A senior EPA scientist was rebuffed after trying to distribute a report expressing doubts about a pending global warming policy. He was told that it would not be released since it might jeopardize the policy, the Competitive Enterprise Institute has discovered. The author took the EPA to task for relying on outdated research and for relying on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It was a last-minute attempt to inject some caution into the incautious process by which the EPA was going to officially declare carbon dioxide a pollutant. After an online blizzard of indignation curiously absent from the media, he was relieved of all climate-related duties and advised to get an attorney.
A polar bear expert was told that he wasn’t welcome at a meeting of the Polar Bear Specialist Group because he has argued repeatedly that polar bear populations are actually increasing. The chairman of the group explicitly stated that his views “counter to human-induced climate change are extremely unhelpful.” He had obtained funds to travel to the meeting but the members of the group voted down his attendance in spite of his unassailable expertise.
These two recent episodes are but the latest in a long series of denying dissent by the proponents of anthropogenic global warming (AGW). Spend any time online researching global warming and you’ll quickly discover countless more examples of earnest dissenters citing a laundry list of reasons to doubt only to be derided as “deniers” and shouted down until they leave. The pattern plays out time and again. What the EPA scientist, the polar bear researcher, and these online denizens fail to realize is that the truth is utterly irrelevant to AGW advocates.
(For the record, I am on the fence about the validity of the science of the AGW debate. Warming may or may not be happening and it may or may not be a consequence of mankind’s industrialization—I’ve seen convincing support for each. I am quite unqualified to pass judgement on the scientific merits of either side’s position or to dispute the findings of actual researchers. I read widely on the matter and have been following it since James Hansen’s Congressional testimony in 1988, but neither fact counts for much as far as science goes. However, I can opine on the political implications of the conclusions and the culture of AGW as a lay observer and I will strive to confine myself to that perspective.)
The rational person spends a tremendous amount of time and effort looking at reality, evaluating hypotheses, and considering alternative explanations when he tries to come to know something. After the effort is expended and the conclusions are arrived at, he can legitimately claim the mantle of “certainty” about the item before him. But his certainty is not inviolable: if new data or new facts come to light that he hadn’t considered, he will evaluate his certainty and amend his conclusions to reflect them. He understands that knowledge is not a static destination, but an ongoing process with milestones representing the intermediate points. This view is not skepticism—where knowledge and certainty are impossible—but an openness to re-consider one’s premises.
When a rational person sees someone come to the wrong conclusion, he assumes that that person is much like him. So he will point out the pertinent facts and try to help that person come to see the wider context that negates or modifies the earlier conclusion. If he’s right, he just might persuade the other person to change his mind.
Scientists generally operate like the rational person described above. They work according to the scientific method, which enshrines the inductive approach. Publishing their findings in a scientific journal is supposed to be the beginning of the journey to knowledge as other scientists test the results and publish their own findings. This emerging consensus is then grist for causal explanation, which is then itself tested in new scenarios and experiments. This process is more rigorous and formal than the rational person’s due to its inherently social nature: the rational person really only needs to understand an issue in his own mind whereas a scientist must cast his understanding in precise, objective terms that are available to others.
At odds with both the rational person and the scientist is the man of faith. For him, knowledge once obtained is sacrosanct; his certainty is absolute and unshakeable. In contrast, the process by which he acquires such certainty is relatively effortless: he is told what to believe and he accepts it wholesale. His mind is literally closed off to contradictory information as he resolutely refuses to consider it.
The source of his knowledge and certainty is other people so the pedigree is of vital importance to him. If he is a Christian, the opinions of his fellow worshippers might carry some weight but pale next to his priest or the Pope. If he is a Marxist, then an economics professor’s ideas trump a graduate student’s but lose out to a consensus of five economics professors. When knowledge is severed from its ties to an objective reality, the need for a standard does not vanish so it morphs into an authority accounting game.
Dissent—or even worse, apostasy—cannot be tolerated in the realm of faith. Doubt is an injection of reason that undermines the received knowledge. So men of faith gather with other men of faith, trusting that none of whom will raise uncomfortable doubts or ask serious questions of each other’s certainties. They take solace in the mutual affirmations of rightness and correctness. When they come across dissent, their defense mechanisms react automatically to neutralize the doubt and quash the questions that percolate to the surface of their faith. The faithful swarm to prevent a mental foothold and seize on their numbers for reassurance that they can’t all be wrong.
By now, you can probably already guess which side I think the AGW group falls into. For the most strident of AGW advocates, the ones who loudly proclaim that the debate is over, AGW has become an article of faith—a religion with all the dogma, rituals, and trappings of any traditional one. For them, AGW must never be questioned and they are prepared to do whatever it takes to accomplish that. If doubt does come up, they ratchet up the rhetoric to cow the less-fanatical proponents through a variant of Pascal’s Wager.
The rank and file listen to what the leaders tell them and the clustering with those of like “mind” prevents them from having to question their beliefs. Their lack of doubt is more a happenstance of laziness or ignorance or intellectual sloth than a conscious use of mental blinders. They are the ones most open to suasion: the prolonged cold snap is distinctly at odds with alarmism and the hyperbole of the leaders is so over the top that even the dimmest must recoil.
On that front, there is reason for hope. Australia recently rejected a climate change bill. 40% of Americans think that global warming is not caused by man. There was even some spirited opposition on the House floor last week.
But it may prove to be a false hope. Those unwilling to do the intellectual legwork necessary to come to a firm conclusion about AGW (or any issue, for that matter) are easily recalled to the fold should things get warmer or dissent be silenced. While rejoicing in the momentary victories of rejection of this or that anti-man piece of legislation, we cannot let up on the culture war. Victory there is the only longstanding one. To achieve that, we need a resurgence of reason and rational people. Luckily, there’s some positive signs on that front as well.