Saturday, March 07, 2009

Dogma and Zealotry (by Phila)

Jeff Jacoby is the latest conservative commentator to discover that the northern hemisphere can get pretty cold in winter:
The United States has shivered through an unusually severe winter, with snow falling in such unlikely destinations as New Orleans, Las Vegas, Alabama, and Georgia. On Dec. 25, every Canadian province woke up to a white Christmas, something that hadn't happened in 37 years.
Arguing that this disproves global warming would be like saying that evolution is false because there are still monkeys. And to his credit, Jacoby doesn't go quite that far. He's no fanatic, after all.
None of this proves conclusively that a period of planetary cooling is irrevocably underway, or that anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions are not the main driver of global temperatures, or that concerns about a hotter world are overblown. Individual weather episodes, it always bears repeating, are not the same as broad climate trends.
See how a fair-minded, rational person approaches the question? Jacoby has generously conceded that cold weather in the northern hemisphere, in winter, doesn't "conclusively" disprove AGW. So why can't the Warming Cultists be equally generous, and admit that they might be wrong, too?
Considering how much attention would have been lavished on a comparable run of hot weather or on a warming trend that was plainly accelerating, shouldn't the recent cold phenomena and the absence of any global warming during the past 10 years be getting a little more notice?
Seems to me it gets more than enough notice, considering that it's a lie. But from Jacoby's standpoint, it could be repeated in every op-ed column in every newspaper from now 'til Doomsday without losing its status as a Dangerous Truth that the media don't want us to hear. As he sees it, any real or imagined scientific uncertainty about the threat we face obliges us to assume that everything will be just fine, and to accuse anyone who disagrees of being a crypto-religious fearmonger who hates Capitalism. To do otherwise would be to fall prey to alarmism.

The important thing to understand here is that no one knows very much about anything.
There is no shame in conceding that science still has a long way to go before it fully understands the immense complexity of the Earth's ever-changing climate(s). It would be shameful not to concede it.
We have a long way to go before we understand the "immense complexity" of the human body, too; that doesn't mean I'd go to Arby's for brain surgery.

I must say, after years of hearing conservatives scream their heads off about "postmodern relativism," it's pretty funny to see them clinging to epistemological nihilism as though it were the Rock of Ages:
The climate models on which so much global-warming alarmism rests "do not begin to describe the real world that we live in," says Freeman Dyson, the eminent physicist and futurist. "The real world is muddy and messy and full of things that we do not yet understand."
You can take this on faith, because Dyson is a scientist, and ought to know when scientists in fields other than his own are doin it rong.

Also, you should respect Dyson's status as a "futurist," even though he's unwilling to commit himself to an opinion on what the future will actually bring (except inasmuch as it'll probably be much more pleasant than we expect, given that systematic scientific misconceptions always lead to overstating risk).

Although no less an authority than Freeman Dyson has questioned whether what we don't know can hurt us, some people stubbornly refuse to admit that ignorance is safety as well as bliss. While they acknowledge that we don't know everything, they also point out that this means things could turn out to be worse than we predicted, and that either way, the global experiment inactivists are proposing is an fantastically risky one.

Jacoby has a few choice names for people like these:
When Al Gore insisted yet again at a conference last Thursday that there can be no debate about global warming, he was speaking not with the authority of a man of science, but with the closed-minded dogmatism of a religious zealot. Dogma and zealotry have their virtues, no doubt. But if we want to understand where global warming has gone, those aren't the tools we need.
Of course not. What we need is blind faith that climate science will turn out to be fundamentally wrong, blind faith that it'll be wrong in precisely the way we'd prefer, and blind faith that we can do whatever we like in the meantime. Anything else would be irrational.