Guinea Pigs in the Climate Change Debate

Valerie Richardson’s report in the Washington Post on the latest testimony before the House Science, Space and Technology Committee illuminates the complex and intractable problems we face in making decisions. On the face of it, the testimony was the typical partisan rhetoric: the conservatives brought in some nay-sayer scientists who attacked the evidence for global warming; the liberals attacked the conservatives for using inexpert testimony to attack “settled science”.

The issues are far deeper than a disagreement over evidence. In fact, evidence is the least of our worries. Let’s look at what is going on here.

First and foremost, there’s an obvious element of confirmation bias. If I am disinclined to believe global warming exists, I will side with the conservatives. But that’s not really a telling argument against any view – confirmation bias is simply filtering on steroids, and we all do it. The liberal objections to the testimony assumed there was a “settled” science of climate prediction. Thank you for playing, please try again.

But suppose that I recognize this innate constraint on our immediate understanding and I want to correct for it. Could I? This is where I think the real issue arises: we just don’t know how to define and manage risks. But for the moment let’s look at what stands in my way if I, Joe Citizen or Joe Congressperson, want to “get to the bottom” of the climate change research and debate.

First, will I actually go do the homework necessary to confirm my opinion that global warming does not exist? Let’s be generous and say I will. Second, and more germane, will I be willing to review the hundreds of published articles and all the data to come to a well-informed and comprehensive view of the available information before I make a judgment? Maybe, and let’s assume I have lots of energy and time and I will do just that. But even if I have the expertise to assimilate all the scientific data, do I have the acumen to critically evaluate the methods used in the research? This is far more demanding than just wrapping one’s head around figures and conclusions; it’s what separates skilled scientists from lab hackers. But again, for the sake of argument, let’s assume I have that expertise.

Third, would I have the access to all the available information? Unlikely, since the corporations that publish the data in the scientific journals know the value of their material, and charge readers for access. If I am employed at a research institution, I may have funds necessary to purchase access to information; if not, I’ll need a huge amount of disposable income and I’ll have to be willing to spend it on the info monopolizers. Fourth, even if I did have access to the available information, and I could evaluate it, would that be all the research that has been done? Possibly not. One of the complaints made by those testifying against global science was telling: journals publish to an agenda, and the “publish or perish” pressures of academe force researchers to develop findings that meet the current agenda, or they won’t get published. As universal claims, both are suspect; but certainly anyone who has rejected miserable papers in peer review, only to find them published anyway, knows there is some ground truth to the complaint.

Richardson’s article ends with a quote from Indiana Representative Rep. Larry Bucshon who expressed his hope that in both testimony and debate “…whatever we believe can stick to science.” The problem is, science is not monolithic. Science is an analytical and predictive methodology not a go-to Wiki of Truths, and it doesn’t make decisions. It only can be used to support them.

The climate changes. Whether we care, or what we should do about that, is based on other criteria: spending money or constraining progress when there is no predictable return for our efforts, or implementing those constraints to limit the risk that what we don’t know for sure may hurt us.

Gee, that sounds like hypothesis testing on a global scale, doesn’t it?

That’s what I meant when I said the real issue was how to manage risks….
( A good synopsis of the scientific issues (not the data), courtesy Steve Davidson at CDN, can be found here. )

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About caerdescri

Author, editor, educator.
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