Opinion: Daily Journal

Consensus: Too Good to be True?

RALEIGH – Within the past few days I’ve had two different acquaintances, both passionate adherents to alarmist versions of climate-change theory, direct me to a December article by Naomi Oreskes in Science magazine that, they said, ought to establish once and for all the existence of a scientific consensus on the issue.

As it happens, I then chanced upon a piece in the Christian Science Monitor about the efforts of a class of Middlebury College students who, in part citing the aforementioned Science article, selecting global-warming skeptic Fred Singer as the first recipient of its “Flat Earth Award.” Singer, so far distant from a shrinking violet that he borders on infrared, responded to the piece in a letter that directed me to some additional, devastating critiques of Oreskes’ work.

Longtime readers know that I tend towards Singerian skepticism about climate-change apocalyptics. I don’t at all see the debate as a case of dispassionate science (global warming theory) fighting against special-interest pleading or ideologically tinged ignorance. Instead, many of the global-warming theorists seem to me to be the ones engaged in advocacy rather than science. For one thing, for a theory to be scientific, it must be falsifiable. When you simultaneously claim that human-induced global warming will cause floods and droughts, heat and snow, less ice and more ice, you come perilously close to issue a prediction that can be endlessly adjusted to fit changing data.

Secondly, a theory has scientific value to the extent that it better explains a set of facts than alternative theories do. Unfortunately for the global-warming alarmists, their computer models do not successfully explain past temperature trends, making it exceedingly difficult to take them seriously as scientific explanations and as useless guides for future policy.

As for the issue of what the scientific “consensus” is on the issue, it is important not to lose one’s skepticism (another hallmark of a scientific mind). When a long list of “scientists” is proffered as evidence of that consensus, it is critical to look for their particular expertise and experience. A brilliant botanist who specializes in Southern conifers does not necessarily qualify as an expert on whether global temperatures are best measured by surface readings, weather balloons, or satellites. Among scientists who actually specialize in the climate, there appears to be far more debate about the extent of warming, its various causes, and its potential effects. And even when you broaden out the scope to include other hard-science scholars, there appears to be substantial dissent from the “consensus.” Certainly anyone with an open mind who reads works by MIT’s Richard Lindzen or Meltdown author Pat Michaels will come away thinking, not necessarily that all global-warming theorists are wrong or serial exaggerators, but at least that a tremendous degree of uncertainty and oversimplification surrounds their claims.

Having read more about the Oreskes controversy, I saw plenty of validation for my initial skepticism. After all, she was claiming that out of about a thousand peer-reviewed journal articles she surveyed, not a single one was inconsistent with the “consensus” in favor of global-warming alarmism. Not a single one? How likely is that, really? This seems to be a case of an activist scholar being too clever by half, as the results apparently cannot be independently verified.

I’m pro-science – that’s why I’m against basing costly public policies on today’s climate-change alarmists.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.