Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Not-so-curious George

There has been a little tempest over George Will’s recent column on the subject of changes in sea ice and its relationship to global warming. For example, Rick Piltz got on it right away, writing in ClimateScienceWatch. Joseph Romm also put it rather strongly to Will on the Climate Progress post. The overwhelming response of the scientific global climate science community has been that Will doesn’t know what he’s talking about. That may indeed be so, but I’m not sure that this is all that needs to be said in dealing with conservatives of his ilk.
While George Will strikes many as an unappealing, opinionated curmudgeon, he is not a dummy. It behooves those who don’t care for his political and social views to at least respect his power to influence public opinion. When he writes about climate change he isn’t really examining the scientific evidence, but rather operating from a certain political, social and moral stance. In his way of looking at things, ideas that carry implications for change in the social order, particularly those that call for large scale actions, are tainted with the potential for limiting individual freedom, and are to be looked at skeptically.
An important part of the conservative stance on all such matters is a distrust of authority that emanates from sources other than a narrow canon of conservative orthodoxy. This makes for rejection of assertions resting on scientific premises. Conservatives love to go back to materials that seem to show that scientists have often been wrong in the past. In the February 15 column dealing with sea ice, Will runs off a bunch of quotes from about 35 years ago, when there were headlines claiming that the world might be heading into another ice age. He quotes widely from newspaper and magazine articles, though- significantly- not from scientific sources. The implication is that science was incorrectly crying wolf then, and is likely to be just as wrong now in predicting serious consequences of global warming.
Interestingly, Will also reprises the story of Paul Ehrlich’s wager with Julian Simon on whether the costs of five natural resources would increase or decrease over a 10 year period. Conservatives love to tell this tale; Erhlich lost his bet on all five of the metals he chose. This example is supposed to illustrate that social progressives such as Ehrlich tend to be drama queens, continually promoting notions of impending shortages, environmental distress and lowered quality of life. Ehrlich may be an appropriate target for ridicule; more than once he seemed to be too quick and a bit over the top with dire predictions. But whether one person in a prominent role occasionally makes a fool of himself has little to do with the broad issues at stake. Julian Simon was dead wrong in his idea that human ingenuity will always find a gainful pathway out of the cul-de-sacs into which it lurches because of improvident disregard for the planet’s limits. Ten years does not provide a test of the notion that there are limits to the availability of materials, of energy, of space for people to live in.
Years ago, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign I occasionally played squash with Julian. We sometimes ended up sitting on the squash court floor arguing about some of his ideas. I believe Julian simply didn’t understand basic science concepts. He had this libertarian, no-holds-barred view of how society should be run, and anything that didn’t fit within its laissez faire structure was dismissed as being of no essential consequence. He was fun to be with because he challenged one’s assumptions, but it became obvious that the laws of nature were not going to get in the way of his vision.
There is some of that stubborn determination to let ideology take precedence over the facts in George Will. On matters relating to science’s interface with society, as in the climate change debate, Will seems to simply deny the authority of science to pronounce on the basic science involved. Nitpicking one’s way through the voluminous literature on climate change provides plenty of opportunities to note inconsistencies in the claims issuing from various sources, or to focus on some short term weather changes or more localized changes that have little weight in comprehensively assessing the overall direction of global change. The global climate is the product of an enormous number of variables, many of them interactive with one another. Science has been making steady progress in building reliable models for this incredibly complex system. It is noteworthy is that predictions of the increases in the planet’s temperature that will result from a given amount of carbon emissions have not really varied much over the past few decades, as the models have become increasingly sophisticated and reliable. The implications of significant climate change are there, and they are sufficiently dire that responsible scientists who understand this particular area of science feel obliged to call for responsive actions.
Ah, at this point they have stepped on George Will’s toes. He does not seem to be truly interested in where this global experiment in climate change will eventually take the human race. Like Julian Simon, he simply has the idea that if we just don’t limit people’s free choices the challenges will be met and all will be well. His reluctance to accord science an epistemic authority in matters that bear upon societal affairs is but one more example of the manifold ways in which science’s epistemic and moral authority are contested. The irony is that if we were to follow George Will and Julian Simon down the path they advocate, science would be our only source of rescue from the horrible messes that would result.

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