Friday, March 23, 2007
Searching for Context
Who to believe? And who are we to say?
IF. Two small data points prompted me to write this entry. First, on the evening of Al Gore's Global Warming testimony before Congress, Brit Hume told his show's panel, "Nobody disputes that global warming is occurring and that there's some human contribution to it." He went on to say that the controversy was over how serious the situation really is and whether anything can be done about it that's worth the cost. Second, courtesy of Glenn Reynolds, I found an Ann Althouse "liveblog" entry recording her reactions to her first viewing of Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth. Here are a few brief excerpts:
Now we're seeing him on stage talking and it's much less pretentious... and quite charming...
It bothers me that he shows thick, dirty smoke pouring out of smokestacks and then green blobby cartoon characters to illustrate "greenhouse gases." Aren't we talking about a clean, colorless gas -- carbon dioxide?...
In fact, the movie did a good job of building toward a passionate conclusion that we can and must act. So there was a scientific and a political argument combined and sold through the persona of The Man Al Gore...
In the end, I wondered: How do I know how much of all this to believe? I don't have the basis to test Gore's assertions...
But what is the process of determining what the information presented here is worth? I'm not a climate scientist. The answer, I assume, is the marketplace of ideas. I have to rely on the debate, the responses that the film has provoked...
We're left to feel good about ourselves (for believing, unlike those bad people), about the ease with which we can do the needed things, and -- above all? -- about Al Gore.
And dammit, it works. I do feel good about Al Gore!
Both Brit Hume's assertion and Ann Althouse's post are disturbing. If Brit had done his homework, he would know that there are serious scientists who dispute that global warming is occurring at all (a distinct minority, these days, to be sure) and more importantly, serious scientists who don't believe human beings are contributing to any warming that is occurring. (For example, if carbon dioxide levels rise in response to rising temperature levels rather than vice versa, as Gore claims, human CO2 output is irrelevant.) I suppose Brit doesn't much care about these disputes because he sees Global Warming primarily as a political issue, in which the policy mandate claimed by the environmentalists involves an indefensible strategy -- seriously sabotaging the world economy with measures that admittedly can't have much of an impact.
Ann Althouse is even more casual about the underlying science than Brit. How long has this topic been kicking around in the public domain? Twenty years? And with fairly high visibility for at least ten years. Yet, she feels no compunction about conceding, rather airily, that she has "no basis to test Gore's assertions."
Both Hume and Althouse are solid, meticulous professionals, regardless of how you view their political positions. (Hume is clearly a conservative, and Althouse admits in her post that she voted for Gore.) On the one hand, it's understandable that intelligent professionals have the humility to acknowledge they aren't expert in all things. On the other hand, their obvious remoteness from the actual science that's at issue directly contributes to the atmosphere of popular ignorance in which important political decisions are being made. If highly educated and politically involved figures like Hume and Althouse can't or won't understand the specifics of the scientific questions, then why should the average citizen even try?
Last week, I posted links to a movie that seeks to refute Global Warming alarmists generally and Al Gore's movie specifically. One of the reviews I encountered before posting the link was (alas, I can't find it again) from a political conservative who said it was interesting and persuasive, though perhaps overdone with respect to the sun's role in temperature changes on earth?! His or her personal take was that humans do most likely still play a role in temperature, but that there's significant question about how much difference we can make.
This kind of response represents one of the biggest dangers of the Hume-Althouse laissez-faire approach. If we all come to accept that the political aspect of the question is the only one that's accessible to us, we will likely come to believe that the right answer about its truth or untruth is also political -- that is, some kind of flabby compromise between the most extreme positions. That's how you get a lay reviewer who feels justified in combining two directly opposing theories, picking and choosing the elements of both that seem "reasonable" to an ignorant observer.
That's not how science works. Somewhere amidst all the theories and mathematical models and thousands of conflicting statistical citations and studies and methodologies, there is a correct answer. Just how near to or far away from that answer we really are is something individual non-scientists can learn. It's important to know at least that much because there's an enormous inertia already built up toward reckless actions that will injure developed economies and perhaps fatally wound undeveloped economies. These kinds of policies will affect all of us, even those who blissfully contend they have no responsibility because they lack the relevant academic degrees.
Even those who believe the most devoutly in the catatrophic consequences of Global Warming have a responsibility to move beyond the position, "It's so critical and so far advanced that it's riskier to do nothing than to try everything we can think of." Why? Because there's a Catch-22 out there waiting for them if they are right. If human beings do exert a massive influence on climate because of our behaviors, then the more we attempt to change climate, the greater risk we incur from the law of unintended consequences. What subtle but vitally important unknown variables might we affect disastrously by acting in too much haste? Don't we have real-world experience of environmental catastrophes created by the best of intentions? There was a time when scientists thought it was a good idea to import species from other continents to correct an ecological imbalance of some kind. Killer bees, anybody?
I'm arguing that we all have a responsibility to go beyond head counts of how many scientists from which institutions are on which side and perform a political calculation about who's right. Further, I suggest that it is possible to learn enough about the central scientific issues to determine whether scientists have accomplished enough for us to believe what the most vocal advocates are telling us.
For some people a good first step is viewing the Gore movie and the movie I linked to last week. But there are also those who (rightly) suspect that all forms of film production are subject to emotional manipulation, visual tricks, and artful (or cynical) omissions. Some people also respond better to the written word, and there are books on both sides of the argument to be found at Amazon.com and other booksellers.
Still others -- perhaps blog readers in particular? -- prefer to make the acquaintance of a topic by kibbitzing on a debate conducted by people other than politicians. For them I have a recommendation that may be helpful. One of the books that tackles both the scientific and political issues is The Politically Incorrect Guide to Global Warming. I'm not steering you directly to the book, which is obviously arguing against the alarmist viewpoint. I'm directing you to the customer reviews of the book, which are numerous (over a hundred), often rational and concise, and most significantly, commented upon by other reviewers and advocates for various viewpoints. The result: a lively back and forth that may test your own talent for objective logic.
It's true that many of the book's critics are shrill, ad-hominem, and obviously writing without having read the book. But if you keep digging, you will eventually find calm and fact-filled reviews on both sides, which may collectively give you enough of a feel for the issues that you can go on to do your own research. You'll find thumbnail descriptions of publications on both sides that you may want to read, depending on your own interests, and you'll find references to specific facts at issue which you can pursue further through scientific journals. Best of all, you'll find that it is possible for a layman to follow and understand discussions about science and even find them interesting.
I'm not trying to trash Hume and Althouse and others who have been keeping a respectful distance from the scientific battleground. But I do want to offer a whispered tut-tut. You and they are better than that.