Mistaking Politics for Science: Global Warming

Watching Rick Perry’s incoherent response to a question about Global Warming in this evening’s Republican Presidential debate,  I was struck once again by the confusion often shown in what the debate is about.

Essentially, he said that he doubts the consensus conclusions of scientific inquiry on Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) because he doesn’t like the idea of making changes to the American economy that he sees as damaging. This isn’t an uncommon stance.

Perhaps he’s right that a Carbon Tax or Cap and Trade would be too damaging to the economy to be worth it; I don’t know. However, that’s a different issue than the scientific questions of whether the atmosphere is warming and what role humanity plays.

He’s objecting to a scientific conclusion because he disagrees with a potential resulting political reaction.

It’s a non sequitur.

We tend to talk about Global Warming as though there were only one level of the debate, but there are really four stages:

  1. Whether the globe is warming. This is purely a scientific issue because it’s a discussion of objective historical records. Laymen can debate it, but we’d really just be arguing about different impressions of what the experts say is in the evidence. And the evidence is rock solid on this.
  2. Whether the warming is due to human activity. This again is purely a scientific issue because it’s a discussion of why something is happening in the physical world – it’s not really a venue for political opinion. The experts aren’t 100% unanimous on this, but it’s above 95%, and the confidence is growing because the fundamental physics and empirical observations agree.
  3. What will happen next. This is still a scientific debate, but the science inherently cannot be as confident on this. After all, this is the realm of computer models and prediction. However, the models are pretty consistent that things will get bad in lots of ways if the current trends continue unabated. Could the models be wrong? Sure, but they’ve been validated enough that the starting position should be to accept their general conclusions unless a good reason is given not to.
  4. What we should do in light of the predictions. This is where politics get involved. Cap and Trade? Carbon Tax? Nothing? This should be a debate within the political sphere based on values and ideological perspectives, but informed by the scientific results.

Perry casts doubts on the scientific results at the first and second levels of the debate because he disagrees with some of the possible answers to the fourth level of the debate. This is an appeal to consequences, a confusion of what the debate is about. As long as that confusion remains, Perry and his detractors will never be arguing about the same thing.

To be fair, while this conflation of issues is common on the political right, the political left sometimes makes the opposite mistake, applying the “denier” label to someone who accepts the scientific consensus that AGW is real but doesn’t agree with some of the proposed liberal solutions (Cap and Trade, Carbon Taxes, Priuses, etc.).

I don’t know what the best solutions are to fixing the mess we’re getting ourselves into, and I think it’s completely legitimate to debate which of the many possible responses we should take as a society, a nation, a government, and a world. However, I really wish people would stop denying the results of scientific inquiry and accusing scientists of being involved in a massive hoax out of dislike of some of the proposed responses.

In other words, even if you think Al Gore is a complete hypocrite and jerk, that doesn’t mean the people who advise him are liars.

Update: For the record, here’s the statement by Perry that prompted this post:

“The idea that we would put Americans’ economy in jeopardy based on scientific theory that’s not settled yet to me is just — is nonsense. I mean, it — I mean, and I told somebody, I said, just because you have a group of scientists that have stood up and said, here is the fact — Galileo got outvoted for a spell.”

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About Lance Finney

Father of two boys, Java developer, Ethical Humanist, and world traveler (when I can sneak it in). Contributor to Grounded Parents.
This entry was posted in Politics, Skepticism and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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