Shlomberg

I’ve written in this space many times about the popular anti-scientists of today. Indeed, The Toronto Star had approached me many weeks ago about writing a feature about this very topic. The article still sits here, waiting for The Star to act on it; I’ll give them a few more days before I get off my duff and pitch it elsewhere. Unsurprising, but largely unknown to the public, is the fact that many of the loudest “scientific” voices shouting anti-scientific messages –almost entirely from a right-of-centre position– are in fact non-scientists.

The topic of Climate Change is particular for its attraction of right wing dogmatists eager to battle the environmentalists, regardless of whether the data support their claims or not. Reading the media’s portrayal of the debate surrounding the issue, I’m saddened and not a little disgusted, to see the exact same voices modify their positions over the years from “climate change is a hoax” to “climate change is vastly overstated and might even be good” to “climate change is real, but has nothing to do with human activity”… Slow inching toward an evidence-based position, but seemingly pulled away kicking and screaming, ever clinging to their irrational ideology-based viewpoints; to wit, the free market can do no ill.

It’s okay, and indeed responsible, to change one’s position as more evidence becomes available. But it’s also responsible to acknowledge that the vehemence of one’s earlier incorrect position was damaging to society’s ability to act on the issue, and then to make amends by fighting ever more vigorously for positive change.

In the case of climate change, it has always been non-experts leading the denial army: statisticians, economists, political scientists, business people and politicians. That these people would be so arrogant as to weigh their lack of expertise against the mountains of evidence and years of research put forth by armies of actual, trained, career environmental experimentalists is beyond sad; it’s sickening.

The most famous of this ilk is Bjorn Lomberg, whom I’ve discussed before. Now, as public opinion turns against his viewpoint, Lomberg himself has softened his data-free stance, with, among others, this interview. Another blogger dissects Lomberg’s transformation here.

I had mistakenly reported that Lomberg is a statistician, because that’s how he portrays himself. In fact, Lomberg’s PhD is in political science. His formal training has nothing to do with climate change or even the science surrounding environmentalism; I don’t know if it’s even about the policies surrounding environmentalism.

All of which is not to say that non-experts are not entitled to get in the game. Not at all. A smart, aware person who takes the time to read the appropriate papers is certainly able to participate in the debate. But to qualify as an expert in the field, with sufficient weight of authority to sway a decision of this magnitude one way or another, requires, I should think, a heft of expertise approaching world expert. Bjorn Lomberg, economist Thomas Sowell and genius-among-chimps George Bush –all of whom are famous for having dismissed climate change research as “not convincing”– do not bloody qualify.

As one Salon letter writer put it, asking Bjorn Lomberg his “expert” opinion on climate change is no better than asking the same from a lug on the street who has had access to google and the Wall Street Journal. Sure, he may be a smart guy. But he’s no expert.

Another letter writer made a further point about Lomberg’s political science background which is thought-provoking. He said that cases of Lomberg and Sowell, and indeed of much climate change denial, is a clear case of humanities training being insufficient to engage an issue demanding scientific rigour. In particular, he argued, when a humanities specialist sees an issue being debated by two authorities on either side, he concludes that the issue is in effective dispute. What he fails to see, that a scientist instantly jumps upon, is that no two authorities are equal: in the case of a scientific issue, the authorities in play are competing studies; one must have the training to be able to distinguish a good study from a bad study. And let me say, the so-called studies so far presented on the climate change denial side are barely opinion papers, while the other side has mountains of rigorously collected hard data. So this scientist rates the debate a “no contest”, based solely on the quality of competing evidence.

Now, some of you are already grousing that Al Gore is not a scientist or any kind of expert. Correct, he is not. But Gore and his people have been careful never to claim that any analyses were conducted by them. Rather, Gore has always claimed to be the dumbed down mouthpiece of the greater scientific community, with all of his famous slideshow vetted by genuine experts. Lomberg and Sowell have never made this claim, nor have Arthur and Zachary Robinson, whom I discussed in my article linked above.

Sadly, the fact that economists, statisticians, business people and humanities scholars can pose as experts in experimental science is indicative not so much of their arrogance, greed or disingenuous, but of the obvious scientific illiteracy of the masses, touched upon in my last post. That “we” can be so easily swayed is evidence that “we” know little ourselves.