Tuesday, August 23, 2011

How can we tell which scientists are right about climate change?

On the surface, Kevin Williamson sounds reasonable here:
Scientific disputes are highly specialized, and meaningful participation in them requires a great deal of non-generalist knowledge. I’m generally skeptical of argument from credential, but there’s a time for it. For instance, a great number of scientists have a particular view of global warming. Richard Lindzen has reservations about that view. Professor Lindzen is an atmospheric physicist a full-on professor at MIT. Your average politician is not packing the gear to get in the middle of that fight. I’m not. Chait isn’t, either. Is Lindzen not a real scientist? Is he a kook? Is Jonathan Chait going to make that case? Given two scientists with different opinions about climate forecasting, why exactly ought I to consult Jonathan Chait, or Jon Huntsman?
But here's the thing: We laypeople don't have to referee a dispute between two scientists. We can look at what the broader scientific community has to say about the topic. And it's not a 50-50 proposition.
In 2010, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a survey of 1,372 climate researchers, finding that 97 to 98 percent of those publishing in the field said they believe humans are causing global warming. That’s the same majority that existed in a similar 2009 survey. Dissenters do exist, the PNAS study found, but “the relative climate expertise and scientific prominence of the researchers unconvinced … are substantially below that of the convinced researchers.” Either way, the ranks of dissenters don’t appear to be swelling.
Now, is it possible that more than 1,000 climate scientists who comprise the leaders in their field are wrong about this? Sure. Anything's possible. But given the overwhelming consensus, it would seem that folks like Rick Perry who claim science has disproven climate change have an added burden to make their case.

That would be the case in the scientific realm. In the political realm, it's different, of course.

I'm concerned that Rick Perry (seemingly) cavalierly denies climate science because that suggests to me that he has decided to entirely disregard true facts and the conclusions that emerge from them. I have more respect for conservatives like Jim Manzi and Steve Hayward who generally acknowledge the scientific consensus and argue more about the appropriate response. (They think liberal solutions would do too much damage to the economy to be worth the trade-off, roughly speaking.) That's a great debate to have. But it seems ridiculous to debate whether climate change exists when the knowledgeable dissenters are so few.

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