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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Stopping debate on a question before you're convinced that anyone can know the answer

The marvellously asymmetrical Megan McArdle, who's guest-blogging at InstaPundit, strikes me as a smart and articulate and appealing person. I don't know the details of her education in science, but I don't find it implausible to presume that it exceeds my own. And perhaps in this post, Ms. McArdle expressed herself with less than her typical care — trying to get into that "Insta" mode? But I have two reactions to this bit:

I think there are a lot of questions about global warming: how much, and what, should be done. However, I regard two questions as basically no longer worth debating, at least by people with my level of science education:

1) Is AGW [Anthropogenic Global Warming] happening?
2) Should we do something about it?

The first is a technical question that seems to be largely settled; when you've convinced Ron Bailey it's happening, you've convinced me.

First reaction: If you genuinely have a thorough-going education in the science relevant to issues regarding claims of dangerous man-made global warming (a phrase I'm using without at all accepting its premise, mind you), then why does your being convinced depend on proponents of the theory convincing someone else, be that Mr. Bailey or anyone else? Isn't that another way of saying that you don't have the thorough-going education in the relevant science? (In Ms. McArdle's case, I reject the alternative explanation, which is laziness.)

Second reaction: My own training and profession includes evaluating highly credentialed "experts" in all sorts of subjects daily. Specifically, I examine, and sometimes cross-examine, them with an eye toward helping jurors (and me) understand the gist of what they're saying, and usually with an eye toward either supporting their credibility or else pointing out reasons why their expert conclusions ought to be suspect (even to jurors or other non-experts who lack their expertise).

I don't have to be a climatologist, for example, to understand this two-part argument made by some well-credentialed climatologists: First, current science is still a long way from having any thorough-going understanding of the mechanisms of long-term climate change or short-term weather, and such understanding as we do have can lead to calculations that tie up the most powerful supercomputers for weeks on end. Second, the margin of error for the extrapolations being made from the very limited amount of genuinely reliable historical data on weather and climate which we do have substantially exceeds the degree of climate change being postulated as attributable to man-made causes (as opposed to climate cycles that have occurred before man could even arguably have much affected them).

That amounts to an argument being made by some (granted, not all) well-credentialed scientists to the effect that not even well credentialed scientists have enough reliable data to be sure enough about the conclusions of dangerous man-made global warming theory proponents to justify turning national economies upside down over it. Even more succinctly: At least some presumably smart scientists are saying, "Ain't none of us smart enough yet to bet the ranch on this stuff, and we don't have the data of sufficient reliability that we'd need if we were."

Until someone persuades me that that is wrong, I'm not going to bet the ranch based on Al Gore's or [fill-in-the-blank with the name of your favorite smart person or "expert"]'s say-so. I'm more than a bit worried that doing so would be like betting my health on an expert who prescribes radical treatments to readjust my phlogiston or chakra balances, or to vent some of my admitted ill humours (I'm especially prone to an excess of splentic black bile).

And precisely because Megan's own professional expertise is, broadly speaking, the value of the ranch which is being bet (economics), I'm surprised that she's willing to, either. She writes: "I think America needs a whopping big carbon tax (and am braced for the flood of mail I know this declaration will trigger)." Oy. Count me as whoppingly-bigtime opposed. But I do generally agree with her observations about the unlikelihood of political solutions to the problem, if there indeed is one.

Posted by Beldar at 03:36 PM in Current Affairs | Permalink


Other weblog posts, if any, whose authors have linked to Stopping debate on a question before you're convinced that anyone can know the answer and sent a trackback ping are listed here:


(1) Kent made the following comment | Mar 14, 2007 6:02:08 PM | Permalink

If it makes you feel better, I'm a Ph.D. astronomer (and therefore presumably more science-educated than Meg) who remains skeptical of AGW. I find it an interesting and plausible theory. Unfortunately, there are other interesting and plausible theories out there. As a lawyer, I think you can take it from there.

(2) dchamil made the following comment | Mar 14, 2007 6:27:24 PM | Permalink

Let's recall that the tradition of science is that any question can be re-opened by anyone for any reason or no reason. There are no matters which are received wisdom and which, therefore, may not be questioned. In this way, we may dispose of the canard that all right-thinking scientists believe in anthropogenic global warming, and so it may not be questioned.

(3) Mark L made the following comment | Mar 14, 2007 8:01:11 PM | Permalink

The real issue is less whether we are experiencing global warming than whether humans are causing it.

It would be surprising if the world were not getting warmer. Everyone seem to forget that we are emerging from a period know as "The Little Ice Age." If you have two brain cells to rub together, you might conclude that the reason a period is called a "Little Ice Age" is because it was COLDER than the period that preceded it. Which implies that the world was colder than normal. Which implies that we may be returning to . . . like, NORMAL . . . temperature ranges.

In 1000-1200 AD you could grow grain crops in Greenland. That is WHY it was called Greenland. It is still too cold to grow grain in the old Viking settlements on Greenland.

Mars is experiencing, too is experiencing warming on the same magnitude as Earth.

This means one of two things:

1. The warming we are experiencing is man-made -- and Mars is warming at the same rate as the Earth because of the greenhouse gasses produced by such things as Spirit and Odyssey.


2. It is a natural phenomena, caused by periodic heating and cooling of the sun (known to be slightly variable) which man is unable to much affect.

Those who favor explanation (1) are kin to those that 400 years ago rejected the Copernican theory because it displaced man from his rightful position as the center of the universe. In a real sense, a lot of this "man-made" global warming stuff being peddled is an attempt to reclaim centrality. It is a statement that, see -- we matter. We Really Matter.

The most pernicious thing about carbon taxes and other such horse pucky is that it allows collectivists to again run people's lives. The 20th-century collectivist follies (socialism, communism, and fascism) did not contribute to quality of life -- they increased misery. Having been discredited one way, they are now intent on pushing their way back onto center stage with enviro-nonsense.

(4) The Drill SGT made the following comment | Mar 15, 2007 7:50:57 AM | Permalink

What Mark said:

to give the bullet list

1. Is the earth getting warmer? probably
2. Is CO2 increasing? apparently
3. Are they correlated? probably
4. Is there a causal relationship? Possibly
5. Which is causing the other? Not sure
6. Is Man responsible for GW rather than volcano's or solar radiation? perhaps
7. If man is responsible, could we do anything meaningful? not likely
8. What would be the costs? High

PS: a Note on Mark's comment. During the period 1000ish to 1700ish, Europe (perhaps the world) was in a hot spell. Much Hotter than today as evidenced by Greenland. That was a boom time for economies with surplus food production which facilitated the growth of civilization.

(5) DRJ made the following comment | Mar 15, 2007 5:28:03 PM | Permalink

Megan obviously didn't read the latest from Professor Bjarne "Global Warming is More Political than Scientific" Andresen, University of Copenhagen professor of thermodynamics and his collaborators, Canadian Professors Christopher Essex from the University of Western Ontario and Ross McKitrick of the University of Guelph.

(6) DRJ made the following comment | Mar 15, 2007 5:30:11 PM | Permalink

Here's a link for my comment since it apparently didn't work last time: http://www.upi.com/NewsTrack/Science/danish_scientist_global_warming_is_a_myth/20070315-012154-7403r/

(7) Ric Locke made the following comment | Mar 15, 2007 6:04:28 PM | Permalink

Actually there is a political solution to Global Warming. It is, in fact, the solution being proposed or, rather, demanded.

The massive injustices perpetrated in 1989 and 2000 must and will be corrected and compensated for. The world's political and socioeconomic systems will and must be returned to their ideal, as represented by the Soviet Union ca. 1984, except that Bonny Prince Al must be raised to his proper Estate as Sovereign of America and God-Emperor of the West. When those minor matters are attended to, Global Warming will cease to be troublesome to anyone.


(8) made the following comment | Mar 16, 2007 4:39:14 PM | Permalink

Has anyone noticed the weight given to the "concensus" by advocates of warming? When I learned the scientific method it said nothing about a concensus, caucus, vote, or poll. A strong scientfic theory needs no concensus; it stands up all by itself.

(9) hunter made the following comment | Mar 17, 2007 12:17:40 AM | Permalink

One of the things that makes me most dubious of AGW claims is the behavior of its promoters. They do not act like scientists. They act like zealots of a new faith.

(10) chicken or egg made the following comment | Mar 17, 2007 3:16:49 PM | Permalink

Save the cheerleader, save the world. Since Gore isn't going to be president he must save the world. Insanity. The suspect temporal record of temperature and carbon dioxide shows that temperature leads carbon dioxide. What bothers me about the predictions is that they are fast variables changing every year to such a degree that they blending into the near term based on this years near term model from the distant future's catostophic model. We must formulate a near term test that vaildates or nore lilely once and for all destroys the hype. Perhaps we could all chip in and have a contest that gives a substantial prize for the model that predicts the global temperature on Feburary 29 2008 and every leap year after that. If you don't have a model in the game, then shut up about global warming.

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