Man Without Qualities

Thursday, August 07, 2003

The Eden Fallacy

I'm so disappointed. Paul Krugman doesn't explain how all the positive economic news is meaningless and he didn't take any of my suggestions on how to avoid writing about that news. Can a Man Without Qualities feel unloved?

Instead, Herr Doktorprofessor retreats to Iraq, to the fabled valley of Eden itself, to languidly accuse Republicans all of undermining and disparaging the very science that supports efforts to address Global Warming, and perhaps to even insinuate that Republicans have despoiled Eden by allowing salt to percolate into its soil, with Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster, apparently bearing a particularly large portion of the blame:

The answer — the reason "the very soil lost its virtue" — is that heavy irrigation in a hot, dry climate leads to a gradual accumulation of salt in the soil. Rising salinity first forced the Sumerians to switch from wheat to barley, which can tolerate more salt; by about 1800 B.C. even barley could no longer be grown in southern Iraq, and Sumerian civilization collapsed. Later "salinity crises" took place further north. In the 19th century, when Europeans began to visit Iraq, it probably had a population less than a tenth the size of the one in the age of Gilgamesh. Modern civilization's impact on the environment is, of course, far greater than anything the ancients could manage. .... Before last year's elections Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster, wrote a remarkable memo about how to neutralize public perceptions that the party was anti-environmental. Here's what it said about global warming: "The scientific debate is closing [against us] but is not yet closed. There is still an opportunity to challenge the science." ... But as a recent article in Salon reminds us, this appearance of uncertainty is "manufactured." Very few independent experts now dispute that manmade global warming is happening, and represents a serious threat. Almost all the skeptics are directly or indirectly on the payroll of the oil, coal and auto industries.

It is indeed curious that Herr Doktoprofessor, who takes the greatest pride in being the "only" economist rendering his particular insights de jour should lapse into a science-by-super-majority approach when it comes to climatology. But there he is.

He is also there to cast his saline polluted mud on the good faith of those who question the Global Warming orthodoxy, including, implicitly, Bjorn Lomborg, the author of The Skeptical Environmentalist who has been the subject of several Man Without Qualities posts. Herr Doktorprofessor knows perfectly well that Dr. Lomborg is the best-known opponent of Global Warming orthodoxy and that there is no reason to believe that he is directly or indirectly on the payroll of the oil, coal and auto industries. Moreover, Herr Doktorprofessor also knows that sliming a source of funding does not invalidate scientific work. Would he have the FDA turn down all drug applications where the drug's inventors are directly or indirectly on the payroll of the drug companies? That wouldn't leave many drugs. The real answer is more research. [UPDATE: Some environmentalists are entirely comfortable in shutting down research to further political or very-far-fetched pseudo-scientific agendas, as this remarkable story about the forced termination of an ocean temperature study indicates.] And are the authors of a recent Harvard-led study on the take, a study previously discussed on the Man Without Qualities:

Claims that man-made pollution is causing "unprecedented" global warming have been seriously undermined by new research which shows that the Earth was warmer during the Middle Ages. ... A review of more than 240 scientific studies has shown that today's temperatures are neither the warmest over the past millennium, nor are they producing the most extreme weather - in stark contrast to the claims of the environmentalists. The review, carried out by a team from Harvard University, examined the findings of studies of so-called "temperature proxies" such as tree rings, ice cores and historical accounts which allow scientists to estimate temperatures prevailing at sites around the world. The findings prove that the world experienced a Medieval Warm Period between the ninth and 14th centuries with global temperatures significantly higher even than today. They also confirm claims that a Little Ice Age set in around 1300, during which the world cooled dramatically. Since 1900, the world has begun to warm up again - but has still to reach the balmy temperatures of the Middle Ages.

The timing of the end of the Little Ice Age is especially significant, as it implies that the records used by climate scientists date from a time when the Earth was relatively cold, thereby exaggerating the significance of today's temperature rise. According to the researchers, the evidence confirms suspicions that today's "unprecedented" temperatures are simply the result of examining temperature change over too short a period of time.

And, with respect to climate research in general, I will let Jane Galt speak, especially about the ridiculous Salon article on which Herr Doktorprofessor depends, since I could do no better than Jane, although her post was written before Herr Doktoprofessor's column came out! Has Jane - who does not even write about Herr Doktorprofessor nowadays - been through that small doorway behind the filing cabinet on the 7 1/2 floor? Here's what she had to say:

[M]ost of the journalistic coverage out there isn't any help at all .... 99% of the journalists covering the topic seem to have already decided what the truth is before they made their first phone call: either it's 100% certain science, refuted only by evil monster scientists who are wholly-owned subsidiaries of the oil companies; or it is an environmentalist shibboleth invented by stupid people who hate economic prosperity. This Salon article, which touched off this rant, is absolutely typical: the author seems to think that the way you refute bad science is to keep telling the reader that the scientists took money from Exxon, while quoting such scientific luminaries as Ralph Nader's Center for Science in the Public Interest to refute them.

While my limited research shows that it is indeed the consensus of the scientific community that global warming is real, there is no consensus about its extent and reach, a distinction that appears entirely lost on the majority of journalists who cover it. In other words, the fact that the scientific community believes it is happening does not mean that they endorse the wild doomsday scenarios promulgated by various environmental groups, and using their "consensus" to support such claims is bad journalism.

Journalists should also keep in mind that just as economists are ill-qualified to judge how well meteorological models work, scientists have little ability to evaluate the economic outcomes of their suggestions. In other words, they are prone to suggest things without understanding what the costs would be. A meteorologist who says that we should reduce our carbon emissions by 25% probably has no idea what sort of drop in GDP that would entail, and has difficulty imagining what such a drop would actually mean to everyday citizens. He is therefore probably looking only at the societal costs of his warming predictions, without looking at the costs of the measures he proposes to reduce the warming. If he were looking at both, his suggestions might be very different.

Finally, we are all prone to think that we are right. Scientists advocating aggressive models of warming may be right -- or they may be overconfident. A look at the history of downward revisions in warming projections is educational on that score. According to journalists, the scientists were every bit as certain about projections that were as much as 4 degrees celcius higher, just a short time ago. A little humility about the much-vaunted scientific consensus is in order.

I'd also note that the majority of journalists I know who believe that global warming is settled science believe thusly because -- they have heard it from other journalists. Few of whom were out building climate models in their spare time.

Which is not to say that global warming isn't happening, or that we shouldn't do something about it. But the level of superstition and ignorance surrounding the debate is appalling. People on both sides should hold off on the ridicule and contempt until they're sure that their own understanding of the science is rock solid.

That pretty much wraps it up. Herr Doktorprofessor's approach, of course, ignores the Senate's total, bi-partisan rejection of the Kyoto Protocol by simply not discussing the protocol at all! How elegant. That approach also spares him from having to address the awkward fact that some European countries are finding it essentially impossible to comply with the Protocol. So what, exactly, does he want the President or the US to do?

UPDATE: Given Herr Doktorprofessor's new infatuation with science-by-supermajority, it seems that on at least the question of capital expenditures he must now abandon his prior beliefs and submit to the will of the masses! Specifically, the Wall Street Journal reports:

An overwhelming 92% of economists in the survey said they believe the rise in profits will prompt companies to boost capital spending and investment in the next six months. Such investment will be key to sustaining a meaningful recovery.

So that's it Herr Doktoprofessor. No dissenting. None of that "nobody is paying attention to ...." stuff this time. Fall in line with that 92% or we'll know you're "manufacturing" dissent - and that you're in somebody's direct or indirect thrall. Just by applying your own criteria.

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