Tuesday, October 09, 2007
Jim May writes in to inform me that John Tierney has written a must-read which appears in the New York Times on what he calls a "severe case of mistaken consensus".
Discussing the incorrectness of the pronouncements of a prominent scientific adviser to a past President, Tierney states that:
It may seem bizarre that [he] could go so wrong. After all, wasn't it his job to express the scientific consensus? But that was the problem. [He] was expressing the consensus. He ... went wrong by listening to everyone else. He was caught in what social scientists call a cascade.No, the article isn't about global warming, although it indirectly makes a good point about the current global warming debate.
We like to think that people improve their judgment by putting their minds together, and sometimes they do. The studio audience at “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” usually votes for the right answer. But suppose, instead of the audience members voting silently in unison, they voted out loud one after another. And suppose the first person gets it wrong.
I have argued here before that the biggest shortcoming in the global warming debate is that two separate questions are being confounded. These are: (1) Is human activity causing the climate to become warmer through emissions of greenhouse gases? And (2) If so, should the government impose economic regulations to counteract these effects? In our current debate, legions of non-scientists are fixated on the first question and failing to ask the second question at all, assuming that its answer is "Yes".
The government is the sole social institution that properly wields force (i.e., through the delegated rights of citizens to use force to defend their lives and rights). All questions regarding whether the government ought to "do something" are thus really questions about whether the government should use force. The proper answer to all such questions -- unless any given proposal would lead to the government better protecting the rights of all citizens -- is "No!" because the sole purpose of the government is to protect individual rights.
When the government acts for any purpose other than the protection of individual rights, it forces men to act in accordance to its dictates rather than in accordance with their own best judgement, just like a gun-toting thug saying "Your money or your life." Whether what the government tells you to do happens to coincide with what you might correctly decide to do on your own is irrelevant to the question of whether the government ought to force you to be doing it. The fact is, you are not free act otherwise.
The fact that the government can potentially force us to act in accordance with an incorrect conclusion since it is the "consensus" position eloquently illustrates what is wrong with letting the government run some aspect of our life, rather than protecting our freedom to decide what we ought to do for ourselves.
Tierney's piece is indeed a warning against blindly accepting the "consensus", as so many do in the global warming debate, but that is not the only lesson we should take from it. The real take-home message is that we ought to examine the wisdom of the consensus view that the government should act to save us from every apparent crisis.