Scientists contra Opinion-makers in the Great Climate Change Debate
February 10, 2012Posted by on
Quite recently, I had an argument with one old friend. He is right-wing oriented (he really digs Ayn Rand), which can be an explosive factor sometimes, but since I like to see myself as a pragmatist when it comes to politics, it is not always that hot. What triggered this disagreement was actually the global change of climate. Unfortunately, at that time we both had some drinks already so it was rather a shouting match, and I have to say I have a strong feeling of disappointment for my side of the argument because I was not able to keep myself calm and rational. Anyway, the argument was followed by an email conversation, which gave us more space for calm articulation of our arguments, but to my surprise the results were not much better.
The core of the fiasco was, I think, in the disagreement about what scientific process is and what it actually means to be skeptical. More specifically, the morning after the disagreement I sent him some links (e.g. http://www.skepticalscience.com) that were quite praised in some of my favorite skeptical podcast. Also, I did not find any factual mistakes (I can judge that only as a science fan – I have a background in scientific method, statistics, and philosophy of science, but I certainly am not a climate scientist), and the claims the authors made were supported by references to peer-reviewed articles that appeared to be relevant. My friend countered with some blogs, and that’s where the troubles started. Firstly, he was very affronted that the term “skeptic” was “stolen” by a group of people that are “supporters of scientific establishment”. Secondly, he was very disappointed that I did not read the whole blog posts he sent me.
I think that the misunderstanding was based on the fact that he does not have a scientific background at all (he is a lawyer), hence he did not see how relevant was that I used some basic red-flag rules: whether the author was educated in some relevant field, whether he or she used references to peer-reviewed sources, whether the author used quantifiers, whether there were some attacks ad hominem, whether there were factual errors and misrepresentations, etc.
My reaction killed the argument, because I just told him that if he wants to actually understand the issue, he should start by reading about scientific method, the role of peer-review, and scientific consensus. Then, I followed, he would probably see that if he wants to be a part of the discussion on the scientific basis, he most probably needs a degree in some relevant field. However, this obviously does not work. For some reason, the whole issue became framed in terms of scientific establishment contra dissent, and that the most important value is the scientific freedom (meaning that everyone’s opinion should be valued the same).
Frankly, I do not know how to react to this attitude. If I start to describe the basics, I am labeled as a patronizing smart-ass that does not want to see the main point for some miniscule details. How do I defend the relevance of details when I am not allowed to describe the basic principles of science? Everyone can see that it is presumptuous to make claims about string theory without a proper background. How come there is no such caution when it comes to climate science?