The Corner

The Desultory Climate Change Debate

On Monday, the Cato Institute published an open letter to the president regarding climate change. In that letter — which appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and elsewhere — over 100 scientists questioned Barack Obama’s assertion that “Few challenges facing America and the world are more urgent than combating climate change. The science is beyond dispute and the facts are clear.” 

Given that it was a big media week for those scientists not ready to cash-in their life insurance policies just yet (the New York Times’s profile of legendary physicist Freeman Dyson, who likewise is skeptical that the end is near, ran on Sunday) I thought it would be interesting to see what those on the other side of the scientific divide had to say. My chosen hunting grounds were RealClimate (“Climate Science from Climate Scientists”) where I found threads here and here, Climate Progress (edited by physicist and policy bombardier Joe Romm) where I found threads here and here, and the relevant blogs and comment boards (here and here) over at the New York Times, which often attract scientists interested in commenting on the stories covered by the Gray Lady.

While I did learn a few things about the scientific debate between the panicked and the not-so-panicked, the key word here is “few.” I came away more convinced than ever that those shouting the loudest about the need to do something about climate change are not the people we should be listening to. Why? A summary of the most common rejoinders to “the skeptics” — and the logical problems associated with those rejoinders — follow.

So-and-so receives corporate funding — So what? Even profit-hungry corporations may be right about some things on some occasions — an observation that environmentalists implicitly accept in the course of other policy discussions. The point here is that motive is not a reliable indicator regarding whether an argument is correct or incorrect.

So-and-so does not publish in this field — So what? The fact that a scientist does not undertake original research on subject x does not have any bearing on whether that scientist can intelligently assess the scientific evidence forwarded in a debate on subject x. 

So-and-so works for an ideologically-charged organization — So what? The exact same issues associated with the complaint about corporate funding apply here.

So-and-so lacks sufficient credentials to be deemed an expert on this matter and we should only be listening to the experts — Didn’t stop them from giving Al Gore a Nobel Prize, did it? Besides the simple observation that this objection is obviously used erratically and only at convenience, it ignores the fact that highly credentialed experts are as often found to be wrong as less credentialed individuals.

More experts disagree with so-and-so than agree — So what? Not only is this a variation of the argument above, it also assumes that truth can be reliably determined by a show of hands. Nothing — especially in science — could be further from the truth.

An argument’s merit has nothing to do with the motives of the arguer, the credentials of the arguer, or the popularity of the argument. Full stop. No exceptions

Judging an argument’s merit by these criteria reveals one of three things about the person doing the judging, none of which inspires confidence in their ability to play role of plaintiff, judge, jury, and/or executioner in the climate debate:

–They are too lazy or too unintelligent to sort out the claims being made so they repair to these dubious intellectual short-cuts to arrive at or justify their opinion.

– They cannot tell the difference between a logical argument and an illogical argument.

– They understand full-well the illogic of the argument they are forwarding but think that you don’t.  For them, the ends (persuading you to accept their argument) justifies the means (using bad arguments).

I don’t mean to suggest that climate alarmists are (necessarily) any more prone to this sort of thing than any other policy crusader populating the blogosphere. But I find it rich to see these people loudly tell me that they’re the smart experts whose judgment should govern when even at the most fundamental level they can’t seem to think straight.           

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