashing out of these matters to folks in the discipline, without any “outside” interference betrays, I think, a naïve view about the sociology of science. You are happy to let scientists do their thing (by majority vote of “those that count,” presumably) in a way you would never agree to if the professionals wore business suits. (Scientists are different!) At the same time you ignore the role that media coverage has on who is and who isn’t considered a credible spokesman and on what evidence gets prime time coverage and what evidence never sees the network light of day. (Who made CAIR the go-to organization on all things Islamic in America?) Do you expect the media to “stand back” patiently while “objective scientists” huddle up and observe “the evidence”?
It has been my experience that most scientists are as abysmally ignorant about the history of their enterprise as they are about its philosophical premises. Most of the rank and file (This isn’t true of many of the best scientists.) assume, as perhaps you do, that science proceeds incrementally, adding bit by bit to a store of “facts” that just keep getting better and better. As Thomas Kuhn, among others, has noted, science proceeds incrementally (to the extent that it does at all) only within the framework of fundamental paradigms. These paradigms, however, are subject to radical changes that often redirect and revolutionize the interpretation of prior data. Thus, epicycles within a geocentric universe gave way to a heliocentric universe with planets following slightly out of kilter circular (and later elliptical) orbits. Likewise, Newton’s infinite, uniform, mathematical universe was replaced by a universe where time is relative and space warped.
More importantly, the less “fixed” paradigms are within their disciplines, the more “facts” and “theories” become intertwined. This observation is fairly obvious in the field of psychology but it applies just as well to “dynamic” and highly unpredictable models within disciplines that focus on the earth’s atmosphere. Here one model produces results that are touted as facts. A different model produces a different set of facts. If ever there was a scientific situation that lends itself to manipulation and wishful thinking and political skullduggery, this is it—dynamic variables, a vast number of variables, and the promise of being at the center of an effort to “save humanity”--with the help of generous foundation and government grants.
It is the myth of “incremental” knowledge that leads ignorant laymen to assume that any consensus hypothesis, no matter how ephemeral, moots any historical objections. Science, on this view, is always advancing and, thus, always “closer to the truth.” This worshipful StarTrekism confers practical infallibility on scientific opinions of every stripe since the time of the Enlightenment and ignores the fact that a litany of radical reversals is incompatible with the notion of incrementalism.
Senator Inhofe, who (contrary to your implication) doesn’t claim technical scientific expertise, does possess the ability to read and to publicize an historical record that many scientists and the mainstream media gladly ignore. That record shows an almost humorous movement, back and forth, on the issue of global cooling-warming-cooling-warming. And with the last two theoretical scares, active government intervention and suspension of industrial development was touted as the “cure” for both these maladies—global cooling and global warming! As Karl Popper observed, when any possible scenario fits your theory, what is at work isn’t science, it’s ideology. And the ideologies at work here are political and anti-industrial.
Since I have a fairly respectable background in the philosophy of science, I am reluctant to put myself on the same level of scientific ignorance that you place yourself. I suspect you have never taken post-graduate courses in the Philosophy of Science or read Karl Popper’s contributions to the subject or persevered through Alfred North Whitehead’s “Science and the Modern World.” Perhaps you’ve looked at Thomas Kuhn’s work, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” but probably not “The Copernican Revolution.” Nor, I dare say, have you ever had a post-graduate class that correlated scientific perspectives with the cultural milieus in which those ideas flourished. As a “semi-professional” philosopher of science I think I have enough expertise to distinguish between highly tentative theories that are hugely susceptible to political manipulation and more reliable theories that exist in a calmer social atmosphere. I think I understand fairly well the psychological, sociological, and political dynamics that are in play when it comes to the global warming issue.
As to the “cost” of being wrong on this issue, the question assumes there is no “cost” to a policy that would divert trillions of dollars toward an effort that “might” be environmentally useless, or even harmful. If you bothered to read the Inhofe speech carefully—a proposition for which I have no tangible evidence—you would see that the funds that “may” be squandered on a political boondoggle could unquestionably be employed to address a number of needs around the globe—starting with the eradication of malaria. That is the priority of one group of scientists who aren’t on the media’s call-for-comment list. Furthermore, the “anti-industrial” Kyoto agenda of eco-fascists will surely, in any case, condemn billions of human beings to a life of impoverishment and disease—all to the greater glory of Paul Ehrlich and his loyal band of misanthropes.
As for your suggestion about open discussion of the global warming issue—that is precisely the position I am advocating. YOUR side claims, via its delusional demagogue, Al Gore, that the question has been settled. Read Karl Popper’s THE OPEN SOCIETY AND ITS ENEMIES to see what label he would attach to global warming’s biggest mouthpiece. Whitehead refers to such statements—proffered frequently by a “consensus” of scientists—dogmatism.