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Monday, March 23, 2009

We were blind, and now we see

Chris Mooney responds to George Will's Feb. 15th climate change op-ed piece in The Washington Post.

This debate goes on and on like a lover's quarrell, and I've long since given up on trying to "fell swoop" it with any argument or appeal to this or that empirical desiderata. Read Will. Read Mooney. Be confused. Be confirmed.

I'll add only that Mooney takes a predictable swipe at Will when he challenges the relevance of Will's observation that there was a global cooling scare-- a view espoused by enough scientists to get it aired in mainstream media -- in the 1970s. Will's point is that, every decade or two, some new bugaboo about the environment pops up, and after seeing enough of them, we ought to be a little sceptical of the latest "end of days" scenario. Mooney's point is that science is much more accurate and mature today than it was in the 1970s, and so who cares about what those cave men were screeching about three decades ago? We've got it right now. This is the trump card, I suppose, for anyone prone to what C.S. Lewis once called "chronological snobbery": the view that whatever we think now must by this fact alone be superior to what we thought yesterday.

But most of us who take Lewis' point will still admit to endorsing Lewis' snobbery when it comes to science, in particular. After all, we don't bleed people anymore to get rid of disease. We're pretty sure there aren't witches, or an elan vital, or ether, or phlogiston. As we continue to look at the world, we find what really does exist. Microscopic organisms (germs), not miasma ("bad air"). Oxidation, not phlogiston. Darwinian Evolution, not Lamarckism. Scientific progress is, in short, a manifest phenomenon. We see it marching forward from generation to generation.

But here's the disconnect. With sweeping questions about the future of the global climate, we're going way beyond pasteurizing milk, or vaccinating for polio. We're into much more speculative science. Speculative science wants desperately to be, well, established science, in the sense that it earns a place in the text books and is largely beyond question, complaint, or challenge. Climate theories, almost by definition given the complexity of the climate and the difficulty predicting its future behavior, are speculative much more than politicians or scientists themselves want to admit. The debate is closed, 'cause the global warming theorists said so. Oh really.

Put it this way: in the 1970s, global cooling scientists patiently explained to sceptics that the old climate theories of the 1950s were based on an undeveloped and much more primitive science. In the 70s, however, the theories were now correct. Fast forward to today. Decades from now, future scientists will no doubt proclaim that in the dark days of the early 21st century, we hardly had the techniques to get our arms around the problem at all. Someone in the back row of these future climate conferences, maybe some gung-ho freshman studying epistemology at the local U, may well wonder if more distant generations, reaching different conclusions yet again, will turn up their noses at the conclusions reached in his own time. If he was brave enough to ask the room of experts, he'd likely be rewarded with something like the following: "Perhaps, but we must act, young lad. We must act!" Indeed. And so too would the 1970s cooling crowd and by the same logic make the same assertion.

2 comments:

mijopo said...

You're ignoring a key element of Mooney's response, i.e.,

"Will suggested that widespread scientific agreement existed at the time that the world faced potentially catastrophic cooling. Today, most climate scientists and climate journalists consider this a timeworn myth."

In other words, Mooney isn't simply saying, "well, we got it wrong then, but we're smarter now" (which still wouldn't be such a silly argument to make given the substantial progress we've made in understanding climate change).

Erik said...

But I think the Global Cooling scientists in the 1970s made into mainstream media. They weren't just a fringe group like they are now. So the point still stands, doesn't it?