I was raised by a scientist (life sciences) and then studied some history of science in graduate school. And because of both I approach all scientific knowledge with what I think is a healthy measure of skepticism. Because our understanding of the natural world is often very different from one decade, certainly from one century, to the next.
But to maintain a skepticism which is rooted in the inherently tentative nature of all scientific knowledge is quite different from assuming that the science is wrong and that what’s right is what I’d prefer to be true even though I don’t know anything about the science at all — which is where a lot of the public discussion of climate change seems to occur.
What I’ve been thinking about for a while is how it is that very few people doubt physicists or oncologists when it comes to their areas of specialty even though theories come and go in those fields as well. There’s little doubt, for instance, that physicists at the end of this century will know a lot of things today’s scientists got wrong or don’t know. And they’ll know how many things today’s physicists believe that are just wrong. Still, I’m pretty confident nuclear warheads will go off, even if, as far as I know, one’s never been tested on the tip of an ICBM. Perhaps more to the point, medical science today clearly has only a very limited understanding of cancer. But how many oncology skeptics do you know who choose to take a pass on chemo or radiation if they get sick?
Admittedly these are not perfect analogies. Nuclear warheads and clinical oncology have both in different ways been shown to work in controlled experiments. And that’s a basic difference. You don’t have the same ability to run tests in geo- or climate sciences. But the same holds even for other sciences where controlled studies are not possible.
I can’t say that I really have any sophisticated understanding of the science of climate change. I don’t think that most people I know who are pro-cap and trade do either. For me, the fact that the vast majority of people with specialized knowledge in the field think there’s a problem is good enough for me.
Put baldly like that, perhaps it suggests a certain incuriousness. But I can’t be knowledgeable about everything. And I’m comfortable with the modern system in which the opinions of really knowledgeable people with expertise counts more in cases like this than people who know nothing at all.
I would not be terribly shocked if the predictions we’re getting today about the climate turned out to be dramatically off. (Of course, it could be dramatically worse as well as dramatically better.) For political reasons, because there’s so much nonsense in the air, you’re not supposed to say that I guess. But there’s inevitable uncertainty about how such a complex system as the global climate functions. But in our own lives, in the real world, we live in a science based world. It’s the premise on which almost everything rests. And pretty much everyone assumes that cell phones will work, bombs will go off, medical treatments will give us the best chance of survival. Only this one example is different.
Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.