Greta Thunberg and the Vagaries of the Climate Crusade
The Personal Weblog of Edward W. Farrell   
Greta Thunberg and the Vagaries of the Climate Crusade Saturday, October 5, 2019
The appearance of Greta Thunberg made me very curious to hear her speak but equally reluctant to revisit the topic of global warming. A few years ago I spent many hours trying to weed through the politics to the science and concluded the politics go all the way down regardless of the valid science that exists. But I also came to a much better understanding of the science. In weeding through the issues I mostly confronted what's become of my generation as it enters old age---we who are the "question authority" generation that speaks truth to power come what may. A common reaction to my refusal to wholeheartedly commit to the notion of catastrophic global warming was: "Wait a minute, are you questioning the science? You sound like a denier." Thus climate catastrophe was revealed to be a tribal issue beneath the truth claims made on the unimpeachable basis of science. It was also clear that virtually no one understood the science except very superficially, so it was not really science that was the basis of the truth claims, but rather the authority of science. Science with a capital "S." And "Science" in this vague, overarching sense which is used so mutably in the general media has only a glancing relationship with the excellent scientific method and is rather a creation of popular culture. So here at least, the truth is that we've now transcended our "question authority" roots to become the "accept authority" generation. No congratulations are in order.

Isn't it rather pedantic to nit-pick over what a 97% consensus of scientists claims is true, and even if doubt remains, shouldn't we give the benefit of the doubt to the climate catastrophists since the consequences are so dire if they are right?  Maybe, but only if we're in position to tell the facts from the politics, so that a free, responsible person can make their own independent decision about what is true. But for even a well-educated person to get to this point, they'll have to wade through oceans of political chest-thrusting and browbeating to the point where they'll be lucky to have the breath left to read it. And at that point they'll be in a position to doubt anything they read. Where will the truth be? Of course most people read to confirm their existing biases so they can skip this painful experience.

Doubt is expensive. Most media, even general science media, portrays the 97% consensus on catastrophic global warming as "settled science." I'll buy the 97% figure; this number has been controversial but there seems to be little doubt that it's accurate. But "settled science" is simply political rhetoric designed to end further discussion. Climate science itself is not settled, let alone its predictions of events a mere 100 years away. As likely as these 100 year predictions may seem there is much that we don't know. Claims of "settled science" are simply a barricade to anyone with healthy skepticism who's trying to acquire an unbiased view of climate science predictions. Why is skepticism healthy here? Because it's unimpeachably obvious that climate science is probably the most politicized issue of the day, with each side heavily demonizing the other. What public talk there is is not aimed at resolving doubts dispassionately so much as attempting to beat perceived opponents into political submission. Coming from the Trump administration this means direct changes to federal bureaus that govern the environment. Coming from climate change activists this often resembles bible thumping; we could call it "science thumping" if it were really science at the end of their truncheon. In either case it's not a discussion since political tactics insist that to respect the views of your opponent is to cede them political power while undermining yours.

Though there is abundant reported evidence of warming temperatures there remains much public doubt about what the evidence means. This doubt is completely justified. For instance, an article in last year's National Geographic illustrated the fate of a starving polar bear reduced to that condition because of global warming. Yet six months later they were forced to issue an apology because there was in fact no demonstrable connection between the depicted bear and global warming as claimed by the photographer. The National Geographic insisted that despite their gaffe the general truth about global warming remains valid, though in the course of this explanation they revealed, as an aside, that currently the polar bear populations are not any danger, which completely contradicts most of the other assertions they'd been making. This is of course quite frustrating to anyone trying to tease out the truth from such contradictions and prevarications. They might have reported the far more nuanced view about global warming and the arctic that is seldom reported in the general media. But instead they simply stacked the deck in favor of their editorial politics and now they're yet one more information source that can no longer be taken at face value on this topic.

In short, many people doubt the science behind climate catastrophe because they have no trust in the media that informs them. A recent Columbia University survey revealed that American confidence in the media is at rock bottom, even below their confidence in Congress. Most people aren't scientists, have no training in science, and don't even know what "science" is in light of the diverse and even motley array of endeavors that lay claim to the name. All they know is what they hear in the general media, which they don't trust. So they continue to rely on the opinions common to their peer group and what they do take away from the media is largely selected by confirmation bias.

In light of public skepticism about climate catastrophe, we are often told to "follow the science." This is good advice assuming that "science" is always a trustworthy source. But what is "science," especially when pronounced with a capital "S", and is it really trustworthy? This comes back to the media. The issue here is not that scientists themselves or their methods are necessarily untrustworthy. The scientific method, as a practice for aquiring knowledge about the world, is unquestionably the most objective method of analysis yet devised by human beings. But science with a capital "S" is something bigger and much fuzzier, and is in fact a creation of popular culture: a monolithic body of objective knowledge arrived at by anonymous experts called scientists, who by virtue of being scientists are above and beyond the distortions of politics and thus are inherently authoritative and trustworthy. This anonymous authoritative body is invoked by journalists as Science says... or scientists say... But science in this sense is pure fiction.

Science is best seen as an activity, not as an established body of knowledge. The activity of scientific investigation is an ongoing practice that is never settled or completed. New data may falsify old theories and require the formulation of new theories. The subject of an investigation may be so complex and multifaceted that its governing theories can only be regarded as tentative pending a more complete theoretical understanding. Scientific papers published for scientists carefully delineate these limitations and uncertainties, which always exist in any investigation. But such qualifications might only confuse anyone but fellow scientists working in the same field, and are therefore glossed over or even omitted when they are communicated to the public. What is also not conveyed to the public is the scientific debate that inevitably surrounds investigations where a lot of uncertainty remains. It is only in such investigations that the concept of consensus arises, which is a political and not a scientific concept. Science does not work by consensus. It works by independently testable theories that are considered true so long as they are not shown to be false when tested. All scientific theories must therefore be independently testable, and this is what removes them from the realm of opinion and consensus.

Climate science has a lot of uncertainty, both in its data and its methods. It must successfully integrate many different scientific fields to model the multidimensional and dynamic nature of climate. This would be difficult enough but it is also required to accurately predict the behavior of the climate into the future. This puts it into the realm of forecasting, which is as much art as science. There is science in modeling the data that comes from phenomena we have directly observed. But art is required to create the mathematical formulae and algorithms that attempt to integrate the direct data with more uncertain data obtained indirectly or by proxy so that the model can function as a forecaster. Such formula are constantly being tweaked so that they behave with greater accuracy, or accommodate new data types or patterns that were not anticipated at first. Climate models built in this manner are tested by seeing how well they predict the past. This isn't as silly as it sounds. If one of the purposes of climate forecasting is to head off future catastrophes, you can't test the model by waiting to see if the catastrophe occurs as predicted! Instead, you see how well the model predicts the outcome of conditions that existed in the past, which are better known and have known outcomes. However, such testing can at best only be an approximation of what may happen in the future where conditions are unknown; at worst it can be utterly wrong about the actual conditions that unfold.

This discussion of uncertainty is not to suggest that climate models have little or no value; quite the opposite, they are essential to our future flourishing and are best perfected by constant use. But the nature of climate models and their iterative road to perfection also indicates why there is consensus rather than certainty in climate science. Climate models are a work in progress and expert opinions sometimes differ about their efficacy and even the basic assumptions that drive them. This is the climate debate that really matters--the debate among the scientists that few others can even comprehend. Unfortunately, this is also where politics enters science in the form of consensus. Where there is significant disagreement over basic theory and practice, yet the need to move forward is urgent, there falls out a battle of opinions in which the majority rules. This means the will of the majority prevails in which direction the science takes, but it does not mean that the majority is right as history has often shown. What it does mean is that there too much fuzziness in the science to arrive at independently testable theories that are falsifiable, so it can only proceed by recourse to the statistically dominant opinions within the field. But the expert opinions of scientists are still opinions however well informed, not facts, in spite of how the media portrays them.

The real tenor of the issues surrounding consensus can only be seen by reviewing the views of the scientists outside the consensus against the positions of the consensus. This is difficult for a number of reasons, the main reason being that in most general media scientists outside the consensus are dismissed as "deniers" without further elaboration and it requires some digging to get beyond this. But such dismissal is not necessarily typical of climate scientists themselves regardless of their position with respect to the consensus. There are renowned, respected scientists on each side of the consensus [addendum, 3/23/2022: Wikipedia deleted the article at this link. See this to follow up on the thread] who regularly consult with each other, which is thankful given that in one recent case a "denier" corrected the maths in the consensus approved model which showed that the oceans had warmed by 60% when the real figure was a much wider variance of between 10% and 70%.

It's been almost 20 years since Michael Crichton gave his famous Aliens Cause Global Warming speech at Caltech. It's worthwhile reading this speech in its entirety, as well as its rebuttal by Alden Griffith in Skeptical Science, because the issues presented in both papers are still at the heart of the climate controversy. Crichton argued that "consensus science" was a pernicious development because it blessed the marriage of science and politics and paved the way for the politicization of science and the loss of its credibility. Griffith argued that Crichton's view of consensus science was an overly simplistic straw man because complex endeavors like climate science could work no other way than by consensus. Unfortunately they're both right. Whether you call Crichton's view of science "overly simplistic" or simply "rigorous" depends on your persuasion. But he is right that consensus science is a marriage of science and politics, even if the politics is the democratically inspired concept of "majority rules," because it's an admission that since facts don't rule opinions will have to do. Griffith is right that climate science can work no other way than this. It's too complex and there are too many uncertainties.

This leaves the poor man in the street with a problem--if consensus, and not indisputable facts, are at the very foundation of the climate catastrophe scenario, what caused the consensus to fall out the way it did? To wit: is the consensus a result of reasonable but differing assessments of likelihood, since respected scientists exist inside and out of the consensus? No one says this. Are "denier" scientists simply shills of the oil industry whose doubt about climate catastrophe was bought with filthy lucre? The left often says this. Have the catastrophe-peddling scientists been bought by the legions of environmentalists who now populate the federal bureaucracies with the billions of dollars the government now doles out to climate researchers? The right often says this. Short of feeding truth serum to every climate scientist, we can't know which scenario is true. But what's certain is that science can be a useful political tool, is often used as such, and this undermines if not destroys its public credibility. Since the man on the street cannot judge science which is over his head, he will accept its authority if it conforms to his politics and seek to discredit it if it does not. This is exactly the sort of situation Crichton feared: science becomes the tool of politics and is credible only by virtue of its political alignment.

I finally watched Greta Thunberg's TED talk but it generates more heat than light. Although Thunberg has been cruelly and unfairly treated by the now all-too-familiar character assassination and guilt-by-association tactics that are common to each side in the global warming battle, she is not saying anything about global warming that hasn't already been heard. In my mind it's much more constructive to listen to people such as Bjorn Lomberg who are attempting to deal with environmental issues such as global warming with thinking that's more strategic and out-of-the-box .

Related Links
Wikipedia: Greta Thunberg
Wikipedia: Survey of Scientists Views on Climate Change
National Geographic: Heart-Wrenching Video Shows Starving Polar Bear on Iceless Land
National Geographic: Starving-Polar-bear Photographer Recalls What Went Wrong
Canadian Geographic: the Truth About Polar Bears
Columbia Journalism: How Does Journalism Happen?
Wikipedia: Falsifiability
Wikipedia: List of Scientists Who Disagree With the Sientific Consensus on Global Warming
Phys-Org: When Scientists Get It Wrong
Michael Crichton: Aliens Cause Global Warming
The Skeptical Scientist: Crichton's 'Aliens Cause Global Warming'
The New Atlantis: Saving Science
Ted Talk: Greta Thunberg
Wikipedia: Bjorn Lomborg
All site contents copyright 2022 Edward W. Farrell This page last updated on 2022-05-20