So my own personal checklist of who stands where on global warming now goes something like this:
•My current employers, the American Council on Science and Health, have no official position, partly because it’s out of our personal-health bailiwick but also because our hundreds of scientist advisors are probably divided on the issue, and we tend not to weigh in on things unless it’s very clear that the overwhelming consensus of scientists agrees on something (not to be confused with the overwhelming consensus of scientists-one-likes, scientists-who-are-pithy-enough-to-get-quoted-a-lot, or scientists-vaguely-referenced-by-the-U.N., whatever their respective positions).
•My previous employer, John Stossel, is understandably skeptical of the whole climate change crusade — given how often environmental alarmists have been wrong about other things and how quickly they tend to seize upon increased government regulation as the answer to every problem real or imagined — and he’ll probably touch on that in his segment on global warming on ABC’s 20/20 this Friday (October 19), 8pm Eastern (9 Central and Mountain, 8 Pacific, I think — check local listings).
•My friend for two and a half decades, Chuck Blake, who I’m confident is more resistant to the politicization and moralizing of scientific thinking than anyone else I’ve ever known well — it wouldn’t be too terribly unfair to characterize his philosophy as: if you can’t reliably quantify it, it’s nonsense (or at least should be regarded as little more than entertainment and talk) — and who has long chastised me for even having political and moral positions at all, since they cannot be empirically verified in the laboratory-worthy sense, is a statistics expert, and he insists that global warming mania is absolutely insane, tiny trends that don’t amount to any clear implications, being talked up as sure signs of doom.
•I’m sticking with Chuck, even as some of my libertarian (or near-libertarian) acquaintances soften on the issue and, as a sort of fallback, turn their attention to the (perfectly reasonable) topic of finding cheaper remediation solutions than the ones the Al Gores of the world prefer, since the latter, if taken to their logical conclusions, would not entail mere solar panel deployment or weather-stripping but something more akin to destroying 25% of our current levels of production and rolling back standards of living to those of the mid-twentieth century.
Minuscule variations in climate conditions — easily swamped by the margins of error in the predictions or, in more concrete terms, by a typical higher-than-normal tide — are routinely used to make drastic long-term predictions, despite few of the climatologists’ old predictions ever coming true. We are expected to take action now, in very expensive ways, with limited and contradictory data, about the most complex and poorly-understood systems science has ever attempted to study, in order to deal with problems that may or may not seem important or hard to deal with a hundred years from now when sea levels may or may not have risen, say, an inch — if we’re still using oil a century from now (if that in fact is correlated to the problem [if there is one]) — and by which time we will surely have a better grip on both the science and the means of remediation unless something terribly, terribly strange happens to civilization in the interim (as some eco-apocalyptics would very much like you to believe it might).
ACSH may not have a position on the issue, but working at that organization certainly provides a daily education in how the human mind lights more easily upon scare-scenarios and apocalypse narratives than on more rational wait-for-better-data messages. And it has taught me how routinely the tragic telephone-game occurs in which weak science data, turned into soundbites by media, also turns into deafening moral pronouncements from activists and politicians. Most troubling, since we live in a flurry of complex data, the job has taught me how cherry-picking of data ceases to seem like cherry-picking if the pickers — whether for moral reasons or just for the sake of efficiency — think they already know what’s going on and can fit each new data point into a comfy little story or catechism they already know.
It happens not only with almost every health scare story in the news but, frankly, with almost every story in the news, as my six years at ABC (before my six years so far at ACSH) taught me.
The last thing a busy journalist wants to hear is that he’s got the whole story wrong. The last thing readers want to hear is that the real story is going to be complex, full of uncertainty, possessed of far more than two sides, and, yes, boring (the universe never promised you a rose garden that could “provide miracle cures!” nor one that will “kill someone you love!”). The last thing politicians want to hear is that increasing their power over the private sector may not be warranted. And the last thing committee heads, whether at the U.N. or at Nobel HQ, want to hear is that their imprimatur on a one-paragraph version of an idea does not sweep under the rug the countless little piecemeal uncertainties that went into producing the apparent party line (a Wall Street Journal op-ed today by a climate scientist notes just one of countless examples of how every climatic change now becomes the latest poster child for an implied single, monolithic “global warming” phenomenon: we aren’t sure what’s melting the snow on Mt. Kilimanjaro, but it appears to have something to do with direct sunlight, not atmospheric warming, since the air remains well below freezing atop Kilimanjaro).
Whenever you hear someone speak of “the consensus” that global warming is occurring, as if all scientists agree not only on the IPCC report basics but on their most dire-possible spin, it is as ridiculous and offensive — given the complexity of the science and the narrowness of most individual scientists’ specialized, tentative niche claims — as saying that all the contributors to (and all the footnoted individuals in) a multi-volume encyclopedia on zoology agree with the editors’ “consensus statement” about what must be done about the local feral cat problem.
Getting one thing right — which is rare enough in the fledgling science of climatology — doesn’t magically mean the alarmists have gotten every other prediction right (the climate is far more complex than people realize — ice sheets can be melting in one region while thickening in another, just for starters, and we’re not even always in agreement about how best to measure it). Similarly, corruption at the Department of Housing and Urban Development is not, by itself, sufficient evidence that government cannot work and must be abolished — much as I might wish (much as we all might wish) argument were that easy.
There’s never really a “last word” in science, but Friday’s Stossel piece should at least start some interesting conversations.