Ivory Tower Academic Shames Climate Science “Non-Experts”

ivory-towerI’m going to respond to the CBC opinion piece How the COVID-19 crisis exposes widespread climate change hypocrisy. In it, cognitive scientist Gordon Pennycook tells plebs like me who aren’t climate scientists to shut the fuck up. If you check his bio, you will find papers deriding “climate deniers” and Trump supporters, so I will take his scientific objectivity with a huge grain of salt.

The only long-term solution to the COVID-19 crisis is a vaccine and there is little doubt that medical experts will develop one. We take the importance of expertise of this sort for granted.

Actually, the only long term solution to COVID-19 is herd immunity to the SARS2 corona virus. A vaccine is one way to achieve that. Due to the likelihood of the virus continuing to mutate, this is likely still not a long term solution. COVID-19 is likely here to stay.

We rely on other people for expertise near every day. This is perfectly sensible.

Agreed, but only a fool blindly trusts one expert. Those of us who are intelligent look for multiple sources, especially on complex issues that don’t have simple yes or no answers.

Would you encourage a child to cross a bridge if you knew it wasn’t built by a civil engineer? Would you get in a plane that didn’t have a pilot? If you contracted COVID-19 and difficulties arose, would you go to the doctor?

We should turn to people who know more than we do — particularly for topics that are complex and important. If I knew a bridge that wasn’t built by a civil engineer was safe, I would encourage a child to cross it. If I knew a bridge that was built by a civil engineer was dangerous, like the Florida International University pedestrian bridge, I would not encourage a child to cross it. In an emergency, I might fly with someone who didn’t have a pilot’s licence but knew how to fly. I wouldn’t fly with a licensed pilot if I knew they were drunk. If I had severe COVID-19 symptoms, I would go to a doctor. If I had mild symptoms, I would stay home and take care of myself.

If you accept this logic, there’s no way you should reject the idea that humans are causing climate change.

While I don’t accept your black and white logic, or your false equivalence, I  do accept the idea that humans a causing climate change. There is good evidence that we are accelerating climate change that was already naturally occurring. See my post Why Sceptics Doubt Climate Change.

It is indisputable that the most established experts on global climate – those whose job it is to understand our climate and who actively publish primary research on it – are effectively unanimous in their agreement that climate change is happening and that humans are the cause. Seriously. Around 97 per cent of climate scientists agree.

This is false. This claim has been thoroughly debunked by one of the UN IPCC’s own lead authors, Dr. Richard Tol. In his blog post on the subject (read it for the full excoriation), he points out:

  • Consensus has no place in science
  • The claim was that 97% of articles, not scientists, were pro human climate change
  • The claim was that humans had some impact on climate, not that it was dominant
  • The claim was not reproducible

If you see an interview or article or lecture from someone who is skeptical about climate change, you should check and see if the author has actually published scientific research on the topic. They almost certainly have not.

Einstein (held up as a paragon of science in this article) held a mere teaching diploma when, while working in the Swiss patent office, he created the theory of relativity. Darwin (also cited) was a mere bachelor of the arts when he journeyed on the HMS Beagle. Research published in peer reviewed journals can be junk, and research published on a random blog can be brilliant.

Those of us who are not experts on climate change (myself included – I am a cognitive scientist, not a climate scientist) have no justifiable reason to reject the expertise of those who are.

The scientific establishment’s orthodoxy must often be rejected by newcomers to a field who bring paradigm breaking ideas. For example, Einstein famously decried quantum mechanics, because he refused to believe that God would play dice with the universe, yet a great many of the crazy predictions of  the theory have since been proven experimentally.

We all accept the value of expertise in our everyday lives. Those who reject the scientific consensus on climate change are, to put it bluntly, hypocrites.

Accepting the value of expertise is not the same as blindly trusting it. Here’s a personal example. I once had a disagreement with a senior developer who worked for me on how to solve a problem. We went to the CTO of our company. He agreed with the developer, and based on this, even though I was quite sure the expert was wrong in this case, we did it his way. The result was that the ‘solution’ failed and was thrown out by a more senior developer when he joined the team.

So why do people who normally trust expertise reject it for climate change? The answer has more to do with politics than climate science.

Climate science is politicized. If you argue that it isn’t, you will never convince a climate skeptic. If you believe Al Gore is unbiased, I have a bridge to sell you.

People with vested interests have been spending millions of dollars a year for three decades to trick us into believing either that there is not a scientific consensus on climate change (there is – see above) or that climate scientists are not credible experts (they are – see below).

As IPCC climate scientist Richard Tol says, consensus is not science. Not all climate scientists are credible experts. Many in the scientific community are political animals. To claim otherwise makes you seem dishonest or a useful idiot.

There is no global conspiracy among scientists to cause a global panic about climate change in order to get rich. If anything, it would be far more lucrative for climate scientists to deny climate change.

I agree there is no conspiracy. Most research scientists do, however, have to appeal to political bodies for grant money. Going against the orthodox consensus (which again, is not science) can mean you go without. Denying climate change would mean less government grant money, not more.

For example, Craig Idso – a prominent climate change denier who has nonetheless not published on the topic since 2003 – was reportedly paid $11,600 per month in 2012 by the Heartland Institute, a conservative think-tank funded by the oil industry. Trust me, being employed as a scientist at a university is not nearly as lucrative.

But as you said, he is not a scientist. The number of scientists being funded by the oil industry is a tiny fraction of those funded by the world’s governments.

Another planted argument is that climate scientists are pushing the global warming narrative in pursuit of grants and prestige. This is not really how prestige works in academia.

Promoting the orthodox view is what grants and their gatekeepers do. This makes sense since many non-orthodox ideas (e.g. cold fusion) are fly-by-night wastes of money, Academic prestige comes from being able to attract a lot of grant money, and therefore hire a lot of graduate students, and therefore publish a lot of research. Arguably, in academia, being able to write a good grant proposal will get you further than doing good science.

Think about the most well-known scientists of the past, such as Newton, Darwin, or Einstein. What they have in common is they gained notoriety and prestige by bucking the status quo, not upholding it. In short, they provided evidence that their colleagues are wrong.

As stated above, Einstein was an outsider who worked for the patent office. Darwin had a bachelor’s degree in a program his father had enrolled him in in order that he become an Anglican country parson. Similarly, Newton was working towards a bachelor of the arts when he came up with calculus, and he refined the theory privately. For every great scientist who bucks the status quo, there are thousands who hold comfortable tenured positions in government funded universities and happily work around the edges of known science. I am a computer scientist, and I’ve come up with some interesting ideas, some of which I’ve published. I’m humble enough to know that, though I have expertise in my area, there are brilliant people (like my colleagues Simon and Paul) who don’t have degrees in computer science, but are able to come up with truly amazing stuff.

For the same reason, there is a huge incentive for individual scientists to undermine the consensus on human-caused climate change – particularly given the strength of the consensus and importance of the issue. Successfully doing so would likely make them one of the most famous living scientists.

Most scientists I know care more about being right (and being acknowledged for it) that being famous.

The fact that no one has done this indicates that the evidence probably just isn’t there.

There are a few scientists who have presented such evidence. For example, Dr. Roy Spencer, a climatologist and former NASA scientist, who’s blog Global Warming has a wealth of information, is a skeptic. Research costs money. People who are able to get established scientists to approve their papers get published, which one must do to get most of that money. The fact that no one published papers on the dangers of tobacco smoking until the 1940’s, but the habit had become popular decades before, doesn’t mean there wasn’t evidence that tobacco was dangerous prior to 1940.

The unfortunate reality is that it is extremely easy to feel like an expert on a topic without actually being one. In fact, a lack of expertise makes it difficult to know whether you have sufficient expertise. If you don’t know the basic underlying science (it’s probably way more complicated than you think), then you can’t know that you don’t know it. This is referred to as the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Because I’m not an expert, I don’t talk about the details of climate models. I don’t have to be an expert to point out that these are models, and are predictive. You don’t have to read all the papers on climate science to gain a basic understanding. The IPCC reports give a clear summary. I have read them, which is probably more than most can say. Using the Dunning-Kruger effect as a weapon to bludgeon people into silence is reprehensible.

The conclusion from all of this is quite simple. You should believe that humans are causing climate change precisely because you don’t understand it. At the very least, those of us who are not climate scientists should recognize that and remain agnostic. It’s okay to say that you don’t know.

To paraphrase: you are too stupid to disagree with me. I agree that one should (almost always) remain agnostic. Even Richard Dawkins admitted that he would never be 100% atheist. But that doesn’t mean that one can’t have an opinion, especially on the political implications of the science. Telling people they are too dumb to understand science insures that scientific illiteracy will continue.

This is not a call to stop trying to understand climate science. Do it. But whatever understanding you achieve, don’t forget to maintain some intellectual humility.

I agree 100%. If you don’t want people to stop trying to understand climate science, then don’t tell them “you should believe all humans are causing climate change”. Tell them that scientific orthodoxy (in this case, that humans are causing global warming) must be confronted with facts. When Einstein claimed that nothing could exceed the speed of light, no matter how long it was accelerated, scientists didn’t just believe him. His theory was battle tested with experiments. Every experiment that confirmed it made it stronger.

The same scientific process that gave you the technology you’re using to read this article has produced the consensus around human-caused climate change.

I worked on the technology that you’re using to read this article. The scientific process produced very little of it. The original Darpa research that built the internet was experimental in nature. No one modeled the internet, then came up with the software to build it. It was developed bit by bit. Large chunks of it were built by talented amateurs like Linus Torvalds. The best science is open to all, not reserved for the elites.

If you trust experts to build bridges, improve the battery life on your iPhone and build lifesaving vaccines, you should trust them on climate change.

This is a false equivalence. Building bridges and improving battery life are both largely engineering, not science. The science of materials and stress is mostly well understood. I don’t trust scientists to build lifesaving vaccines that are 100% safe. Before I take a new vaccine, I personally analyze the risk. Do I get expert advice? Yes. Do I listen to unscientific antivax conspiracy theories? No. Will you blindly take the first SARS2 coronavirus vaccine that’s produced, or will you watch what happens when those at high risk of COVID-19 fare before you do?

I largely agree with Pennycook that we should listen to what the experts are saying. I entirely disagree with his implication that anyone who is not an expert should shut up. His arguments epitomize the view from the ivory tower of academia. In the real world, science is based on evidence, not consensus. In the open source community, there is a saying: “show me the code”. If you make claims, be prepared to back them up, as Roy Spencer does with his UAH Satellite based global atmospheric temperature data.

About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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