Wednesday, June 8, 2005

Strategic Skepticism and Climate Change

The New York Times is reporting today that "a White House official who once led the oil industry's fight against limits on greenhouse gases has repeatedly edited government climate reports in ways that play down links between such emissions and global warming." The official in question, Philip A. Cooney, made the changes in order to emphasize, even exaggerate the uncertainty of current climate science.

This hardly comes as a surprise.

The Bush administration seems inordinately fond of what I call "strategic skepticism": using doubt as a weapon to defend the status quo against any and all critics. To appeal to strategic skepticism is to claim the benefit of the doubt for oneself, and to shift all of the burdens of doubt onto the shoulders of others. It is especially useful for powerful individuals and institutions who are defending themselves against critics who lack political or economic clout and so must rely entirely on the force of argument. If argument is all they have to change the world, undermine their arguments and the world will stay safely and comfortably unchanged.

According to Richard Popkin, this is precisely what Erasmus and other defenders of the Catholic Church tried to do to fend off the Reformation. Luther claimed that the standard of truth lay within the conscience of an individual who has carefully and prayerfully studied scripture. Erasmus argued that our faculties are too weak to attain any such certainty, so we should all (so to speak) stick with the devil we know: papal infallibility.

The irony is hard to miss: skepticism as an argument for the uncritical acceptance of authority.

So it is with the Bush administration. For them to insist on sound science in climate change and to pick at every uncertainty, no matter how small, amounts to straining out gnats and swallowing camels.

It reminds me of an exchange I once had with one of my brothers. I argued that there is enough evidence for human-induced climate change to justify public policies to reduce greenhouse gases.

My brother maintained that the science was too uncertain. His tone suggested that science itself is too uncertain to be worth much, which would be an odd claim for an engineer to make. In any case, my brother told me, Jesus will be coming back soon, so none of it matters anyway; he knows this, it seems, from reading Revelation.

So, I replied, we are to dismiss the best that current science has to offer because it is "uncertain", but we are to accept at face value a hallucination suffered on a Greek island nearly two thousand years ago, and use this as a basis for public policy?

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