Posted on | January 6, 2007 | 6 Comments
I see via Prometheus that David Roberts has taken up my challenge offered in the comments of a previous thread about whether Al Gore is representative of the mainstream consensus or an outlier (as suggested by Andy Revkin in his recent New York Times piece).
Because the IPCC, held to punishingly conservative standards of peer-review and consensus, is silent on the hurricane question … does that mean everyone has to be silent? Al Gore chooses to pick a side, in effect predicting which way the chips are going to fall. In that he goes beyond the IPCC — and beyond what the relevant scientific community is willing to label consensus — but he doesn’t contradict the IPCC. He uses his judgment to supplement the IPCC. And he’s been right on this issue for decades, and understands it about as well as any layman on the planet, so I’m not inclined to brush his judgments aside.
It seems perfectly reasonable to me for him to say the following: “Based on some new and emerging research, and based on my sense of the direction of the science over the last 20 years, and based on my holistic understanding of the phenomenon, I believe global warming will increasingly make hurricanes measurably stronger and more destructive.”
I agree that Gore is free to do this in advancing his political arguments, but I think observers like Roberts need to recognize the slippery slope it represents.
The problem with this line of argument is that as soon as you sanction what Al Gore does here, you’ve sanctioned a general type of argument: “I believe, in this particular area of scientific uncertainty, the likely outcome of ongoing research is likely to be X, and we should therefore base our policy response on X.” I don’t think Inhofe is the best example, but the case of Benny Peiser’s obsession with solar influence might be a better one. Benny’s happy to cherrypick research on one side of this question (big solar influence on warming) and use it, based on his years of expertise, to argue that that’s where he thinks the science is heading. As soon as you sanction Gore’s use of the tactic, you’ve no grounds on which to argue against Benny’s use of the same line of argument.
That’s precisely the recipe for gridlock on “scientized” policy debates, which Dan Sarewitz has so eloquently demonstrated. Andrew Dessler is absolutely correct that we really have no choice in these debates but to try our best to identify and work within IPCC-style consensus.
Unfortunately, Sarewitz’s argument and my own personal experience as a journalist covering these controversies convinces me that the sort of thing we’re talking about here – picking outliers that support one’s value positions – is an inevitable state of affairs. Roberts’ willingness to do it, and endorse it, despite the obvious sophistication of his understanding of the issues, is one more bit of empirical evidence in support of what Sarewitz is saying.