Wednesday, March 03, 2010

AGW Science and due process

Tibor R. Machan

A powerful and vital aspect of the fully free society would be that only those burdens may be imposed on citizens that they have been convincingly shown, via due process of law, to deserve. This is roughly how the criminal law works. This is why the prosecution carries the onus of proof and not the defense--all the defense (the skeptic!) needs to do is point out serious holes in the case being mounted by the prosecution and the jury will acquit.

In contrast, when in the old Soviet Union a police officer suspected someone of criminal activity, this would pretty much close the case and the accused would have to try to do something awfully difficult, namely, prove a negative: "I am not guilty."

The New York Times reports in a recent issue that AGW--anthropogenic global warming--scientists are beginning to mount a defense of their work in light of the growing skepticism that follows some of the recent (more or less serious) malpractice by some of them. As The Times presents the story, some of the scientists are pretty much baffled by the persistent skepticism. They appear to believe that their education, research, and academic credentials should suffice to make the case for what they earnestly believe.

This suggests that the protesting scientists share the attitude with the police officers of the former Soviet Union--a suspect is guilty until proven innocent. These--though by no means all--scientists appear to want the skeptics to conclusively disprove AGW.

But in a debate about the AGW hypothesis it isn't the doubters who owe the proof, just as in a court of criminal law (as noted above) it is not the defense that owes the proof but the prosecution. And this is quite sensible: the assertion that someone has done the crime is provable if true since there is a reality corresponding to it; the assertion that someone hasn't done the crime is not except for showing that the case in support of guilt is weak, not true beyond a reasonable doubt. (Proving negatives is only possible once the argument for the positive is in place, otherwise on is shooting in the dark!)

What the scientists need to realize is that a sizable portion of the public holds to the idea: the onus of proof is on those asserting the AGW theory. And it needs to be a solid proof at that since the consequences of accepting it imply Draconian burdens to be imposed on the public, burdens no one ought to suffer unless there is powerful proof that it is deserved.

Al Gore & Co. are very enthusiastic about imposing these burdens not just on Americans and other citizens of developed countries but on virtually everyone across the globe, even those whose chances to finally emerging out of poverty will be severely undermined by them. Given the prospect of such public policy consequence, the pro-AGW scientists simply must realize that many of us don't want a plausible theory, not even a probably true one. What we want is something that nails the case firmly, without any reasonable doubt left. But this of course the scientists haven't managed to produce and there is evidence that among them there are quite a few skeptics--e.g., reportedly among physicists. In other words the pro-AGW scientists need to realize that they don't run the show and cannot expect to lord it over the rest of us merely because they have a strong suspicion about AGW. That will not suffice for free men and women, not by a long shot.

Perhaps it is a sign of the waning influence of the classical liberal political and legal tradition that we are witnessing with these scientists insisting that their current case alone should suffice and we need all comply, never mind reasonable doubt. That would be a devastating development for it could establish a precedent that is completely antithetical to how a government in a free country must treat the citizenry. It would, in short, begin to usher in dictatorship. I doubt even scientists confident of their belief in AGW want something like that to happen.

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