Prof. Oreskes (harvard) on climate change

Dear Professor Oreskes,

Last summer, when I was collecting material for a course on skepticism, the book Merchants of Doubt popped up in bol.com (a Dutch variety on amazon), and I was immediately sold. Because the course was cancelled, however, some time has evaporated before I set myself reading it.

Undoubtedly, you will be glad to hear that I am still sold. It is fun, and at times shameful, to read; the story is very well annotated; its theme is relevant; and while exposing pseudo-skeptical lobbyist on tobacco, DDT and global warming the book gives the reader enough information to understand the main issues and why scientific consensus evolved in the way it did. Moreover, while reading I have been unable to wring myself into the position of an antagonist.

So, surely this e-mail is written to give me another opportunity to antagonize you and me.

Concerning the debate on climate change itself, I am a self-declared innocent bystander. I do not believe science can ‘prove’ that the climate is changing nor that mankind is partly or mainly responsible for it, regardless how stringent a ‘proof’ should be. Pace Nelson Goodman, as long as Goodman’s riddle of induction isn’t solved, the balance of evidence remains in balance for any hypothesis. Thus, paralysis by analysis is a good thing, at least if one sits in a philosophical armchair. When I leave the armchair, I do not feel an urge to become a climate change-believer or a climate change-pseudo skeptic. Then, it is evident that mankind is irresponsible polluting the earth thru its unquenchable thirst for immediate satisfaction. If the universe hands out pity, we are a pitiful species. So, surely, we are ruining everything we touch. And, so, evidently, we should stop spoiling matters, e.g. by reducing CO2-emission. There is little reason to believe that we can save the globe by doing so, but then at least we could mimic rational animals in a local confinement.

            Phrasing this in a more positive way: whatever scientists and politicians tell us to do to stop climate change, we could and should do independent of whether the climate is changing.

In Merchants of doubt much is made of consensus within science. Since I have a mild allergy to consensus, I have kept an eye on the inbuilt allergy-meter while reading. It didn’t get in the red. This surprised me because the book overwhelmingly refers to the overwhelming consensus among scientists about climate change, and that should have made me overwhelmingly obnoxious. The explanation is, it seems to me, that in the case of climate change there are external forces that keep scientists on track. In everyday science, where little or nothing is at stake, peer-reviewing and other institutional devices create bubbles that can become self-contained. In the case of climate change, there are external forces. True, at times these external forces lead to silly discussion about whether what word should be used to state that some effect is ‘discernible’ or ‘appreciable’, but this silliness is more than compensated by the fact that a Saudi prince actually seems to have read a version of the IPCC rapport. And, also true, if scientific research is deemed relevant for society, journalists start spreading noise and are joined by a couple of millions lay-experts, self-serving politicians and a couple of self-appointed philosophical skeptics. That is the price science has to pay for being relevant. This price, however, has benefits. It keeps scientists – who are only human, after all – on track.

            That is the point you seem to have missed: the ‘merchants of doubt’, the pseudo-skeptics, those politically motivated filthy swines that even smeared the memory of Rachel Carson, those bastards might have had a beneficial effect on climate science. If so, that would prove the point of Adam Smith, G.W.F. Hegel, Charles Darwin and Milton Friedman: the ‘invisible hand’, ‘the cunning of reason’, ‘the blindness of evolution’, ‘the rationality of markets’ or whatever it is called, ensures that society at large benefits from self-serving behavior.

Thus, to my regret, conspiring pseudo-skeptics may be more useful to society than ‘truly philosophical’ armchair skeptics.

I hope you enjoy your sabbatical leave.

With kind regards,

Dr. W.W.