The Magazine

Unchanging Science

Among other things the global warming crusaders got wrong: skepticism is a virtue, not a vice.

Nov 28, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 11 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM and WILLIAM ANDERSON
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None of these philosophical problems seem particularly pressing these days, but the concept of falsifiability still grants some insight into the vagaries of modern environmentalism. In politics, the notion that climate change can’t be falsified​—​everything only serves to confirm it, nothing imaginable can contradict it​—​has been a marvelous boon. In science, the fact that climate change can’t be falsified seems to prove, mostly, that climate change isn’t science: There’s no way to test for it, no way to quantify it, and no way to demonstrate it.

If politics is the human activity by which collective decisions are made, then (whatever the structure of the regime, from the most coercive authoritarianism to the most radical democracy) all government depends on some kind of agreement. Our political instincts have developed over many millennia, but the essential commonality is that we are most comfortable when we shape our opinions to the consensus of our group. As a general matter, we’d rather be wrong in a group than right but alone.

Science, on the other hand, is a methodological tool by which we coordinate observation, logic, and experiment to attempt to discover facts. Science doesn’t deal in either certainty or consensus. Every well-formed theory contains a set of testable hypotheses. When these hypotheses fail confirmation by repeated experiment, the theory has to change. Thus the progress of science is halting and erratic, ultimately convergent on, but never achieving, final explanations of our world.

Naturally, that means confusion reigns when scientists dabble in politics and politicians attempt to explain science​—​as when we are confronted by such oxymorons as “settled science.” And, unfortunately, in the worlds of climate change, such confusions seem to be happening a lot​—​from the United Nations agency that got caught taking an environmental activist group’s unsupported (and mistaken) word that Himalayan glaciers would all be melted away by 2035, to the Times Atlas that recently decided global warming would be more striking if 15 percent of the Greenland ice cap were arbitrarily erased from the map. To say nothing of the 2009 case in which bizarre emails between influential scientists and activists, hacked from a server at the University of East Anglia (which is climate-change central, keeper of international temperature records), were released to the public.

Professional scientists are people, of course, and thus participants in the rough and tumble of political debate. Professional politicians are also people, of a sort, and they’re always eager to use the prestige of science to claim support for their political goals. Most of the time, these crossover category errors stay relatively minor. Occasionally, however, conflations of politics and science snowball into disasters for both politics and science​—​and the debate over climate change is as clear an example as we’ve had since stem cells rolled into public view.

An hour’s poking around on the Internet reveals that no scientific consensus on massive human-caused climate change actually exists. Those afflicted with what economists call “perverse incentives,” however, want scientific consensus to exist, and they try, hard, to pull that consensus into being. Naturally, the debate is skewed toward the faction which controls the most political and economic resources​—​particularly the United Nations, on the commanding heights of resource allocation for activists through the mechanism of its various interlocking directorates of committees and NGOs.

The result is an astonishing tangle of mostly ad hominem arguments. Proponents of catastrophic global warming claim that their opponents are in denial and corrupted by corporate funding. Skeptics counter that these alarmists are corrupted by government funding and political pressure. The result has been good for neither politicians nor scientists, with every new poll betraying smaller numbers of those who trust either government or science to speak the truth​—​much less to fix our strange and broken world.

As far as the actual facts go, they go quickly, the first casualties in the battles at the crossroads of science and politics. We do know that there have been periodic ice ages for the past million or so years, and that the period of those ice ages is on the order of 100,000 years. About 10 percent of discernible history is made up of warm periods (such as our current climate), and the rest much colder, with large portions of the earth covered with thick ice.

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