Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise has been watching the climate world since 2009. What she sees isn't pretty.

Why Good Judgment Matters

Some people believe the climate change debate can be settled solely by the science. Facts are facts, they say. The data reveals what it reveals.

But science is done by human beings. Data is collected, recorded, adjusted, and interpreted not by disinterested robots but by people. Those people bring their own ideas of what is and isn’t significant to the task. They decide, sometimes with little external oversight, what is acceptable scientific practice. When they interpret data, their belief system can lead them to reject alternative explanations out-of-hand.

In other words, human judgment is central to science. The scientific method (for which I have a great deal of respect) attempts to guard against bias. But one does not need to do much reading before one concludes that, in some circles at least, the scientific method appears to have faded from view. It would seem that a new generation of activist scientists considers other things more important.

Smart, highly credentialed individuals can be found on all sides of the global warming question. While some people claim that skeptics are marginal kooks who never get published in reputable science journals, this is bunk.

  • Ian Plimer, a prominent climate skeptic (who has also vigorously challenged creationism), has twice been awarded the Eureka Prize, Australia’s top science honour. There is nothing marginal about him. He is part of the scientific mainstream.
  • Freeman Dyson is considered one of the world’s most eminent theoretical physicists. He has long been part of the mainstream and he, too, is a climate skeptic.
  • Don Easterbrook has studied and taught geology for 48 years. He has authored three textbooks and 150 papers. Other scientists may disagree with his climate skeptic views, but his credentials cannot be dismissed.
  • four Apollo astronauts – Buzz Aldrin, Harrison Schmidtt, Phil Chapman, and Walter Cunningham – have expressed skepticism about human-induced climate change. Take a look at the alphabet soup of credentials associated with these men and then tell me they’re kooks who don’t have a clue what they’re talking about.
  • An entire book has been written about prominent scientists from around the globe who question the catastrophic climate change hypothesis.
  • A petition declaring that there is “no convincing evidence” that human generated carbon dioxide is causing dangerous climate change has been signed by 31,000 Americans with science degrees. Nine thousand of those people hold PhDs.

In other words, highly-educated individuals look at the same data and come to dramatically different conclusions about what that data says.

So what is someone like me, who lacks scientific training, supposed to do? It isn’t helpful to say that I should educate myself and undertake the hard work of figuring out these matters for myself. Even if I were to spend the next decade earning PhDs in two different scientific disciplines, I’d still be unqualified to evaluate a dozen other areas of science that play a role in the climate change debate. (Climate involves the atmosphere, yes. But it is also includes volcanoes, wind, vegetation, glaciers, ocean currents, solar influences, land use, and scores of other factors. Each of these is its own specialty.)

Which brings me back to human judgment. When different parties express different opinions about the same body of evidence, the data isn’t enough. One must then attempt to determine which party’s judgment is most trustworthy.

I’m more inclined to trust someone if they behave the way I expect a scientist to behave. That means they exhibit an air of professionalism. They provide precise, careful commentary. They avoid dramatic statements and wild generalizations. They respond to challenges with good grace, rather than insults. They don’t presume to be able to predict the future. They admit they might be wrong. Finally, they demonstrate an understanding that society as a whole is entitled to debate various responses to alleged threats, to perform cost-benefit analyses, and to choose its own path.

I am decidedly not inclined to trust the judgment of people who make high-profile pronouncements about issues in which they have no expertise. I’ve previously discussed how Andreas Fischlin, an ecological modeler, has nevertheless pontificated about emissions reduction and the tourism industry – all the while being identified in the media as an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change expert.

Recently, I’ve privately wondered why climate modeler Andrew Weaver thinks it is remotely appropriate for him to call a democratically elected Prime Minister a “dictator” – and then to make outrageous comparisons with Zimbabwe (following the defeat, in the Canadian Senate, of a climate change bill).

It is the proper role of a scientist to collect and interpret data. It is not the job of a scientist to determine the outcome of political debates. Every citizen deserves a voice in those debates. Politicians – who have been expressly elected for that purpose – must then make a decision, taking into account a larger range of concerns than those considered by the scientists. If the electorate disagrees with the decision, the electorate can then vote out the politicians.

Any scientist who thinks his opinions should trump everyone else’s has an exaggerated view of his own importance. That kind of scientist is telegraphing loudly and clearly that his judgment is impaired.

Which means that, when he resumes talking about a subject in which he does have expertise – his small corner of the scientific world – I find it difficult to trust his conclusions even then.

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