At Salon, Gene Lyons writes about the absurdity of politicians and pundits contradicting scientists on climate change.
So what’s next? A series of essays by Sarah Palin about the Large Hadron Collider and the mysteries of dark matter? An MIT lecture series by Rush Limbaugh regarding the thermodynamics of black holes?
Lyons point is that the vast majority of us simply aren’t qualified to form a scientific opinion on whether or not climate change is occurring, and what the likely consequences are. The ones who are qualified are climate scientists, and their opinion is almost unanimous: Anthropogenic warming is occurring, the speed of the warming is unprecedented, and the consequences for humans will be anywhere from bad to disastrous.
Lyons’ message is the one we need to hear right now, at a time when mainstream scientific opinion is routinely described as controversial, or extremist, or even a hoax.
But I’m interested in one question unexamined in his essay. What role do non-experts have in big societal questions that hinge on scientific issues?
Scientists and the scientifically-minded sometimes complain about the “politicization” of issues that hinge on questions of science. But human action is always political. We balance out harms and benefits, and come to some sort of consensus through a political process. Non-experts have not only the right, but the duty, to struggle with these sorts of questions.
The problem is when we distort or deny the science rather than discuss its implications. Any debate about climate change needs to start by accepting the science. At that point, we can have a political discussion about what should be done. How much damage can we tolerate? How much should we spend to cut emissions? How much to mitigate the effects of warming instead? Who should pay? These are all questions that can’t be answered by science, but have to be answered politically.
Lyons starts his piece with this quote:
The spread of secondary and latterly tertiary education has created a large population of people, often with well-developed literary and scholarly tastes, who have been educated far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought. –P.B. Medawar
But I don’t think this is right. I think most people do have the capacity to undertake analytical thought. But to do it they first have to overcome ideology, self-interest, and knee-jerk emotional responses. The climate change “debate” shows that many are unable or unwilling to do so.