One of the more incorrect arguments put forward over the last few years has been the notion that only scientists can evaluate science. Everybody else must just believe. But we all read novels – and you don’t have to be a best-selling author to know the difference between good writing and bad writing. More or less that analogy applies to most things. Milton Friedman told us that we don’t have to understand trigonometry to play pool or mechanics to drive a motor car and so on.
The other point to emphasise is the public choice arguments made by James Buchanan. He makes the argument that economists give advice as if they were advising an onmiscient, omnipotent dictator. That advice isn’t always appropriate in a democratic society that requires agreement and cooperation. The convergence of these two ideas is crunching the AGW lobby at the moment.
A lot of the people are pointing to a new BBC survey that shows that the number of people who don’t think global warming is occurring is up to 25 percent. The interesting graphic in that study is this:
“It is very unusual indeed to see such a dramatic shift in opinion in such a short period,” Populus managing director Michael Simmonds told BBC News.
“The British public are sceptical about man’s contribution to climate change – and becoming more so,” he added.
“More people are now doubters than firm believers.”
So let’s unpack some of that change. Popular support for the AGW hypothesis is down 15 percent. The ‘happening but AGW unproven’ view is up only 6 percent. The last two categories that are hostile to the AGW hypothesis or AGW lobby are at 25 percent, just one percentage point lower than the ‘firm believers’ on 26 percent and probably within the margin of error.
None of this is to say that global warming isn’t real, or that human activity doesn’t play a role, or that the IPCC is entirely wrong, or that measures to curb greenhouse-gas emissions aren’t valid. But the strategy pursued by activists (including scientists who have crossed the line into advocacy) has turned out to be fatally flawed.
By exaggerating the certainties, papering over the gaps, demonizing the skeptics and peddling tales of imminent catastrophe, they’ve discredited the entire climate-change movement. The political damage will be severe. As Mr. Mead succinctly puts it: “Skeptics up, Obama down, cap-and-trade dead.” That also goes for Canada, whose climate policies are inevitably tied to those of the United States.
“I don’t think it’s healthy to dismiss proper skepticism,” says John Beddington, the chief scientific adviser to the British government. He is a staunch believer in man-made climate change, but he also points out the complexity of climate science. “Science grows and improves in the light of criticism. There is a fundamental uncertainty about climate change prediction that can’t be changed.” In his view, it’s time to stop circling the wagons and throw open the doors. How much the public will keep caring is another matter.
The BBC have published an essay spelling out a view of scientific practice that the AGW lobby should consider very carefully and adopt sooner rather than later.
So we have a three-fold revolution in the demands that are placed on scientific knowledge claims as they apply to investigations such as climate change:
To be warranted, knowledge must emerge from a respectful process in which science’s own internal social norms and practices are adhered to
To be validated, knowledge must also be subject to the scrutiny of an extended community of citizens who have legitimate stakes in the significance of what is being claimed
And to be empowered for use in public deliberation and policy-making, knowledge must be fully exposed to the proliferating new communication media by which such extended peer scrutiny takes place.
The opportunity that lies at the centre of these more open practices of science is to secure the gold standard of trust.
This is especially true for scientific work that informs policy making. By contrast we have not had anything like that at all. The actions of the ClimateGate crowd have very much brought the scientific endeavor into disrepute. Here is how the WSJ describe it:
Will the parade of dime-store doomsayers, high-tech patent-medicine merchants and bureaucratic grant-grubbers establish a fourth stock scientist: the cheat, the humbug, the phony? Call him Professor Marvel, who wasn’t a whiz of a wiz if ever a wiz there wasn’t.
Perhaps such spectacles won’t penetrate too deeply into the public consciousness. But I suspect they already have. Just this week I was chatting with a friend who, over the years, has helped her kids slog through the obligatory science-fair projects.
“The experiments never turned out the way they were supposed to, and so we were always having to fudge the results so that the projects wouldn’t be screwy. I always felt guilty about that dishonesty,” she said, “but now I feel like we were doing real science.”