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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The cause of this periodicity is not well understood. Human activity may have contributed to some of it recently, but clearly not to changes occurring over millions of years. Variations in solar irradiance, changes in atmospheric gases, variable ocean currents, and cosmic rays have been hypothesized, each the bearer of a much greater burden than human activity could be. We now appear, on the basis of prior history, to be in the last stages of a warm period which has existed, with some variations, for about 10,000 years.

Within each era, variances of climate occur, as warmer and colder periods of several hundred years come and go. The causes of these changes are similarly uncertain. Is there an ideal global average temperature? If so, what is it? And how do we measure it? Can our species influence these changes? If so, should we? In which direction? What are the costs, risks, and benefits? These questions are not, to say the least, in any realm of settled science.

Enter the climate scientists. The research enterprise in the modern world is a large-scale activity. Difficult questions are raised, and hypotheses are generated to move toward an answer. This requires hiring staff, recruiting experts and consultants, purchasing equipment, and putting all of it in a building, preferably on a university campus. Most of all, what’s needed for this kind of research is oceans of money. And where money is the driver, politics is the unavoidable road down which the scientist has to race. Grant-making authorities, whether in government, industries, or foundations, tend to have a preferred perspective on the process and outcome of research. These preferences are not lost on the applicant researchers.

A few research centers have dominated the study of climate change, and these are typically funded by national governments, with the approval of U.N. agencies and the transnational perspective that U.N. agencies represent. What has emerged, in other words, is a political consensus that emphasizes the claim of ongoing climate change which (1) tends toward warming, (2) is caused by human activity, and (3) threatens to be apocalyptic. Groupthink then emerges as the dominant social response, with ostracism of skeptics and excommunication of apostates.

As the grant-achieving scientists congealed their opinions around the hypothesis (and now doctrine) of catastrophic anthropogenic global warming​—​warmed, themselves, by their presumptive guardianship of truth and virtue​—​some have succumbed to the temptation to cut corners. Dissenting investigators have been marginalized, their research papers viewed with prejudice by academic journals. The principle of free availability of raw data has been ignored. Peer review has degenerated into pal review. Cases of data destruction and tampering have been documented.

Through all this, public opinion has remained bemused, and only mildly interested, with polls suggesting a small decrease in concern over catastrophic manmade climate change and a gradual increase in disbelief about the whole thing. Which has to concern the people whose livelihood depends on predicting catastrophe. Prophecy demands belief.

Perhaps the greatest reason for any of us to feel skepticism about climate change, however, is the unchanging politics of those who employed it to advance their agendas. Are we wrong to suspect that most global warming activists are merely using global warming as the latest in a long series of tools with which to demand fundamental changes in Western civilization?

Think of it this way: The premise of catastrophe produces the conclusion that the political and economic underpinnings of Western civilization must be discarded. Governments must take control of economies. Capitalism must give way. All decisions must be made by our scientific and political elite, for only they can save us from doom.

Now, in a purely logical world, the rejection of the premise would mean that we don’t have to accept the conclusion. If A, then B and not A together produce nothing. But the people who’ve been lecturing us for more than a decade now about global warming and climate change didn’t start by holding A. They began by holding B​—​the conclusion, the proposition that Western civilization must change. And it is, literally, a nonfalsifiable proposition: If global warming and climate change help lead to it, then hurray for global warming and climate change. If not, well, then, they’ll find something else.

Yet facts remain stubborn things, and the thesis of climate change, at least, is clearly in decline. The once-proud carbon-trading market in Chicago is now defunct. Similar European schemes have collapsed in confusion and fraud. Alternative scientific theory is beginning to find its footing. Flawed methods have been exposed. Leaked emails indicate a corrupted scientific process. Most of all, public opinion has not been stampeded, in spite of intense climate-change advocacy in the media.

Skepticism, the prime scientific virtue, still lives, in other words. If nothing else, Ivar Giaever may yet be able to rejoin the American Physical Society.

Psychiatrist William Anderson teaches at Harvard University. Joseph Bottum is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author of The Second Spring: Words into Music, Music into Words.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 19 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers