Climate and Bias

I’ve been swimming in Climate talk for the past few days. Spurred, obviously by the East anglia data leak. Unfortunately, I don’t feel as if I know anything with any greater certainty. However, the whole subject reminds me of economic arguments.

The debate between “Alarmists” and “Deniers” strikes me as awfully similar to the debate between Keynsians and Austrians… each side is so completely enmeshed in a particular methodological approach that the debate rages endlessly. Each side claims methodological superiority, each side claims to have the data on its side, each side claims to make more accurate predictions, and each side claims to be more interested in truth and less blinded by ideology. For the layperson, the argument that sounds the more persuasive is the argument that better corresponds with an existing structure of knowledge.

So where does that leave me? It leaves me in a muddle.

Where should that leave me? I have no idea.

When I think about economic and policy debates (and I have some small experience arguing for economic theories and policy prescriptions that are seriously outside mainstream thought!) I remind myself that my certainty about a particular issue (say, single-payer health coverage) depends in large part on the interrelation of a relatively large amount of information culled from related but essentially disparate disciplines: economics, philosophy, political science, and psychology. My position on a particular issue (anyone’s position, really) depends on a complex lattice work of accumulated knowledge and interpretation, effectively communicating all the intracies of that lattice work is extremely difficult. And is often extraordinarily frustrating!

So in that sense, I have a strong empathy for the Alarmists. They’ve taken an extraordinarily large body of research from related but disparate disciplines and are attempting to synthesize that knowledge in the form of a useful prediction.

“Average global temperatures will rise over the next several decades and that will cause climatic changes that will pose enormous problems for humanity.”

To me, that sounds awfully similar to,

“Increased federal deficits will rise over the next several decades and that will cause economic hardhsips that will pose enormous problems for humaity.”

Which sounds awfully similar to,

“Average global temperatures may rise slowly over the next several decades but the impact will be slight and the costs are best born by our much wealthy descendants.”

Which sounds awfully similar to,

“Increased federal deficits may rise over the next several decades but the impact will be slight and the cost is best born by our much wealthier descendants.”

So which is true? Well, I think the second is demonstrably, obviously, unfailingly true. The last is absurd on its face and utterly wrong. The other two? I don’t know. I tend to agree with Bjorn Lomborg and discount the veracity of the first. But I take that position largely because of all the arguments I’ve read, the inconsistencies and assumptions in Lomborg’s arguments (and all climate predictions depend on inconsistent data and huge, wallowing assumptions) trouble me least becuase those assumptions mirror my lattice-work of existing knowledge and the inconsistencies seem similar to other inconsistencies I’ve been able to reconcile in other areas.

It’s tempting to say that I agree with Lomborg because he confrims my existing bias. But if my existing bias is true (and surely, it is!) then that confirmation is a valid reason to give his arguments greater credence! Of course, if my biases are wrong…

Which is all to say that analyzing complex propositions is extremely difficult. The climate debate highlights the importance of rigorous attention to detail in the evaluation of any new idea. Every new proposition should be checked against an existing set of knowledge–and the parts that don’t match should be ruthlessly discarded. Whether that means discarding the new proposition or, as is often the case, dissasembling the lattice work and rebuilding the scaffolding to accomodate the new idea.

It’s a tough job and prone to error, but it’s the only way to get anything right.

And in the end, it’s why when I see people withold data and strive to align their predictions with their own financial interests (as was clearly the case at East Anglia), I tend to distrust their conclusions. They’ve given me cause to beleive that they aren’t as committed to evaluting their own set of conceptions as I am and so I trust them less.

Which is not to say that I trust all climate scientists less. I just have more work to do evaluating their claims and their counterclaims. And I think, if the East Anglia data leak shows anything, it shows that climate scientists need to do more of that as well.


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