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[off topic] Consensus Science, the Law, and Al Gore

HT to Birdblog for this article from the Wall Street Journal. Increasingly, when the scientific merits are lacking, judicial fiat is called into play.

Climate of Opinion
Holman W. Jenkins Jr.
April 4, 2007; Page A14


Al Gore will have no trouble finding in Monday’s Supreme Court ruling more evidence that global warming is a reality, indeed a dire threat.

He will soon say — you can take this to the bank — words like: “Now, even a majority of the Supreme Court has recognized the danger of global warming.” And he’ll be right in the sense that the Court invokes the magic word “consensus” for a physical fact that itself is unproven, unprovable and exists purely in the realm of speculation.

Al Gore has made himself, in his curious way, the personification of a society’s impulse to manufacture political certainty out of irresolvable scientific uncertainty, of which the Supreme Court is the latest culprit/victim. You can see this by arranging the questions related to global warming in descending order of urgency.

The most urgent, by definition, is Mr. Gore’s claim that the atmosphere is in such a calamitous state that we have “no more than 10 years before we cross a point of no return.” How does he know, asked interviewer Charlie Rose last year?

Mr. Gore’s answer: “I accept the fact that the most respected scientists whose judgment I think is the best are now concerned that we may be in that territory.”

The second question is whether human-produced carbon dioxide is driving this dangerous warming. Invariably, Mr. Gore cites a single observation: that such a belief is the “consensus” of scientists.

Only at the third question — is there evidence that global warming is actually occurring? — do we enter the realm of the observable. Air and sea temperature can be measured. The standard observation is that the planet has fitfully warmed by one degree Celsius over the past century, but this figure is produced by massaging inconsistent readings from many times and places. Different assumptions would produce different trends, or none at all. And that’s without considering whether a planetary “average” temperature is even a meaningful datapoint (some have likened it to averaging all the phone numbers in the phone book).

In any case, evidence of warming is not evidence of manmade warming.

It would surprise the public, and even the Supreme Court, to know how utterly the science of global warming offers no evidence whatsoever on the central proposition. What fills Mr. Gore’s film, books, speeches and congressional testimony are scientific observations and quasi-scientific observations, all right. They concern polar bears, mosquitoes, hurricanes, ice packs and everything but whether humans cause global warming.

Some of this evidence may suggest, weakly or strongly, the existence of warming trends in particular parts of the world (such local trends, both cooling and warming, have been observed in many places and many times). More dubiously, some may indicate a generalized warming. But none offers any evidence that carbon dioxide is causing warming. Mr. Gore’s method is the equivalent of trying to prove that Jack killed Jane by going on and on about how awful it was that Jane was killed.

Polemicists in favor of human-caused global warming liken skeptics to tobacco lobbyists who denied the link between smoking and lung cancer. In fact, it makes a useful analogy.

Suppose the world consisted of exactly one smoker who could be observed only from a distance to test the theory that smoking causes lung cancer. If he died of cancer, it wouldn’t prove smoking causes cancer. If he failed to die of cancer, it wouldn’t prove smoking doesn’t cause cancer.

The link between smoking and cancer is made by observing millions of smokers and nonsmokers. Indeed, what led scientists to seek systematic evidence of a link in the first place was anecdotal evidence that smokers, of whom there have been millions, appeared to die in unusual numbers from lung cancer.

Nothing remotely similar has been involved in developing the hypothesis that carbon dioxide creates warming. The relevant observations are a mess: Measured global temperature has both risen and fallen for considerable periods during the past century, even as CO2 has risen steadily. The geologic record suggests the world was much cooler in the past despite CO2 concentrations higher than today’s. Unlike smoking and cancer, there’s no anecdotal observation for the hypothesis that CO2 causes planetary warming. It may or may not be true, but to believe it is a “scientific truth” is to make a leap of faith, not science.

The consensus that human activities are causing global warming is purely a social invention — there’s no way of showing it to be so, and no self-evident reason for preferring to believe it’s so. The “consensus” is, in truth, a product of itself.

Now we are prepared to get the joke. It came during last fall’s Supreme Court oral argument about global warming, when the learned Justices, allowing the word “consensus” to serve as evidence of manmade warming, devoted themselves instead to a solemn discussion of how many inches of sea-level rise, and thus how many square miles of coastal inundation, the EPA is guilty of failing to prevent by refusing to regulate U.S. tailpipe emissions (which account for just 8% of human CO2 output).

Sen. James Inhofe is notorious for saying the theory of manmade global warming is a “hoax.” Obviously we need a better theory than Mr. Inhofe’s of when head-counting is a useful way of estimating the validity of a factual proposition and when it isn’t. Until then, it’s perhaps sufficient to say that many people believe in manmade global warming because many people believe in manmade global warming; Al Gore believes in it because many people believe in it; many people believe in it because Al Gore believes in it; and so on, right up to the highest court in the land.

Mr. Jenkins is a Wall Street Journal columnist.

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20 Responses to [off topic] Consensus Science, the Law, and Al Gore

  1. “no more than 10 years before we cross a point of no return.”

    Can anyone say “wiggle-room”? IOW if we do as Al sez and global warming continues it is because we have passed that “point of no return”.

    IOW Al can’t lose!

    It will either be “Thank “God” you listened to me when you did”, or “You didn’t listen to me soon enough.”

  2. Man, I just took a gander at Yahoo news. Judging by the barrage of stories on global warming, I think it’s safe to say the end of the world is at hand. To think, all the lucky arrangements of matter that meaningless chance and necessity has accomplished over billions of years might be in jeopardy of becoming different arrangements of matter. Truly terrifying.

  3. IOW Al can’t lose!

    The last time I went there, Rush Limbaugh’s website has a 10 year countdown to the global warming apocalypse, starting from the first announcement from Gore about the deadline over a year ago. Cute idea.

    Before Al, the timeframe was almost always 50 years for the disaster du jour. Just enough time for it to be in the audience’s lifetime, but too far in the future for it to be remembered once it was proven wrong.

    The year 2000 made for a convenient deadline, since it was a nice round number that Christian premillenialists were already buzzing about. Environmentalists like Paul Ehrlich and Rachel Carson could thus echo the religious doomsayers while wrapping themselves in the mantle of science, making their otherwise hysterical nonsense seem more plausible.

    I’d been thinking about this subject for the past month, and finally finished up a video about it last night. Click on my name to see it (it’s episode #7).

  4. Joseph

    It will either be “Thank “God” you listened to me when you did”, or “You didn’t listen to me soon enough.”

    There’s a third and most likely outcome IMO. We do nothing and nothing bad happens. This is the course that we’ll end up taking because there’s too much resistance and bickering when it comes to actually making a sacrifice and who makes how much.

    China is on the verge of becoming the #1 single largest source of CO2 in the world. You think they’re going to play along and harm their economy over this? And if they don’t why should we? China was exempt from Kyoto. Do you think that’s fair and isn’t it essential that the biggest CO2 sources all cooperate? All the tailpipe emissions in the U.S. together are 8% of manmade CO2. If that’s reduced by half in the next ten years it will probably trigger a depression. Not one of these mild recessions of recent decades but a full blown depression more like the Great Depression of the 1930′s. I don’t think people realize how fragile the economy is and what a large burden such as this will do to it. To add insult to injury halving U.S. tailpipe emissions doesn’t significantly reduce total global CO2 emissions so it’s all for nothing in any case.

  5. “It came during last fall’s Supreme Court oral argument about global warming, when the learned Justices, allowing the word “consensus” to serve as evidence of manmade warming…” –ds

    My take on this all is that when a majority of the group of folks who are, by all accounts, *supposed* to know the most about a subject say “X is the case” it’s pretty difficult to discount them, particular from outside the field. And I am well outside the field so I, somewhat reluctantly, suspect they are correct. They could certainly be wrong, and such consensus opinions have been wrong in the past, but it’s usually a good idea to put your money on their being right. Now personally, unlike Al Gore, I’m not all that worked up about global warming; I like to think that–if it is indeed man-made–it is a pre-emptive strike against the upcoming and inevitable ice-age. Nevertheless I support taking precautionary measures because I think curbing of pollution is generally a good thing. I rather like nature. Yes, I’m concerned about the impact of regulations on the economy; we can’t ignore day-to day-realities, but neither can we let the economic beast steer civilization. We sometimes have to provide the appropriate incentives to the markets and let the economy adapt so that civilization, as a whole, moves in the appropriate direction. Like evolution, I don’t see the economy as being particularly gifted with foresight.

  6. All this is especially funny in light of the fact that Kyoto-related Greenhouse Hypocrisy has been the number one export from our European pals.

    China is certainly of concern, and per the IPCC report with all its accompanying gloom, the very numbers indicated that even if energy usage in the US were to come to a sreeching halt, the Third World is not going to give up (or pay for) Carbonated Sin anytime soon–so long as economic situations demand (as most of us think they should) something a little more than the “pastoral”, agrarian existence of near-starvation and walking around like Russian grandmothers with pickle jars for shopping. Or lighting oil lamps at night, like Laura Engalls on Little House on the Prarie.

  7. 7
    sagebrush gardener

    angryoldfatman wrote:

    The year 2000 made for a convenient deadline, since it was a nice round number that Christian premillenialists were already buzzing about. Environmentalists like Paul Ehrlich and Rachel Carson could thus echo the religious doomsayers while wrapping themselves in the mantle of science, making their otherwise hysterical nonsense seem more plausible.

    Rachel Carson died 14 April 1964.

  8. sagebrush, I think angryoldfatman means that the deadlines for these individuals’ apocalyptic prophecies coincided with the end of the century, not that the individuals lived until then. I have no idea whether this is true or not, but I think it is what angryoldfatman was saying.

  9. 9
    sagebrush gardener

    I see. Thank you, Eric.

  10. 10
    The Scubaredneck

    I just love the way the establishment crowd (be they Darwinists or global warming folks) have suddenly gotten all cozy with the courts. I noticed on one blog that a poster nicely pointed out that the courts are praised for issuing opinions that support evolution, for example, but when you read their “definitions” for science, come up substantially lacking.

    The example offered was McLean v. Arkansas Board of Ed, which offered a really bad set of “characteristics” for science. Not only were these obviously slanted to include only materialistic, reductionistic science, lots of areas of accepted science don’t realy fit these criteria.

    I guess that’s what happens when judges try and play arm-chair philosophers of science. ;-)

  11. DaveScot:
    There’s a third and most likely outcome IMO. We do nothing and nothing bad happens.

    Rocky Balboa:
    Absolutely.

    Great_Ape:
    Nevertheless I support taking precautionary measures because I think curbing of pollution is generally a good thing.

    Rocky:
    Absolutely.

    And perhaps if water becomes an issue in some areas perhaps populations will pull together to create a solution. Then again most likely the corrupt are too well entrenched in the positions required to actually do something about region-wide issues involving the life or death of millions of people.

    Myself I am looking forward to the winter solistice of 2012. Even Al can stop that conjuction. ;)

  12. Eric Anderson is correct about my intentions.

  13. I just heard a piece against the so called Climate Change “doubters” on BBC. It is interesting that when people trash the “doubters” they say the “doubters” doubt Global Warming.

    My understanding is that most “doubters” actually doubt, not Global Warming, but that human contributed CO2 is the main/only cause.

    It is similar to when “Darwin doubters” are accused, not of thinking that the Darwinian mechanisms of RM and NS are other than adequate, but rather we are accused of totally excluding any evolution, believing in the fixity of species and the Bible and a young earth.

  14. idnet

    Human caused global warming pundits using strawman arguments just like chance & necessity evolutionists?

    Say it ain’t so! :lol:

  15. 15

    “China is on the verge of becoming the #1 single largest source of CO2 in the world.”

    That would be the anthropomundus, not the entire world, unless China has a lot of volcanoes.

  16. This article at nature.com:
    Mars is getting hotter

    Has led me to an inescapable conclusion:

    There are SUVs on Mars

  17. 17

    “I guess that’s what happens when judges try and play arm-chair philosophers of science.”

    They should have stuck with their Constitutional mandate and only defined religion. The Constitution never assumes that religion and science are mutually exclusive, so the definition of science should have been irrelevant. If we could convince the courts of that, we might be able to argue that evolution education is religious indoctrination.

  18. Before I said we should try artificial photosynthesis as a method of taking the excess CO2 out of the air.

    Perhaps that isn’t quite necessary but perhaps we should build giant factory-sized Oreck air cleaners.

  19. Hey Apollos,

    Your wrong it isn’t suvs it is actually the secret government bases where they are experimenting with the Roswell aliens. Area 51 is a dummy base, the real bases are on Mars. That is why there are so many UFO sightings, they are government employees commuting to work on Mars.

  20. Crash: don’t be so sure. The latest image from the Cydonia region supports my theory:

    SUVs on Mars

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