Commentary Magazine


Don’t Trust the Experts

Max Boot’s insistence that only climatologists should be allowed to comment on global warming is bizarre, and actually anti-scientific, if you think about it. As I’ve pointed out before, science is not some kind of cabal, or a secret society open only to initiates; the beauty of science is that the evidence is there for everyone to look at and interpret. (This is why Al Gore, an ex-politician who earned a D in a college course called “Man’s Place in Nature,” feels qualified to disagree with Richard Lindzen, the Sloan Professor of Atmospheric Science at MIT.) The “consensus” offered in the IPCC Summary for Policymakers is not evidence, but the interpretation of evidence that’s been sanctioned by a particular body of scientists. But that doesn’t mean it’s the right one—especially if that body has been engineered to exclude or put pressure on scientists with other views.

The cancer analogy Mr. Boot offers doesn’t make much sense. When an oncologist tells you that you have cancer, you’re dealing with something that can be proven beyond a doubt—usually by looking at a biopsy sample. By contrast, the worry about global warming involves changes that are merely predicted to occur with more or less likelihood. In most cases, the predictions are based on trends whose existence can’t even be established with certainty. There’s no gold standard here; there’s only a set of assumptions and the statistical models built around them. You don’t have to be a climatologist to understand the potential pitfalls of making predictions this way.

A better analogy would be asking twenty oncologists about the odds that you’ll develop cancer at some point in the near future. It’s almost impossible to imagine that you’d get the same answer from all of them, and some of their guesses might be no better than a meteorologist’s—especially if the meteorologist has read the literature on cancer risk factors, as anyone with a basic understanding of statistics and experimental design can easily do. In fact, such a meteorologist might be able to tell you that the “consensus” of medical professionals on cancer detection and prevention often has no basis in fact. Of course, it’s cheap and easy to eat more fiber, or to do a breast self-exam (neither has been proven to reduce cancer mortality), so one might as well do these things. Cutting carbon dioxide emissions in half, by contrast, is neither cheap nor easy.

One might ask, moreover, why Mr. Boot feels that the “policy implications” of global warming are something that can be discussed without any scientific literacy. Consider his recommendation that we end sugar subsidies to make sugar-derived ethanol cheaper. What makes Mr. Boot think that burning ethanol would contribute less to climate change than burning fossil fuels? Isn’t this also a scientific question?

I certainly agree with Mr. Boot that it would be desirable for us to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, but the argument for this doesn’t have to invoke the bogeyman of climate change.