Saturday, February 03, 2007

Why Skepticism is Sound

Tibor R. Machan

In the global warming debate the big issues is whether what human beings do contributes significantly to global warming. That global warming is occurring is not much in dispute, although some scientists do make a good deal of the point that there have been warming periods in the past, some of them far greater than those being recorded in our time. There has of course been steady global warming, on average, since as the earth evolved it was at certain early times covered with ice and quite uninhabitable by anything alive. Warming was a precondition to the emergence of life. But the warming never increased steadily and there have been periods of both, warming and cooling all along. Even after serious warming had commenced, there were long periods during which cold spells reemerged.

At this time, however, there is discernible warming, although the actual records—as distinct from computer projections—show only very small increases in the temperature of the earth. And in some places no warming is occurring at all. However, the history of temperature rise is not what concerns many of the skeptics about climate change. Nearly everyone agrees that there has been a rise recently. What is in dispute is (a) how much of an increase is likely to occur in the future and (b) whether human activities have had, are having, and will have a significant impact on global warming.

As to (a), the evidence is mixed and the more dire predictions are all based on several computer models combined with other computer models. And as the saying goes, "garbage in, garbage out." Here is the first place where skepticism occurs. Are those doing the modeling doing it right and can they actually be trusted to do it right? Is the science and technology on which modeling is based itself—and the scientists themselves—reliable?

Given that global warming research now consists of a mostly government subsidized industry across the globe, including the United Nations, with millions of dollars in grants going to those doing work in the field, there is understandable concern about whether those involved are stacking the deck in favor of a Doomsday scenario. It is often noted by private industry research critics that profit can corrupt research but the same is hardly ever noted in mainstream circles about government subsidized research. Furthermore, skeptics well understand that without a scare, there are fewer funds forthcoming. Government funding requires, ultimately, political support and such support relies heavily on a concerned, even frightened constituency. No Doomsday scenario, no concerned citizenry, and no allocation of funds obtained via taxation.

But there is more. In my own community the rangers put warnings out each day about fire hazards, ranging from "moderate" to "extremely high." Interestingly, the "moderate" sign is displayed even if it is pouring rain. In the ten years I have lived here, there hasn’t been a fire. Yet the "extremely high" has been displayed (by my assessment) routinely roughly 70% of the year. It is a tendency of those assigned to be on the lookout to exaggerate hazards. Vigilance calls for it, as they see their jobs.

As to the human factor, here the skeptics are often concerned about what may be dubbed (following a book by that title by Jonathan R. T. Hughes) the governmental habit—if global warming were unrelated to human activity, there isn’t a lot that politicians and bureaucrats could promise to do about it. Or, alternatively, if the best approach to encouraging responsible human conduct would be to leave politicians out of the picture and simply deploy various measures banning or containing what economists call negative externalities—bad side effects from normal productive processes—that, too, would leave the politicians out of the picture. And then what would they do, how would they gain the power most of them hunger for? There is, then, a strong probability that Doomsday scenarios will be projected by government officials and all those who work for them—get financial support, appointments to prestigious committees, invited to plush conferences, etc., etc.

So when one puts together the lack of solid science and technology behind the claim that global warming is imminent and that human conduct significantly contributes to the probable global warming, the attitude of skepticism is most reasonable. Or, to put it differently, how reasonable is it to trust politicians about their need for increased powers over the rest of us?

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