Science by ideology
I’ve argued here and other places for the reality of anthropogenic global warming. I don’t do it a lot, mainly because it doesn’t seem to do any good.
It’s pretty obvious that the debate has become a political debate. This isn’t something recent and I don’t mean that in the trivial sense that the idea is involved in political discussions; I mean that the debate itself, which is a scientific debate, is debated as a politics instead. You’ll notice that other scientific issues that have public policy consequences, notably evolution, haven’t aren’t debated in this way. AGW seems to be the main one at the moment. Discourse inevitably suffers when this happens, as illustrated by a few recent postings around the MT blogosphere.
The primary consequence is a combination of arrogance and misdirection that never leads us to enlightenment. Let’s take this recent post over at MTPolitics, where GMan posted a link to the British TV program “The Great Global Warming Swindle.” GMan proclaims most of the country duped by global warming and proclaims it a scare tactic being used by neo-Marxists. These are, of course, political terms that are misplaced when discussing the reality of AGW (though, to be clear, not when being used to criticize political policies proposed to alleviate the danger of AGW). The documentary has been out for a while and has generated some comments by scientists in the field who provide commentary to the public, which has generally been negative. In addition to the misdirected venom, there’s also some arrogance here. Let’s take the idea that the sun is causing global warming. There’s a nice graph in the documentary, showing solar activity and temperature. They correlate quite strongly, it appears. But let’s think about this. Even if you dispute the idea of a consensus about AGW, you have to admit that lots of climate scientists (i.e. the IPCC) support the hypothesis. They are also not stupid. They are very bright people who, while obviously susceptible to personal biases, are trained in a field that rigorous testing and checking to root out errors. Now, that graph is pretty convincing, on the face of it. Are all those people just ignoring it? Covering it up? Of course not. As it turns out, there are arithmetic errors in the data for that graph. There are also many other studies concluding the opposite, such as this recent one published by the Royal Society.
That’s maybe the biggest problem with where the debate is currently. Becoming a political debate has brought with it a tendency towards “gotcha” argument. On another thread at MTPolitics a comment proclaims “Latest scientific analysis suggests that temperature increases PRECEDE CO2 increases!” Again, these are complicated issues that have very smart people working on them. Do we really think there’s no commentary on this claim? Calling it “latest” is misleading, as this evidence has been around a while and while it complicates the picture, it doesn’t invalidate AGW. However, it’s used without context to score a point, not to discover truth.
Arrogance has led to some other arguments, less “gotcha,” but still wrong. GeeGuy has attacked the use of “consensus” in arguments about AGW. Scientific consensus is a valuable piece of evidence for the public. We are obviously not all scientists trained in the disciplines necessary to critique and discuss the claims about any scientific issues. We can be scientifically literate and laymen can achieve an impressive understanding of an issue, but we have to be careful. Most of us simply do not have the necessary knowledge and must ultimately defer to expertise. However, expertise can be slippery and one expert may disagree with another. This is where consensus is useful. If we have solid agreement about what’s happening and how sure we are about it, that’s the expertise to which we must ultimately defer. Now, it is obviously frustrating to someone who is trying to understand the issues (or thinks he understands and is engaging in debate) to be presented with an argument relying on scientific consensus. Rather than thinking of this as a bludgeon, I would propose it be thought of this way: there’s an enormous group of people trained in the relevant disciplines who are contradicting your claim. Individually, some of them may be dishonest or biased, but, due to the scientific method, when they are put together many of those errors and biases are corrected. This would imply that whatever claim you make, it’s likely that they’ve seen it. It’s also likely that they’ve responded to it. Which means you should do some more research. That’s the answer to some of claims made above that I critiqued. It’s also a good rule of thumb when dealing with subjects you are not an expert in: you’re probably not original and what you’ve come up with has probably already been discussed.
In a sense, people like Andy are correct that the consensus argument is used to shut down debate. But this is not something nefarious, nor does it imply AGW believers aren’t confident in their beliefs. Endless debate is paralyzing. Debate eventually has to stop and policy decisions made. Resorting to consensus is a message to those who disagree to go back to the discussion that’s already been had. It suggests the confidence to move the debate forward, not insecurity. It could be over-confidence or arrogance, but it’s confidence nonetheless. Let’s remember: doubt and skepticism are certainly good things, but it can become unreasonable. To understand the frustration here, think about your reaction if every time you tried to bring up the issue of bacteria evolving resistance to antibiotics (something with profound consequences for our health), someone starts an argument about evolution. You would be annoyed, even if the person was well-meaning.
My point is simple: turning AGW into a political debate is bad. Those so virulently attacking the hypothesis would do well to take a step back and re-examine the evidence they have on their side. Stay away from articles in the media and look to people with expertise on the issue. Dig into the claims made and realize that this isn’t an evidence-less conspiracy against your current position. Attempting to understand the issues is always good, but understand your limits. Humility is good for anyone (and environmentalists in particular), but I would suggest it to those on the side skeptical of AGW here. To those who believe in AGW: consensus is nice, but show some interest in the issues. Much of it isn’t that complicated and you will be better equipped to deal with claims for and against AGW.
Postscript: What’s the media’s role in all this? We all know they’re constantly hoodwinked by false science and they distort good science to make it sell. The post by Andy I linked above has a good example: global cooling. A book and a couple papers proposed that idea in the 70s and Newsweek latched onto it. It was never scientific consensus, though Newsweek presented it as though it was. As that illustrates, the media deserve critique, but let’s make sure we separate the issues. When we’re talking about the reality of AGW, newspaper articles and op-eds are dangerous. Science magazines and blogs are much better, though there is obviously danger there as well.