Unimaginable Calamity

Mar 04, 2010 | 

Peter Wood

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Unimaginable Calamity

Mar 04, 2010 | 

Peter Wood



“Unimaginable calamity” is the phrase that Al Gore used this week in a Sunday New York Times op-ed.  He was writing of course on his signature subject: the prospects of a catastrophe resulting from global warming.  What summoned Mr. Gore from his igloo of recent silence is the increasingly wobbly public support for the idea that human activity is significantly warming our planet.  The Climategate emails made public in late November and the cascade of news since about the lies, evasions, missing data, ill-sourced extravagant claims, stonewalling, and cover-ups that have been part of what Mr. Gore calls “the science of global warming” have shaken public confidence. 

The public might have been shaken still more if the New York Times and other major print and broadcast media had treated Climategate and the ensuing scandals more seriously.  Some portion of the public seemingly still relies on the old media as a source of news.  But the cordon sanitaire that the major media placed around this ongoing scandal has proved ineffective.  The American public has begun to size up the real picture. 

This gives the phrase “unimaginable calamity” a certain ring.  The real unimaginable calamity facing Mr. Gore is the spread of skepticism.  Insisting that global warming is backed by “scientific consensus” doesn’t wash anymore.  That supposed consensus was—to borrow Noam Chomsky’s memorable phrase—a “manufactured consensus,” achieved by suppressing contrary views, blackballing dissenting researchers, and, on more than one occasion, just making stuff up.   The attempt to stigmatize skeptics as “denialists” is backfiring.  Better to be a denialist, than a… well what?  A liarist?  The word seems to slip easily onto the shoulders of climate change gurus such as the Pennsylvania State University’s inventive Michael Mann, the University of East Anglia’s forgetful Phil Jones, and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s chief, the lubricious Rajendra Pachauri. 

The National Association of Scholars isn’t really suited to take positions on the scientific substance of a debate like this. The hypothesis of human-caused global warming may stand or fall; ultimately that will be decided by good scientific work.  The NAS, however, does have a stake in the integrity of science as one of the central enterprises of the modern university—and we have long linked the freedom of inquiry in higher education to the persistence of free institutions in society at large.  Being free to ask hard questions and to seek conscientiously for well-founded answers is bedrock for governing ourselves wisely.  The university ought to be the place where circular arguments encounter the circuit breaker of skeptical examination.  

Our republic, of course, has never been free of fads and manias. Foreign observers, as far back as the eighteenth century, have noticed our capacity to entertain extraordinary enthusiasms that could never withstand rational reflection—all the while maintaining our placid confidence that we are acting as sober adults.   In 1801 a New England counterfeiter named Justus Winchell prompted the residents of Rutland County Vermont to chase around the countryside with witch hazel divining rods and shovels to unearth hidden gold.   Lest we laugh too hard at the credulity of our forebears, we should consider the credulity of more recent Americans, witch hazel rods and shovels in hand seeking their fortunes in the derivatives market.  In between lie a couple of centuries of millennial cults, market bubbles, gold rushes, pet rocks, flagpole sittings, and hula hoops.  America has had Great Awakenings, Great Depressions, and Bernie Madoff.  Unwillingness to believe implausible tales is not our failing.  Give us a rollicking narrative about something—be it a celebrity divorce or planetary extinction—and we are all ears.

Al Gore’s “unimaginable calamity” probably needs to be reckoned in these terms: an intellectual hula hoop for that portion of the public that needs a little existential gyration to warm up to life.  It has been said by more than one observer that the fantasies of global warming catastrophe are a kind of substitute religion, replete with a salvation doctrine, rituals of expiation, and a collection of demons to be cast out.  It is a religion that is conveniently this-worldly: reducing your carbon footprint has a kind of mechanical gaiety to it.  Going without trays in the campus cafeteria and forfeiting plastic straws is the new Green mortification.

At what point does an idea that is originally framed as a scientific hypothesis become so untenable that it slips to the status of a punch line?  No one today believes that interstellar “ether”  is necessary to propagate light, or that fire involves the invisible element phlogiston.   These were serious scientific ideas in their time, along with many other discredited theories.  The people who believed them were not stupid.   But the ideas failed key tests and were displaced by better hypotheses.  Other hypotheses linger in the shadows long after they seemingly have lost the main scientific debate.  Geology was pretty content to work for two centuries with James Hutton’s idea that the earth is shaped by simple events played out over immense stretches of time.  Such uniformitarianism displaced the belief that the world had been shaped by catastrophes such as Noah’s flood.  But since the discovery that the earth has been repeatedly subject to asteroid impacts, such as the one that 65 million years ago produced the Chicxulub Crater near the Yucatán Peninsula, catastrophism has staged a comeback. 

The revival of serious scientific interest in radically disruptive events probably played a role in making global warming theory seem plausible.   For sure, we have no reason to say that man-made global warming theory is inherently implausible.  But the tactics of those who have been most active in promoting the idea are giving it practical implausibility.  When we are told by impassioned believers that the science is settled and there is no time for anything but radical action, we should be as skeptical as if we were pitched a time-share condo at the bottom of Chixculub Crater. 

The burden of proof for this theory has shifted.  Those who think, in good faith, that man-made global warming is real, can no longer expect their claims to have an easy passage to public acceptance.  They need instead to assume the burden of validating their claims with transparent science, which includes making the data public and transparent; answering critics with reason and evidence rather than with sneers and exclusion; and ensuring that they give full intellectual scope to the discrepancies and alternative explanations.  When the head of the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit Phil Jones (currently on leave) admitted recently that there has been no significant global warming for the last fifteen years, we witnessed a theory in the midst of scholarly collapse.   Pennsylvania State University has attempted to exonerate Professor Michael Mann from the strongest charges of scientific misconduct, but there, too, the “hide the decline” professor of global warming has burned up his reputation for scholarly and scientific probity.  No one who seeks a reputation for serious scientific investigation will ever again be able to build on the work of Jones or Mann, and the institutions associated with them will likewise remain under the shadow of settled suspicion. 

The public is quite likely to render adverse judgment on man-made global warming well before the academy does.  That’s not just because the public is fickle and given to hasty judgments.  The public is fickle, but it is also alert to the odor of fraud.  The academy, however, has sunk a deep well of belief in Gorish catastrophism.   The National Association of Scholars over the last two years has been tracking the “sustainability” movement as it has swept across American higher education—and settled like a stagnant pond over K-12 education.  Children grow up now thinking that the global warning catastrophe is just a few incandescent light bulbs or a discarded soda bottle away.  And colleges and universities have adopted the “climate change” doctrine as pretty much their Westminster Confession. 

Long after the man in the street will guffaw at the mention of Al Gore’s name and “unimaginable calamity” has become the name of an Icelandic rock band, our colleges and universities will be teaching courses on the imminent disaster of manmade global warming.  That’s what hula hoops do.  They go round and round. 

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