Some People Seem to Know Everything, But Can’t Answer the Most Basic Questions

David Strom
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Posted: Feb 01, 2007 2:27 PM
Some People Seem to Know Everything, But Can’t Answer the Most Basic Questions

Have you ever noticed that the people who seem to be most certain about things are often really quite ignorant?

It’s a version of “don’t confuse me with the facts, my mind is made up!”

That’s what we are seeing before our eyes in the debate about anthropogenic (man-made) climate change. An unholy alliance of some scientists, celebrities, government and non-profit bureaucrats, and politicians have joined together to force massive changes to our economy and our lives based upon an intellectual framework as rickety as an old abandoned barn.

We are hearing some of the most astounding claims (we have only 10 years to save the planet!), seeing some of the silliest behavior (Prince Charles cancels a ski vacation to “save the planet”), being subjected to some of the most dreary lectures and warnings (sea levels will rise, crop yields will fall, and human civilization has only a 50-50 chance of survival over the next 100 years!), all based upon some shaky computer models and wild predictions.

It’s not that surprising that politicians have jumped on this bandwagon. After all, they are exquisitely attuned to the cultural zeitgeist and make it their business to benefit from every twitch of emotion in the populace. It’s not even surprising that bureaucrats are jumping on board—the fears aroused are sure to lend them more power and prestige to wield in the battles over funding and control of our daily lives. Celebrities—well, enough said about them.

But most of us tend to defer to scientists, and tend to assume that their first loyalty is to the truth, so when they start getting deeply involved in politics and sounding a warning, citizens are generally inclined to listen.

I won’t speculate about why some climate scientists (and many others, who are almost completely ignorant of the subject) have been banging the drum on climate change and scaring the bejeezus out of many of us—I’ll leave the psychologizing to others—but let me repeat a few facts that should lead most of us to be very skeptical of their warnings.

Climate scientists haven’t got much of a handle on why global climate is so naturally variable—and it is very variable indeed—and hence have a terrible time explaining why global temperatures have varied so much over the millennia. So if you don’t know how the system works, or for that matter which exact variables influence the wild swings within a very chaotic system, how competent will you be in detecting the influence of relatively minor influences such as human behaviors?

The data that climate scientists are using is incredibly unreliable and imprecise. There is very little actual data that is any good at all, it spans such a relatively short time period and is so very local in nature that it barely comprises a decent snapshot, no less a movie of earth’s climate history. Most of the data used is based upon climate “reconstructions” or proxy data such as tree rings and pollen counts, not actual temperature data itself. Hence the margin of error on this data is significant enough to nearly swamp any “signal” buried in the “noise” of potential errors. We are, after all, looking at temperature variations in the range of 1 to 2 degrees Fahrenheit,

Add to all this uncertainty the fact that basic features of the earth’s climate, such as what exactly causes clouds, how important are variations in solar energy output, how sensitive are the oceans’ heat “conveyor belts” to external changes, and you begin to understand how daunting a problem understanding climate changes really is.

The importance of carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas is grossly overstated in the popular literature. If you read most popular accounts of the greenhouse effect, you would think carbon dioxide is the most significant greenhouse gas.

It isn’t. In fact, water vapor is by far the most significant of the greenhouse gases, and right now we haven’t got much of a clue regarding how changes in one atmospheric component influence changes in the total greenhouse effect.

We are still at a point in climate science where the things we don’t know or understand heavily outweigh the things we do. And yet climate scientists, who can’t yet explain fully big changes in climate like the cycles between ice ages and temperate times, want us to turn human civilization on its head. Based upon what, exactly? A hunch?

In any realm other than politics, such a conceit would be obviously absurd. But in politics, the normal rules don’t apply. It is in the interests of the politicians to stoke our fears and present themselves as the solution providers. In is in the interest of bureaucrats to extend their power. Celebrities want to be relevant, and pretty much the same is true of the media.

It is in all their interests to have citizens cede power and prestige over to them.

That’s why climate change is at the top of everyone’s agenda. It makes its proponents more relevant and more powerful.

The current climate scare has little to do with the state of the science, and everything to do with the political interests of the people promoting it.