Note: I am not a climate change skeptic. From what I’ve read, the general climate change consensus seems reasonable. In a few months, Exploring the Problem Space will have a special issue about the climate change debate. This piece does not deal with the particulars of that debate. A few years ago, I read a magazine editorial titled “Climate Science Under Attack: Who Speaks and Why?” In this piece, the author echoes the advice of Rachel Carson (of ‘Silent Spring’ fame) that we “look behind the curtains” of those who disagree with the current scientific consensus about global warming to ascertain their true motives for opposing the dominant view that human activity is causing climate change that will be disastrous for earth and humanity. Such individuals are not just innocents naively begging to differ with majority opinion, based on their own understanding of the evidence – no, they are a “horrid little population” that squirms and scatters when their “true motives” are revealed, “hired critics” protecting of interests of “profit peddling” concerns.
Ad hominem attacks like these are common in the national debate on climate change. The other side consists of scoundrels and idiots. Problem is, focusing on the personal qualities of those with whom we disagree gets in the way of determining whether their case has any merit. Sometimes we can learn a thing or two from people we dislike. I don’t assume that simply because someone is affiliated or used to be affiliated with some industry, religion, or ideology that I am now absolved from ever considering what they have to say. And I don’t consider purity of motive an important criterion for assessing the soundness of any particular scientific claim.
When encountering opinion pieces and articles that touch on scientific matters, instead of focusing on “who speaks and why”, I’d ask questions such as:
What is the evidence? What is the quality of the evidence? What were the methods used to collect data? What data were excluded and why? If projections are involved, what assumptions are the projections based on? Are these assumptions reasonable? Were the statistical analyses sound? Was there a peer-review process to review and critique the research? Are the data and methods for collecting the data available for others to review? What conclusions does the evidence support? What are the limitations of the evidence? What questions remain unanswered? What further research is needed to address these limitations and unanswered questions?
The scientific method is a self-corrective form of inquiry that accepts its own fallibility. Scientific ‘truth’ is not based on authority, so statements like “this is the truth because the scientific community says so” would be pretty hard to find in a serious peer-reviewed scientific publication. “Truth” in science is provisional, based on the evidence to date, and even if there is a consensus, that fact alone doesn’t grant immunity from revision or criticism. It's a good thing that young scientists often advance in their disciplines by taking on their elders – this is how knowledge grows.
No one is pure of motive; everyone is advancing some agenda and everyone is biased in some way – this applies to scientists as well as capitalists. In any scientific project there exists a certain tension between desire, bias and principles. Scientists are people too – they have egos, get overly invested in pet theories, and seek fame and glory (or, at least, career advancement). All these feelings and motivations can influence how scientific evidence is pursued, presented and interpreted. That doesn’t mean the result is necessarily without value.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that bias is harmless or that we should ignore it in opinion pieces or scientific articles. Bias can lead to all sorts of sins: excluding relevant data, including questionable data, overstating results, ignoring alternative explanations. When we detect obvious bias, we should be on the look-out for these sins. But (forgive the double negative here) just because a writer or scientist wants it to be so doesn’t make it not so.
Other people’s biases can make us think about something we never considered. Biases can open up new avenues of research. Biases can lead to better understanding and predictions. Biases can lead us astray and biases can get us closer to the truth.
Of course, time and mental energy are scarce resources with alternate uses, so we have to choose how these resources are allocated. We can’t pay attention to everything. We still need heuristics to help us decide how to spend our time and how deeply we want to process whatever comes our way. But if we find ourselves reading, or listening to, only what we agree with, I’d say our heuristics need some tweaking.
In relation to global warming, my plea for a certain intellectual charity may be considered self-indulgent and beside the point. Activists might argue that we are living in dangerous times and the looming catastrophe of climate change calls for swift condemnation of skeptics. According to this perspective, the most important thing now is to get humanity to act, unconstrained by notions of scientific humility, caution and open-mindedness.
This reminds me of one of my old anthropology professors who defended Marx’s more ridiculous proclamations (say, in Das Kapital) by saying their purpose was rhetorical and not analytical and we shouldn’t hold Marx’s rhetorical tracts to the same standards as his serious works. Science may be about the search for truth but rhetoric (and its cousin, politics) is about getting people to do something.
The problem is that sometimes the rhetoric is so over the top (in the aforementioned editorial, the author compares global warming skeptics to Galileo’s tormenters) it discourages free-spirited debate. Freedom to disagree is the lifeblood of democracy and science alike. Responding to climate change requires a clear and accurate understanding of the processes and consequences of global warming. Demonizing dissenters discourages independent inquiry and chills debate, which can only undermine an effective response to the changes that lie ahead.