Skepticism Is Not "Denial"

Monday, September 26, 2011

Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe writes a column about a rhetorical tactic taken by global warming alarmists that makes the nuisance of registering for access to his paper worthwhile. [Update: The column is also available on Jacoby's web site.] In "Climate Skeptics Don't 'Deny Science'", Jacoby relates the following interesting piece of news:

You don't have to look far to see that impeccable scientific standards can go hand-in-hand with skepticism about global warming. Ivar Giaever, a 1973 Nobel laureate in physics, resigned this month as a fellow of the American Physical Society (APS) to protest the organization's official position that evidence of manmade climate change is "incontrovertible" and cause for alarm. In an e-mail explaining his resignation, Giaever challenged the view that any scientific assertion is so sacred that it cannot be contested. 

"In the APS it is OK to discuss whether the mass of the proton changes over time and how a multi-universe behaves," Giaever wrote, incredulous, "but the evidence of global warming is incontrovertible?"

Nor does Giaever share the society's view that carbon emissions threaten "significant disruptions in the Earth's physical and ecological systems, social systems, security, and human health." In fact, the very concept of a "global" temperature is one he questions... [format edits]
There is more in the column, and Jacoby makes a good, although imperfect attempt to explain why AGW deserves so much skepticism.
In truth, global-warming alarmism is not science at all -- not in the way that electromagnetic radiation or the laws of planetary motion or molecular biology is science. Catastrophic climate change is an interpretation of certain scientific data, an interpretation based on theories about the causes and effects of growing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It is not "denying science" to have doubts about the correctness of that interpretation any more than it is "denying economics" to have doubts about the efficacy of Kenyesian pump-priming. 
To avoid giving real science-deniers from the religious right any help, I might have added something like, "This is not to say that solid conclusions about complex, interdisciplinary questions are impossible. For example, biologists regard evolution as a fact." I'd also perhaps have explicitly noted that it is the AGW alarmists, with their bullying tactics, who deny the spirit of science while paying it lip-service.

That said, I think a bigger issue in this debate bears repeating: Endlessly debating this scientific question, while ignoring the political principles behind what (if anything) to do about it, assuming it is happening at all, is a mistake.

-- CAV

--- In Other News ---

Someone has finally gotten around to studying why some languages sound faster than others.

Even Richard Feynman has experienced burnout. Fellow fans of his will want to know how he shook it off.

Jeff Carter, on coming out of the conservative closet in Chicago:
When people find out that I am a conservative, there are three reactions. One, they can't believe it and think I am kidding them, but then talk to me and we become friends. The second is abject horror, they sort of tolerate me but behind my back they insult me. The third is they start pigeon holing me into the most radical of conservative classes. 
The second two, in any kind of "coming out" type of situation, are clues (read: potential warnings) about that person's psycho-epistemology. ("This [pertains] to the method by which he acquires and organizes knowledge -- the method by which his mind deals with its content.") Ignore such information at your own peril.


 Today: (1) Added link to freely-accessible version of Jacoby column. (2) Two minor format edits.


Jennifer Snow said...

Aww, Boston Globe requires registration to read the article. While I'm not opposed to registration on sites per se, I don't want sites I can't even remember visiting to have my info. If I were a Bostonian, I'd probably register, but I'm not.

George said...

The article is available here without registration:

Gus Van Horn said...


See this link.




Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, you write: "Someone has finally gotten around to studying why some languages sound faster than others."

This sort of research sounded vaguely familiar, so this morning I brought it up with a fellow linguist. Turns out he had the latest issue of Language out on his desk so he could read exactly that article, which takes an approach somewhat different from earlier papers I was thinking of (I had read one or two of them in a seminar he led)--of which there are fewer than there should be.

I mentioned that Time had an article about the Language article, and he groaned a little, and I mentioned to him the last passage from the Time article, "It does, however, serve as one more reminder that beneath all of the differences that separate Tagalog from Thai, from Norwegian, from Wolof, from any one of the world's 6,800 other languages, lie some very simple, very common rules. The DNA of speech — like our actual DNA — makes us a lot closer to one another than we think."

He shared by bogglement at that, since even the most nativist linguist imaginable, even more nativist than Chomsky, would hesitate to claim a relation between information transmission rate and speech rate would be inborn (rather, it would be a simple consequence along the lines of Zipf's work in psycholinguistics of spoken language as a means of transmitting information, but exactly how a consequence is the interesting part needing study); even as a metaphor it fails, for the relationship's surely not something fundamentally constitutive of human language but an interesting consequence. We decided what we most wanted done is to grab the reporter by the wrists and make him slap himself until he stops writing stupid things like "the DNA of language," which we further decided is probably a near-universal response among specialists to Time's science reporting.

Gus Van Horn said...

I guess it's "in the DNA" of academics to become annoyed when journalists say things like that. Heh.