Monday, December 7, 2009

We're All Entitled to Our Own Facts (About Global Warming)

David Frum has a thoughtful piece on political polarization and the global warming debate.

He writes:

Everything important about global warming remains disputed:

How fast is it happening? How much of it is attributable to human activity? How dangerous is it? How much should we pay to avert or mitigate it? Who should do the paying?

How are to begin to reach conclusions if we cannot even agree on the rules of discussion? The most famous public document on global warming calls itself "An Inconvenient Truth" -- and yet that document itself is filled with untruths, on every subject from sea levels to polar bears. (The bears are doing fine, populations at record levels in the Canadian Arctic.)

. . .

The global warming controversy has been pervaded from the start by the human instinct to divide the world into "us" and "them" -- and then believe only the news we hear from "us."

Global warming advocates can see this weakness in their opponents. It was the same weakness in themselves that led the advocates . . . to cheat and twist and betray scientific standards and public trust.

It's easy for progressives to be frustrated with Rush Limbaugh and other hard-line conservatives. There's a serious lack of intellectual honesty on the right, and genuine contempt for science. But it's far more difficult for progressives to seriously consider the moral failings of the those with whom they agree.

To me, one of the most distressing things about the global warming debate is the notion that science can be used to circumvent value judgments. I continually hear climate change advocates insisting that scientific research inevitably points to specific political choices.

From a policy perspective, however, the goal of science is simply to meet the intelligence needs of decision-makers. Science is supposed to be value-neutral. It cannot answer Frum's final questions: How much should we pay to avert or mitigate global warming, and who should do the paying?

If we want to agree on some rules for the discussion, I'd say that people on the right should stop pretending that science is a liberal conspiracy, and people on the left should stop using science as a blunt instrument, and acknowledge both the complexity of scientific investigation and the role of values in decision-making.

Update: By the way, I don't know anything about polar bear populations -- and Frum doesn't offer any evidence to support his claim.

But, for anyone who's interested, here is the American Enterprise Institute's take, and here is an old article from Science Daily, which seems to bolster Frum's point. I suspect there is an awful lot of counter-evidence to support Gore's claim, too.

Update II: Here is a really good piece from Reason's Ronald Bailey on "The Scientific Tragedy of Climategate."

No comments: