Philosophical aspects of climate change controversy
By: Robert E. Meyer
Several editorial works have appeared recently, once again addressing the give and take of global warming/climate change concerns.
Few of us have the specialized knowledge necessary to make absolute pronouncements on this topic, yet all of us have a right, or even an obligation, to philosophically cross-examine the arguments presented for rational consistency.
The most arresting observation about this controversy, is that it’s highly polarized along the lines of political partisanship. The people who advocate for it are generally liberal, while those who are sceptical are predominately conservative.
Were that likewise the case for belief in the Law of Gravity, I’d say it was no big deal. But this should be a stark indication that more is it play than mere disagreement over the implications of the data. For me this is a huge stumbling block toward embracing alarmism, hook, line and sinker.
We should realize that evidence never exists in a vacuum. All evidence requires interpretation, and all too often the interpretation of evidence is influenced by pre-existing ideology, not ruthless objectivity.
A second observation is what I call “the fallacy of appealing to expertise.” Let’s develop this point. It goes something like this: A consensus of credentialed scientists nearly all believe a certain thing, therefore it is true. This reasoning assumes that someone must be objective in the same proportion that they are an expert, or said another way, an expert can never be biased or affected by groupthink.
Suppose you go in for a dental examination with a new dentist, and while examining your mouth, your dentist says “have you considered taking out a loan?” Now are you dealing with a oral hygiene expert speaking objectively, or a businessperson speaking out of self-interest? You have to use your own judgment to discern the difference. In that case you have no difficulty seeing how bias can work contrary to knowledge. The appeal to expertise is not as strong an argument as it would appear to be, because specialized knowledge is not necessarily tantamount to pure objectivity.
Or take an example from our legal system. In a court case both the defense and prosecution may provide testimony from expert witnesses. But the opinions of equally qualified people are often in diametric opposition. What accounts for this? As a juror you must discern who is best at offering the more plausible explanation, though you are not an specialized expert on the topic in question.
So what am I saying? Are all these experts liars? Of course not. I am saying that I doubt every expert comes to their own conclusions independently from scratch, and that reputations and careers are sometimes of primary consideration when such persons publicly take a position.
In general, people confuse two concepts: expertise and objectivity. Having great intelligence or specialized knowledge isn’t assurance against a person remaining unbiased in their public opinions. Persons of all stripes are generally loyal to their source of income. We shouldn’t assume that every expert begins their search tabula rasa, that is to say, without an agenda or wholly independent of prevailing consensus.
That is why appeals to credentials or expertise are never as conclusive as they ought to be.
Still another observation is that Climate Change has ramifications on at least three separate levels. First is the question of whether the global temperature is actually increasing. Secondly, the question of whether the alleged phenomenon is a natural or human caused event. Finally, whether the dire predictions about the impending consequences of Climate Change are actually plausible, or merely hysterical assertions.
One reason people might be sceptical is that they lived through the 1970’s, when warnings of “global cooling” were being touted. That thinking was commonplace after the commemoration of the first “Earth day” back in 1970. Furthermore, many of us who were in school at that time remember Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book “The Population Bomb,” and realize how alarmist prognostications can be way off the mark.
One might reasonable ask why Al Gore built a mansion on an oceanfront property, considering his dire pronouncements about rising sea levels? Scepticism occurring regarding points two and three, technically doesn’t qualify as “denial” as regards changes in the climate, but rather, how connected the phenomenon is to human causation. Too often, “deniers” are inappropriately tagged with that label for demurring on any of the three distinct levels, and given the respect worthy of any Flat-Earth Society charter member.
It should be noted that historically normative Christian theology has always embraced the idea of environmental stewardship in principle, in the sense of a discipline previously referred to as “conservation.” The nature of the opposition to contemporary progressive environmental movements by some evangelical Christians and other conservatives, is that “environmentalists” seem to espouse philosophies placing emphasis on worshipping and deifying the creation more than the Creator.
Often people who advocate for legislation curtailing greenhouse gasses offer us an argument tantamount to the theological implications of Pascal’s Wager; “What if we don’t act, but Climate Change is a reality? When we know for sure it will be already too late.”
But the point is easily reversible. We may pass unnecessary legislative measures that irretrievably harm economic and technological development, as well as forfeiting national sovereignty and restraining individual liberties. Consider everything carefully.