A restrained and historically informed worldview, which knows a thing or two about “big crises” can only cringe.
President Obama promised that he would use science to save the planet from climate change and now he has delivered. His Environmental Protection Agency has reinterpreted a 1970 law section, whose proposed revision was defeated by the Democratic Senate in 2010, into a 645 page rule forcing states to reduce overall carbon emissions in their thousands of fossil fuels power plants 30% by the year 2030, one state by 72%. Obama claims the cost per year will only be $8.8 billion but the U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates $50 billion because the government assumes alternatives can somehow be found at cheaper costs than technology can produce today.
Only Obamacare at one-fifth of the economy is more ambitious than regulating energy at one-tenth of U.S. gross national product. President Obama especially risks hurting his base as the 10% lowest income earners pay three times the share of their income for electricity than does the middle class. He also further endangers his control of the Senate, as energy state Democrats fall all over themselves rebuking the proposal. And for what? EPA accounting calculates that even if every coal power plant closed immediately it would only reduce world temperature by one-twentieth of a degree in 100 years. China already emits more carbon than the U.S. and would immediately increase production-emissions in response. But is not any risk worth taking if science supports it?
Of course, there are some Neanderthal laggards such as Sen. Marco Rubio rashly questioning the scientific consensus on global warming. He was of course forced to recant almost immediately to a cultural inquisition adopted unquestionably by all educated people from kindergarten to college to the modern mass media. Gallup reports even half of Republicans agree at least in theory if costs are kept low. Former George W. Bush White House advisor Michael Gerson explained the other half as having “something of a science problem,” which he immediately proved for himself by propounding his own scientific beliefs.
Gerson was concerned that ordinary folks rely upon their common sense intuitions and so end up ignoring or even rejecting the findings of science about how the physical world works.
Our intuitions are useless here. The only possible answers come from science. And for nonscientists this requires a modicum of trust in the scientific enterprise. Even adjusting for the possibility of untoward advocacy it seems clear that higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have produced a modest amount of warming and are likely to produce more. This in turn is likely to produce higher sea levels, coastal flooding, shifting fisheries, lower crop yields and vanishing ecosystems.
Being a good Bush progressive, he had a more moderate solution than a “strict global regulatory regime” as proposed by the EPA and supported by many activist climate scientists who were operating outside the area of their “actual expertize.” Still, his proposal would “make polluters pay” with a carbon tax but one supposedly rebated back to taxpayers, which would surely require more than a modicum of trust in even less trustworthy politicians.
Gerson chides those who think that “the vast majority in a scientific field is engaged in fraud or corruption” as “frankly conspiratorial” since in the case of climate change it “would need to encompass the national academies of more than two dozen countries including the United States.” But what is a “conspiracy” but a group of likeminded people conspiring together for common goals, which in the case of climate scientists is to demonstrate the harms from climate change. It is not so much corruption but the essential sociological need for group solidarity. As National Review’s Patrick Brennan reported recently:
On May 8, Lennart Bengtsson, a Swedish climate scientist and meteorologist, joined the advisory council of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a group that questions the reliability of climate change and the costs of policies taken to address it. While Bengtsson maintains he’d always been a skeptic as any scientist ought to be, the foundation and climate-change skeptics proudly announced it as a defection from the scientific consensus. Less than a week later, he says he’s been forced to resign from the group. The abuse he’s received from the climate-science community has made it impossible to carry on his academic work and made him fear for his own safety. A once-peaceful community, he says in his resignation letter, now reminds him of McCarthyism.
Intolerance aside, it is Gerson’s view of science itself that is the more intriguing, an outlook shared by all within the progressive thrall that assumes science knows all. In explaining the limits of intuition, he states that beyond “matters intimately related to our survival—say on quantum motion or on the nature of black holes or the effects of radio frequency energy on the DNA in cells—our intuitions are pretty much useless.” Yet, his examples do not represent confirmed empirical results but are all based upon intuitions, only they are from folks who have some professional claim to be called scientists. Indeed, philosophers of science Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead claimed all important scientific inferences were based on intuition. Gerson’s demand for popular trust in science itself would be based upon people’s intuition.
Take the idea of quantum. Columbia University theoretical physicist Brian Greene has written: “as they are currently formulated, general relativity and quantum mechanics cannot both be right,” even though they are “the two foundational pillars upon which modern physics rests.” As Brad S. Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation continues, attempts to reconcile the standard model of particle physics with general relativity must rely upon a “superstring” theory where unverifiable loops much smaller than elementary particles are vibrating in six or seven additional dimensions of reality empirically inaccessible in normal time and space. How would the average American react to those mysterious smaller than elementary particles and additional dimensions of reality? And wouldn’t he be pretty much supporting scientist Greene?
Modern science differs greatly from the 19th Century rationale the Prussian professors and our own Woodrow Wilson used to justify progressives being trusted with enough power to administer government scientifically. Newton’s universe is laughably simple-minded in the face of modern physics, chemistry, probability and the rest but it remains the modern intellectual orthodoxy. As Thomas Kuhn”s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, derived from the great Michael Polanyi and Karl Popper, taught long ago, normal science consists of people, communities of experts who adopt a structure for investigation to explore problems they think might advance understanding. The successful fields thrive but can face a crisis of understanding that can lead some members to devise another paradigm or even create a different discipline.
Consider the classic case of Galileo. The myth is that a pious religious clergy kept the scientists from adopting Copernicus’ heliocentric view that the earth went around the sun rather than orbiting around the earth. Forget for a moment that the Church had already used the Copernican system to set the modern calendar thirty years before the Galileo inquiry. Who were the antagonists in the inquisition? Who contested Galileo and the other heliocentrists? Obviously the only ones who could testify authoritatively were the Aristotelian and Ptolemaic scientists who supported the existing geocentric theory. Their best argument was that all existing celestial navigation was based on a Ptolemaic system that had discovered a whole new world in the Americas. What was Galileo’s alternative navigation system, they demanded? He had none. Indeed, even though everyone soon accepted the heliocentric system, as a practical matter navigators used Ptolemy for the following 300 years right up to GPS in the late 20th Century.
Scientific questions are resolved by scientific communities. As Polanyi argued, knowledge is personal, in each scientist’s mind, subjective even if based on a deeper reality behind it that is never fully understood. Like-minded individual scientists congregate to investigate common problems. At best they develop new and useful understandings. The Ptolemaic understanding gave way to the Copernican. Alchemy was succeeded by chemistry. Eugenics merged into genetics. Nuclear winter gave way to global warming which became climate change—into which meteorology may yet incorporate all three. Is it “conspiratorial” to recognize that opposing the scientific consensus in one’s field can have costs: that the beliefs of the community’s reviewers in the scientific journals can affect one’s future? “The stakes are so high. A single paper in Lancet and you get a chair and you get your money. It’s your passport to success.” That “conspirator” was Richard Horton, the editor of the prestigious British medical journal Lancet.
Americans do have a science problem but it is the exaggerated claims made for it by the keepers of the flame in the professional societies—but even more by the true believers in progressive government who argue that science can solve all problems if only the rubes would turn all power over to them. Fortunately, Americans have never fully bought that presumption, although they have accepted incrementally what they never would have bought in a single step. Even if lacking scientific rigor, Milton Friedman’s metaphor that a frog would jump from boiling water but would expire if the temperature were raised slowly, explains progressivism’s success.
It is true that the rubes do not trust that science has all the answers, suspecting clever mountebanks with large enough bullhorns who, claiming crisis, can panic them. These can force even senators to recant and confuse the folks who lose jobs or incur increased energy costs but so far American intuition has mostly resisted returning to 19th Century living standards in order to assuage the 17th Century scientific climate gods.