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Climategate: Knowledge, Belief, and Global Warming

I don’t know whether the Earth is warming, cooling, doing both, or doing neither. Nor, if it is doing one of the first three, do I know whether or to what extent it is caused by changeable human behavior or, if so, what if anything can or should be done about it.

The law of unintended consequences suggests that any cure may be worse than the disease, if both the disease and a cure for it actually exist. If the disease does not exist, the results are likely to be even worse. As a non-scientist, I should probably no more attempt to form immutable opinions on such matters than on whether or when a grand unified theory will be developed to reconcile Einstein’s theory of relativity with the behavior of very small stuff like quarks. Nor should I try to predict the human consequences of such a development or the lack of them.

Hardly anybody does that as to a GUT, because relativity and quantum mechanics are rather arcane. More importantly, nobody has figured out how to make that aspect of science an ideological/political matter and get millions of dollars in the process.

Knowledge and belief are different. Knowledge requires significant basis in fact and the training to formulate reasonable conclusions based on those facts as distinguished from ideological predilections. Belief does not. Belief is appropriate in the sphere of religion, and many people believe in things for which no external “scientific” basis exists. Aware of no rational basis for such theological doctrines as the existence of God, the Holy Trinity, transubstantiation, and the like, I neither believe nor disbelieve in them; nor do I find it useful to argue with those who do. I am, quite simply, an agnostic and am content to leave such discussions to the theologians. Were heretics still burned at the stake in Christian countries, if I had to pay homage to such beliefs to get or keep employment, if those who insist upon them required that I purchase indulgences, or if I lived in an Islamic region, my concern would be rather more elevated.

Still, I have some frame of reference on the effects of the law of unintended consequences and on how people — with no better scientific qualifications than I have (practically none) — manage intentionally or inadvertently to distort facts to suit their financial, ideological, and political predispositions. Doing that in a racial context is called racism, a very naughty word. In the global warming context, there are believers and “deniers,” and those in each camp, regardless of their scientific backgrounds or lack thereof, seem to scorn those in the other. They hurl Hurricane Katrina and the recent record-setting blizzards on the East Coast of the United States at each other like snowballs, claiming that they are clearly right and that the others are clearly wrong.

On February 13, snow was on the ground in all of the states with the exception of Hawaii. The recent heavy East Coast snows and the recent very mild hurricane season are cited by both camps as demonstrating the correctness of their views. It’s a snow job, no matter who does it. Based on a completely unscientific, superficial, and statistically invalid study of the media and various blogs, it seems to me that global warming has ceased to be a matter of great importance to many. This gut reaction is supported by public opinion polls, and not only in the United States. As the public grows steadily less trusting of the scientific consensus on global warming, the mainstream media and left-leaning blogs spend less time asserting the bases for belief in global warming. Al Gore, bless him, keeps trying. Every time he does so he becomes even more of a laughingstock. When not seeking refuge in his enormous non-green house, he continues to flit off around the world in his carbon-belching chariot to pursue his holy grail.

We do have problems with environmental pollution. In the air, it’s sometimes called smog. Toxins go into the rivers and lakes and so do nutrients for algae and other undesirable life forms. These have little if anything to do with global warming, regulation of which remains of critical importance principally to those who consider themselves likely to benefit from or be harmed by it.

Unfortunately, regulators tend to be among those likely to benefit from it. Some are involved in generating regulations to prevent global warming, and should such regulation not happen they might have to find something else to do. Should such regulation happen they will be part of and perhaps lead an important and growing bureaucratic empire; they are more fecund than many people realize. If such regulations go into effect and there is no global warming, some will assume a causal relationship and hail the regulators as heroes. If the climate stubbornly continues to change, it will be argued that more along the same lines must be done.

An article in the Christian Science Monitor asks the intriguing question of whether it’s time to overhaul the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The article argues that the UN-sponsored IPCC — “given the charge of providing world leaders with periodic updates on global warming and the policy options to tackle it — is overdue for an overhaul.”

The structure of that sentence says a lot. It would be odd to provide periodic updates on something which does not exist, so the article apparently assumes that global warming exists. Updates on policy options to tackle it also assume its existence as well as those policy options being both possible and necessary. Perhaps the fallacy would be more obvious if the sentence referred instead to periodic updates on cataclysmic Martian invasions and policy options to deal with them, predicated on observations by “UFO experts.” But not much.

The IPCC has been around for a long time and seems to have crashed rather badly. And the crash continues, in slow motion. It strikes me that to overhaul the IPCC would be comparable to slapping a new coat of paint on a badly wrecked and no longer functional automobile. Sometimes, it is best to give up and get another car. That’s where we seem to be heading (and if not, we should be) on President Obama’s health care initiative.

Both the IPCC and President Obama’s health care initiative seem to be broken irreparably. To ignore the serious damage and to make cosmetic improvements based on assumptions of their continued viability would be wasteful and counterproductive. The IPCC has practically no credibility with climate “skeptics,” and with good reason. Even Phil Jones of the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit seems indirectly to acknowledge error, and it now seems that significant bits of data have been cooked, intentionally or through error. Still, he continues to attempt to justify and explain away his actions and those of other global warming gurus:

He admitted withholding data about global temperatures but said the information was publicly available from American websites.

And he claimed it was not “standard practice” to release data and computer models so other scientists could check and challenge research.

“I don’t think there is anything in those emails that really supports any view that I, or the CRU, have been trying to pervert the peer review process in any way,” he said.

Professor Jones, who was forced to stand down as head of the CRU last year, also insisted the scientific findings on climate change were robust.

Global warming has reached a new low in public regard, particularly in view of the abysmal record of the scientists and others responsible for advising on future problems and how to cure them.

Fundamental reevaluation of the “science” involved in global warming is needed. According to Trevor Davies, the pro-vice chancellor of the University of East Anglia,

The process and findings of our researchers have been the subject of significant debate in recent months. Colleagues in Climate Research Unit have strenuously defended their conduct and the published work, and we believe it is in the interests of all concerned that there should be an additional assessment considering the science itself. (emphasis added)

If he means what he seems to have said, that there must be additional assessment of “the science itself,” I agree; it should be done by neither those whose sloppy work and suspect motivations seem to have created the controversy — as well as the global warming predictions — nor by those who strongly support or attack them or the results of their efforts on ideological grounds.

Cap and trade and other proposed solutions to the allegedly draconian consequences of global warming could cause much of the world’s economy to falter even worse than at present. Emergent technologies could benefit. A grand reshuffling of that sort is not necessarily a good thing. The story is told of a young Navy ensign who, upon assuming his onerous responsibilities as officer of the deck when the small ship to which he was assigned was in port, got on the PA system and ordered: “All on deck go below; all below report on deck; all to port go to starboard and all to starboard go to port. I’ll show you bastards whose running this ship!”

Like it or not, cap and trade legislation is still on the operating table and remains alive. It is time to inhale deeply (don’t worry, the CO2 won’t hurt) and take another look at global warming in conjunction with the law of unintended consequences. To do otherwise is a dangerous form of mental masturbation, capable of causing things worse than blindness.