The Urgency of Climate Change

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On June 30, at a climate change meeting in Abu Dhabi, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres exclaimed, "Every week brings new climate-related devastation . . . floods, drought, heatwaves, wildfires and super storms." This weekly barrage of unprecedented climate events is believed to be caused by the increasing concentration of atmospheric CO2 — exceeding a hellish 400 ppm in 2017. The world must “act now with ambition and urgency,” he implored.

Journalists, liberals, and frightened children agree, as does every one of the more than 20 Democrat candidates who have entered the 2020 presidential race. They adamantly believe that climate change is an “existential threat” that is already hitting key tipping points. Climatologist Michael Mann (the inventor of the famous Hockey Stick curve) “has urged governments to treat the transition to renewable energy with the equivalent urgency that drove the US industrial mobilization in World War Two”. By some estimates, fossil fuels must be eliminated in 12 years. Sensing a lack of urgency, students in over 100 nations walked out of their classrooms last March, in a global “Student Climate Strike” to protest climate inaction. News anchor Chuck Todd devoted an entire edition of NBC’s Meet the Press to how climate urgency can be explained to the American people.

This weekly barrage of unprecedented climate events is believed to be caused by the increasing concentration of atmospheric CO2 — now exceeding a hellish 400 ppm.

Not long ago, climate havoc was less urgent. “Change” wasn’t expected to become catastrophic until the latter half of the century. As late as December 2015, when the Paris climate accord was signed, few cared that horrendous polluters, such as China and India, promised only trivial emission reductions. There was ample time for journalists to explain the urgency of climate change. Experts now, however, tell us that the increased frequency and intensity of extreme climate events is already underway, and that only bold, multitrillion dollar programs such as the Green New Deal (GND) can end the weekly assaults.

But why has the frequency and intensity of “floods, drought, heatwaves, wildfires and super storms" increased so much, only recently? The Global Circulation Models (GCMs) that predict global temperature as a function of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have not changed significantly; they are as flawed as they have always been.

Let’s say that a group of economists created an economic model designed to predict future inflation rates. And let’s say that they insisted that all future US monetary and fiscal policy be based on its predictions. But what if every time the model was tested, its predicted inflation rate was three times greater than the observed rate? After a few years of observed failure (if it took that long), most people would tell the economists where they could stick their model. And those who promoted policies based on its predictions would be ridiculed as clowns and morons.

The Global Circulation Models that predict global temperature as a function of greenhouse gas emissions have not changed significantly; they are as flawed as they have always been.

Not so in climate science world. The denizens of that bizarre kingdom are praised for their shoddy tools. Indeed, they have been encouraged, with profligate research grants, to create more and bigger GCMs. Since 1988, when James Hansen first sounded the catastrophic global warming alarm, climate scientists have relied on such models. Hansen’s initial model predicted a warming rate of 0.35C per decade. Other climate scientists jumped into the climate modeling business, and over the ensuing decades built a suite of at least 102 models — all of which estimated temperature increases similar to Hansen’s torrid rate.

The growth of climate temperature estimation science gave rise to climate event attribution science — the blaming of fossil-fuel combustion for any event that climate change fretters believe could plausibly result from the implausible temperatures predicted by the GCMs. And for most major news outlets, both of these sciences are settled, and weekly “floods, drought, heatwaves, wildfires and super storms” are the grist for the mill of climate urgency.

Except that empirical evidence for urgency does not exist. The temperature predictions of the GCMs are no more accurate than those of the fictitious economic model above. The only difference is that the latter model would have been discarded decades ago. The GCMs are still in use, heavy use, despite a gaping discrepancy between the theoretical temperatures that they estimate and the empirical temperatures that are observed. Its existence has been known for years. Many peer-reviewed studies (e.g., here, here, and here) have identified and measured its magnitude. In his 2019 paper Falsifying Climate Alarm, John Christy compared the temperature trends estimated by GCMs (102 of them) to the actual trend observed by satellites and radiosonde balloons. Over the period from 1979 (when satellite temperature measurements first became available) to 2017, the average trend produced by the models was 0.44 o C per decade, three times the observed trend of 0.15 o C per decade.

For most major news outlets, both of these sciences are settled, and weekly “floods, drought, heatwaves, wildfires and super storms” are the grist for the mill of climate urgency.

One would think that journalists such as Chuck Todd would welcome climate scientists such as Christy to their newscasts. They might discover that climate urgency is, well, not that urgent. Imagine the scoop: “GCMs Exaggerate Global Warming by Factor of 3, Need Fundamental Revisions.” Unfortunately, climate scientists such as Christy are treated as heretics, who should be given no opportunity to disturb the grist. “The Earth is getting hotter. And human activity is a major cause, period. We're not going to give time to climate deniers,” pontificated Mr. Todd. This is tantamount to discovering that the actual inflation rate is 3%, then writing a front-page story based on the rate predicted by the faulty economic model: “Inflation Soars to 9%, Devastating Consumer Purchasing Power.”

And so it goes at the climate urgency mill. Instead of actual climate-related death and devastation, it is imagined climate-related death and devastation that is reported. It is only the attribution of climate havoc (to fossil-fuel consumption) that has increased in frequency and intensity — a development that dramatically escalated with the 2016 election of Donald Trump, nearly rupturing climate urgentometers with the 2017 US withdrawal from the Paris climate accord.

Climate change enthusiasts around the world cringed at estimates of the additional quantity of CO2 that would spew from the US into earth’s ever-thickening, heat-trapping atmosphere. In a speech at NYU immediately prior to Mr. Trump’s announcement to withdraw, Mr. Guterres warned that the US would suffer “negative economic, security and societal consequences.” Forbes agreed with the assessment, stating, “While the rest of the world moves to invest heavily in renewables, implement carbon reduction technology, and alter consumption habits the United States runs the risk of losing its competitiveness in the global marketplace.” “China, India to Reach Climate Goals Years Early, as U.S. Likely to Fall Far Short,” snarled an Inside Climate News headline. The US became the climate villain. Climate urgency became exponentially more urgent. Climate destruction became weekly.

Instead of actual climate-related death and devastation, it is imagined climate-related death and devastation that is reported.

But is any of this urgent, or even true? Have Chuck Todd and his ilk bothered to check readily available empirical evidence? After all, science can only be confirmed by observation. If, for example, they consulted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s detailed list of hurricanes, they would quickly discover that there is no upward trend in frequency or intensity. In her June testimony before a US House committee on climate change, climate scientist Judith Curry noted: “Of the 13 strongest U.S. landfalling hurricanes in the historical record, only three have occurred since 1970 (Andrew, Michael, Charley). Four of these strongest hurricanes occurred in the decade following 1926.” She further stated, “Recent international and national assessment reports acknowledge that there is not yet evidence of changes in the frequency or intensity of hurricanes, droughts, floods or wildfires that can be attributed to manmade global warming.”

And let’s not forget climate-related death, the ultimate measure of catastrophic anthropogenic global warming. According to the International Disaster Database, during the last century, the number of deaths from droughts, extreme temperatures, floods, storms, and wildfires has plummeted by more than 90%, from almost 500,000 per decade to less than 25,000 per decade today. Furthermore, when population growth (which quadrupled during the period) and more aggressive reporting in recent decades (to receive more disaster-relief aid) are taken into account, this impressive decline appears dramatically steeper. A time series plot would produce a hockey stick curve flipped over, “proving” that rising levels of atmospheric CO2 saves lives.

On September 23, the leaders of the rest of the world will come to the UN Climate Action Summit in New York City, “with concrete, realistic plans to enhance their nationally determined contributions by 2020, in line with reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent over the next decade, and to net zero emissions by 2050.” Mr. Trump will no doubt be excoriated and nations such as China and India will be praised for their climate leadership, snatched from a derelict US, with its suffering economy.

The number of deaths from droughts, extreme temperatures, floods, storms, and wildfires has plummeted by more than 90%, from almost 500,000 per decade to less than 25,000 per decade today.

But the US economy has been booming — with rapid GDP growth, rising wage rates, and historically low unemployment. The “heavy investments in renewables” made by the rest of the world are, thus far, a bust. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), from 2005 to 2017, global energy-related CO2 emissions rose by 6,040 million metric tons, an increase of 21%. In stark contrast, and to the dismay of journalists and politicians who have been telling us that America has let the rest of the world down, US energy-related CO2 emissions declined by 861 million metric tons, a decrease of 14%. And for climate enthusiasts who are placing their planet salvation hopes on early goal attainment, the report noted that “growth in global energy-related CO2 emissions from 2005 to 2017 was led by China, India, and other countries in Asia.” Perhaps Mr. Todd should explain climate urgency to China and India.

It’s difficult for people other than liberals and schoolchildren to view climate urgency as anything but a hoax. Most people tend to slow down, if not stop, when they sense that they are being deceived — when the stories they are being told do not match what they observe. True, Americans observed the devastation of hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria that struck in 2017; but they also observed the absence of a single major hurricane landfall in the 11 years prior.

If solar panels and windmills were cost-effective, we would see them everywhere. We see them almost nowhere. They supply less than 1% of the world’s energy. They provide this minuscule quantity because, after decades of technological advances (praised and celebrated by the news media) and decades of taxpayer-funded subsidies (currently in the US, $129 billion annually, without which both industries would go out of business tomorrow), they are too costly and inefficient to compete with other forms of energy. The next time a Democrat candidate promotes the GND, he should explain the urgency of replacing our cheapest sources of energy with the most expensive. Or how he expects to get to 100% solar and wind in 12 years, having taken 50 years to get to 1%. When a journalist uses the next flood or drought to explain the urgency of climate change, he should explain how, in those halcyon days of the 1930s, when the atmospheric concentration of CO2 was less than 300 ppm, floods claimed 436,147 lives. Or how the droughts of the 1920s claimed 472,400.

Perhaps Chuck Todd should explain climate urgency to China and India.

Climate change urgency has led to the hasty development of schemes to curb the rise in global temperature — currently predicted to exceed 4C by 2100. Controlling the earth’s climate, of course, requires an enormous quantity of money. The GND solution would build a near-zero carbon national electricity grid (115 million acres of solar panels and windmills to eliminate electricity generated by fossil fuels), replace air travel with a high-speed rail system and internal combustion vehicles with electric vehicles, retrofit all buildings to meet high energy-efficient standards, and much, much more. Its total cost has been estimated to be as high as $93 trillion. An exhaustive economic study by Benjamin Zycher of the American Enterprise Institute found that the electricity generation component alone would cost more than “$490.5 billion per year, permanently, or $3,845 per year per household.”

And for the proponents of the GND to believe that it will work, an enormous quantity of conceit and arrogance is also required. But let’s say that the GND succeeds — that it is executed flawlessly and meets all of its emission reduction goals. Then, notes Mr. Zycher, its effect on end-of-century temperature reduction is calculated (by an EPA climate model) to be somewhere between 0.173°C and 0.083°C. That is, $93 trillion of climate urgency will have absolutely no effect. All of that requires an enormous quantity of stupidity.




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Nuclear Power: Again, Why Not?

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Those who believe that manmade climate change threatens civilization, and even nature itself, with imminent death should be clamoring for more nuclear energy production, which releases no greenhouse gases. I wrote this recently as part of a longish essay about my nonexpert citizen’s skepticism regarding climate change. I speculated that one reason for the fact that there is no closing of the ranks around nuclear energy is that it’s reputed to be dangerous, especially in view of the possibility of radiation leaks. I also argued that, in spite of this ill fame, it’s difficult to find anywhere evidence of much health damage caused by radiation.

This information scarcity makes it difficult to assess the reasonableness of the widespread avoidance of nuclear energy production. Almost everyone who expresses an opinion dislikes it or is mistrustful of it. Voicing the objection that these unfavorable attitudes are not rooted in evidence either raises the eyebrows of disbelief or triggers the silent charge that you have not looked hard enough (which may, of course, be true).

Soon after writing the essay I just mentioned, I read a new book overflowing with anti-nuclear evidence that moved the hand on my clock some — only a little, but enough — to be worth discussing. The book is Kate Brown’s A Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future. In any case, if I don’t discuss it, others will, from a predictably laudatory angle, I would bet.

Brown is an engaging writer, though one with baffling lapses, in several languages.

Brown’s thesis is that the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident released more radioactivity, in more places, for longer than the official sources allow, and that many more people’s health was affected, and much more severely, as well as more lastingly, than is openly acknowledged.

Brown is an engaging writer, though one with baffling lapses, in several languages (“tribunal” for “tribune,” “amass” for “mass,” “bales of hay,” for “bales of wool,” to “curate” for to “examine,” “Judenrein” for “Judenfrei”). Although she is a Soviet expert and a reader of Russian, for several pages (p. 184 and on), she confuses perestroika (“deep societal reform” or “restructuring”) with glasnost (informational “opening,” in the sense of increased transparency). And despite the fact that Brown is a tenacious, assiduous, even a formidable, researcher in the service of her thesis (more on this below), several major defects detract from the persuasiveness of her book.

First, Brown is not a neutral investigator, or even a journalist, but unambiguously an activist who hates nuclear anything. Perhaps as a result, she pretty much treats every dissenting voice as part of a long-lasting conspiracy involving Soviet authorities (national and local — no surprise), major UN agencies, and several US federal agencies, to conceal the scale of the ill effects of radiation exposure, as well as the intensity and duration of such exposure. This is not completely unbelievable. I myself think that the deadly climate change narrative is supported at once by local, national, and international government actors, although not within the context of a conspiracy but of a passively shared perception.

But Brown’s overreliance on a conspiracy explanation ends up undermining the credibility she earns by good archival digging. When she adds the International Red Cross to her already rich mix of plotters, my willingness to suspend disbelief vacillates. I don’t see how it cannot. As she continues, it crashes. The main international organization that cites large numbers of radiation victims following the accident is Greenpeace. But Brown herself honestly describes Greenpeace’s attempt to collect data in the Soviet Union as a fiasco.

Second, and possibly fatally for her, Brown straightforwardly imputes increases in mortality and morbidity in the vicinity of Chernobyl to a rise in radioactivity in the region following the reactor’ meltdown. She does this without benefit of baseline estimates regarding either radioactivity or health conditions before the accident. This is a major defect, of course: you may not impute a rise in Y to a rise in X if you cannot demonstrate a rise in X. In a roundabout way, she admits in several places that she cannot demonstrate a rise in radioactivity around Chernobyl or, in fact, anywhere at all, following the accident. She argues — persuasively if you disregard the rest of her book — that hundreds of nuclear weapons tests in the ’50s and ’60s had so overwhelmingly loaded the atmosphere with radioactivity that it may be difficult or impossible to isolate the comparatively modest radioactive emissions from Chernobyl specifically. (See, for example pp. 244–245, for the radioactive saturation following American tests.)

Brown’s overreliance on a conspiracy explanation ends up undermining the credibility she earns by good archival digging.

But it seems to me that if you are unable to measure a rise in X, there is no point in trying to blame it for a rise in Y. And if you believe that X causes Y and you cannot link an actual increase in Y even to an identified increase in X, you may not claim much about anything. Brown thus finds herself in the impossible situation of trying to demonstrate rigorously that something that she argues cannot be assessed (increase in radioactivity) is the cause of something that she loosely measures or that remains unmeasured (rises in illness and in mortality reasonably traceable to radiation exposure).

Third, like many writers with a cause, Brown devotes no attention to possible negative evidence, to evidence against her thesis. She has nothing to say about situations where there should be an excess of pathologies and of mortality — according to her implicit model that enough exposure to radiation must result in noticeable excess morbidity — but none appears. The book is written a little like a scholarly article in which contradiction is pretty much expected, even guaranteed, from other knowledgeable sources, as part of a social process. But for this book, it’s not, for reasons I develop below.

Some of the book’s tangible findings seem defective as soon as you perform a little comparison around them. For example, Brown deals abundantly with rates, including accident rates, of course, before and after the Chernobyl disaster. But she seldom provides absolute numbers, which alone can tell us how much the rates matter. (If I read that the annual rate of suicide among churchgoing southern black grandmothers of five has increased by 100% in one year, I should ask whether it’s gone from 10,000 to 20,000, or from two to four, or even from one to two.) When she does give real numbers, absolute numbers, the effect tends to be underwhelming in ways she does not seem to understand: “eighty new thyroid cancers among 2.5 million Belarusian children . . .” (p. 250). Obviously, that’s hundreds of tragedies for parents and relatives and for the sick children themselves, but it’s not a massive epidemic. Perhaps it’s no more than a counting error.

Here is an indirect but reasonable comparison of orders of magnitude: in 1990, the rate of child mortality for Russia was 2.15% (“Child Mortality,” Max Roser, Our World in Data, May 10, 2019). Applying this rate to Brown’s 2.5 million children gives us a raw number of children’s deaths from all causes of about 54,000. I am sorry, but 80 out of 54,000 is not a big surplus. This comparison assumes that Belarusian children's death rate from all causes after Chernobyl is similar to Russia’s in 1990. This does not seem farfetched. Furthermore, the 80 thyroid cancers Brown reports probably did not all result in deaths, which makes the raw number of 80, blamed on accidental exposure to radioactivity, look even smaller.

When she does give real numbers, absolute numbers, the effect tends to be underwhelming in ways she does not seem to understand.

More strangely, the author treats what I believe is her best causal evidence with near indifference. She mentions in passing two large studies of nuclear plant workers conducted in Europe, in relative openness and under favorable European conditions — studies that convincingly link exposure to radiation to several pathologies (p. 294). To reach skeptics like me, that research should have been presented at the beginning of the book, rather than near the very end. Since it was not, I have to wonder what’s wrong with this research. (It’s probably nothing, but am I expected to confirm the research myself?)

Even the best evidence that Brown collects herself seems relegated to a near afterthought. She reports that the health statistics for areas affected by radiation remain normal-looking until shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the ’90s, when higher figures begin to show up. It’s as if a lid had been removed that constrained the truth. However, there are other possible explanations for this sudden change and its coincidence with the end of Soviet power; Brown spends little time discussing them.

In spite of its serious structural defects, in spite of its inadequate treatment of intriguing data, I am not able to dismiss Manual for Survival . . . not entirely. The main reason is that I am one of those who secretly suspect (against orthodoxy) that a large enough accumulation of anecdotal evidence ceases to be merely anecdotal.

If nothing else, the secretive habits of the Soviet informational first responders at the time pretty much guaranteed that some data were locked up, and others simply not collected.

Brown has performed huge amounts of both field research and archival research, spread over what seems to be 25 years, or even 30 years. Her perseverance is exceptional. Thanks to the quality of her narrative, the reader easily gathers that much of her work was done under adverse conditions, physically and politically. (The thought crossed my mind that I would want Brown on my side in any bar fight.) But, as I said in an opening paragraph, Brown is an activist. She seems to understand the scientific endeavor, but science isn’t her main business. It’s difficult to imagine anyone checking her numerous sources, except perhaps a scholar funded by the nuclear industry. The hire would pretty much have to be a Ukrainian with a very good command of English, because a high proportion of the book references are in Russian, or even in Ukrainian. It’s not going to happen. No one is likely ever to check all her sources — not even a principled sample of her sources, not even a handful.

Yet, I am thinking, a portion of her alarming assertions is probably true, and official sources probably underestimate the health damage caused by the Chernobyl accident. If nothing else, the secretive habits of the Soviet informational first responders at the time pretty much guaranteed that some data were locked up, and others simply not collected. The health lessons that Chernobyl has for today are still necessarily limited. The accident happened in connection with a primitive nuclear technology and under the rule of a political system that was routinely both criminal and mendacious. Since Chernobyl, the nuclear reactor core at Fukushima melted down in the worst possible context of a natural catastrophe. Dissimulation of the health consequences of the Fukushima disaster was unlikely in the relatively open Japanese society. Radiation leaks took place in the midst of a population especially sensitive to such dangers. And yet, not much appears to have happened to anyone’s health that can be linked to radiation.

So, Manual for Survival has moved the needle a little for me — not much, but some. The best way I can express it is this: I would still advocate the replacement of nearly all coal-fueled energy production plants with nuclear plants. I would probably refrain from the same recommendation in connection with relatively clean natural gas plants. That’s because there is no doubt that coal burning pollutes in several ways, irrespective of the reality of the climate change narrative. Natural gas is so clean by contrast that it may not be worth it to take even the slight and poorly demonstrated health risk that may be associated with accidental radiation exposure in order to avoid burning gas.

Her monumental work is largely irrelevant for rationalists, except from a historical viewpoint. It may stand well as another chapter in the sorry history of the Soviet Union.

Of course, if someone whom I thought qualified reviewed Brown’s multiple sources and pronounced them mostly adequate, I would revise my judgment again about the safety of nuclear energy production.

In the end, her monumental work is largely irrelevant for rationalists, except from a historical viewpoint. It may stand well as another chapter in the sorry history of the Soviet Union. The primitive technologies and the incompetent and weak sociopolitical controls of Chernobyl are gone for good. There is a segment in Steven Pinker’s well-documented Enlightenment Now (2018) about both the disadvantages and the overwhelming advantages of nuclear power (pp. 144–150). Why, even climate-change-fixated National Geographic shows a few signs of coming around! Though not many signs: see the short feature on nuclear engineer Leslie Dewan, in the March 2019 issue.


Editor's Note: Review of "A Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future," by Kate Brown. Norton: New York, 2019. 432 pages.



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Climate Change Denier, Part 2

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In Part I of this two-part feature, Jacques Delacroix began his review of problems with the public presentation of climate research. He continues now.

* * *

Sins Against the Spirit of Science

Now, some objections that have to do with the logic of the overall scientific endeavor. Many or most individual studies of climate change may be well or even perfectly designed. However, there is also an implicit design to the macro endeavor. I mean the large set of scientific studies as arranged in the collective minds of a semi-educated media — their own synthetic presentation of the relevant scientific enterprise. The latter is, of necessity, what most citizens must consume, lacking time and expertise to do anything else. The implicit but very clear design of this synthetic presentation is fatally flawed, impossibly unscientific, lacking even in simple logic.

Many scientists are incapable of keeping themselves on the straight and narrow. Some cheat; many more are overcome by love for the findings they want their hypothesis testing to produce and thus become honestly blinded. To circumvent the regrettable consequences of such love, of such blindness, science invented the diabolical practice of double-blind peer reviewing.

To put this briefly: strangers who remain anonymous throughout, strangers who may be ill-disposed or inimical to the findings the author reports, are put in charge of judging the merits of his submission. In respected journals, those referees are given license, are even encouraged, to devastate the submission, to look for hidden defects, for covered-up bias, for anything they want. Often, the first thing they do is check for faulty design. The knowledge that this could happen to your piece, to your baby, tends to make you prudent, even if it never actually happens. The results of such savagery are not always perfect; some bias does survive. But in general, the results of research that has gone through this savaging process are considerably more trustworthy than those that have not.

Many scientists are incapable of keeping themselves on the straight and narrow. Some cheat; many more are overcome by love for the findings they want their hypothesis testing to produce.

Yet the overarching endeavor of climate change research, the way many research items are put together, the way that most affects decision making, does not benefit from this kind of scrutiny. Although each and every one of the studies that feed into it may be competently reviewed, the general endeavor is allowed to continue with bad design. I’ll explain.

Suppose I am a medical researcher testing a new fever-abating drug. I design an experiment thus: I will take so many feverish patients’ temperatures, administer the medication, and determine that if the patients’ temperature falls after they take the drug, the drug is effective. And if the patients’ temperature rises, I will also consider the drug effective. Should that happen, you would know I was doing something wrong. You would tell me that I had to choose. The drug may have no effect but, if it has one, it either raises or lowers temperature. In general, you can’t have it both ways.

I first heard from the media, including the highbrow media, that rising (manmade) hothouse gases —including CO2 — caused global temperatures to rise. It was called “global warming.” I recognized a familiar causal form: The more X, the more Y. That’s at the heart of the scientific endeavor, of course. Then, I heard on the occasion of several extreme winters somewhere or other that it was also true that the more hothouse gases, the lower the temperatures. I recognized the other familiar form. The more X, the less Y. If memory serves, that’s when “global warming” was replaced by the term “climate change.”

I did not bat much more than an eyelash at the juxtaposition of the two propositions: the more X, the more Y and, the more X, the less Y. That’s because these opposite relationships occur in nature (and also in society), arranged sequentially: If it’s cold in the morning, when the ambient temperature rises, I feel increasingly comfortable; past a certain point, however, as the temperature keeps rising, I feel increasingly uncomfortable.

Then, I was told that rising hothouse gases caused an unlimited number of categories of unpleasant meteorological events judged to be extreme by the unreliable yardstick of individual living memories (almost never with even a simple recourse to easily accessible archives such as those found in local newspapers). At that point — where I am now — the overall representation of aggregate alleged findings looks like this: The more X the more Y, and the more X the less Y, and the more X, the more W, and the more Z, and the more X, the more anything that’s objectionable to believers — all this, without apparent limit.

When you put me in that situation, I think we are outside of reason, in a religious zone, perhaps.

I don’t know for sure if the absurd model above is true to what duly authorized scientists in the relevant disciplines would say. I wouldn’t know how to go about ascertaining this. And frankly, it’s not my job. I am only an alert, fairly well-informed consumer of this sort of information. I can’t even go to the general authority, the IPCC, for an answer. If I don’t understand this organization’s prose when it’s explicitly trying to communicate with laymen (see above, Part 1, under “Lack of Clarity”), surely I can’t explore abstract issues in its scientific reports.

By now, HCC apologists, I have lost faith in your capacity to do simple logic. That’s true no matter how many ad hoc explanations you mention to explain deviations from the starting proposition (the more hothouse gases, the warmer the globe becomes) in addition to the absurd expansion of the overall model I just described. I become especially worried if you seldom discuss this apparently faulty logic. When you put me in that situation, I think we are outside of reason, in a religious zone, perhaps.

Measuring: The Thermometer Problem

Here is another simple but serious technical problem: in science, as when installing draperies at home, it’s very bad practice to switch measuring devices, or measurement procedures, in the middle of the job. That’s because different instruments may give different measurements in ways you don’t know. Take the medical experiment described above. Suppose you take the patients’ temperature rectally before administering the medication, and then take their temperature in the armpit at the end of the period of observation. Anything wrong? The former reading may be systematically higher or lower than the latter.

I have seen serious research published in a respected science magazine (not a scholarly journal) where annual temperatures are measured by reading tree rings (no objection) for most of the 19th century, and by reading scientific instruments from early in the 20th. Anything wrong, this time? Any reason to be suspicious? Surely tree rings are available for the 20th century. Tree ring-based measurements for that period could have been presented side by side with measurements produced with high-tech tools. I mean tree-ring measures in addition to them. It could even have been done in a footnote, or in a technical appendix, or on the magazine’s website, online, to save trees.

Arbitrary Period Sampling

Finally, still in the bad science category; this bad science may be performed mostly by nonscientists who report on what they think are scientific findings; I wouldn’t know. There is a problem of period sampling that plagues public declarations on global warming specifically. It’s conceptually difficult for most people, so don’t feel bad if you don’t grasp it, and just skip this section and move on. This part is not indispensable to the overall demonstration of the weakness of the HCC narrative.

It’s easy to produce every other day some sort of record, for some sort of period.

The February 7, 2019 issue of the Wall Street Journal — not usually a trumpet for the HCC narrative — has an inside page (A3) feature titled, “2018 Was Fourth-Warmest Year Since 1880.” That’s according to data from two federal bureaucracies “which track annual climate change” (“climate” not just temperature?) affirms the article. The feature includes three images covering three different time spans. I have to ask: Why is “fourth warmest” significant? And, especially, why since 1880? What’s special about that year? What would be the ranking of the year 2018 since 1890? Since 1860? Since 1990? Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution? Why not since 1879? What would be lost in the demonstration by choosing this seemingly arbitrary year?

The logic problem is this: give me reasonable variation in the thing being observed and give me enough possible periods of observation, and I can create an impression supporting almost any assertion. The number of separate periods of observation available between 1800 (an artificial date for the beginning of the Industrial Revolution) and 2019 veers toward infinity. It’s like this: 1800–1801, 1800–1802; 1802–1803; 1800–1850; 1800–1851, 1852–1873, beginning of 1800 to mid-1800, and so forth. Let’s now limit ourselves to ten-year periods of observation, for some imaginary legitimate scientific reason. The number of resulting periods now available is reduced, but it remains very large, like this: 1800–1809; 1801–1810; 1802–1811, 1803–1812, etc.

With such an abundance of periods of observation to pick from, and with vagueness about what constitutes a record, it’s easy to produce every other day some sort of record, for some sort of period. This looseness allows for massive cherrypicking: “Hottest year in two years, in three years, in the four years between ___ and ___.” What would happen if a contrarian cherrypicked the coldest years for some period of observation chosen to optimize the impression that global temperatures are actually dropping? I myself lived through the two coldest hours in central California in 30 years. Should I contend it’s relevant to something or other? How long does a period of observation have to be, to make it legitimate? Can it be chosen any old way? Is the answer to both questions: whatever suits my purpose?

Well, here we go, from the Wall Street Journal again: “For the first time in at least 132 years, the temperature didn’t hit 70 degrees in downtown Los Angeles, in February.” Global cooling at work! (“California’s Weather Cycles,” unsigned editorial, March 4, 2019.)

It’s well documented that even reputable scholarly journals are often loathe to retract anything.

Of course, the images accompanying the February 7 Wall Street Journal feature — though they are difficult to read together or in conjunction with the story — lend the whole thing an appearance of seriousness, of scientificity (I know I just made up this word; it deserves to exist.) A normal reading of the whole newspaper item by a normally intelligent but normally busy citizen will add some credence to the oft-repeated assertion that there is overwhelming evidence in support of the climate change narrative. It shouldn’t; it doesn’t; it’s just anecdotes until demonstrated otherwise.

I have no objection in principle to declaring contrary events meaningless, like this: the accumulation of CO2 gradually raises global temperatures in the long run. A few extremely cold weeks in the American Midwest in winter, 2018–2019, are just glitches that don’t undermine the validity of the general statement above. Someone has to make the declaration explicitly and also consider publicly the possibility than an extremely hot summer in the US in 2008, or in another year, may likewise be just a glitch — and that the hottest summer on record seems to have occurred in 1936, before the accumulated emission of CO2 was much advanced. I would even expect some respectable spokesperson to contradict aloud the multitude of untrained voices clamoring that two hot summers necessarily prove that climate change, etc.

Missing Links?

Sometimes I wonder if there may be somewhere a piece of research of good quality asserting that most climate scientists are skeptical that there is significant climate change, or that it’s caused by human activity, or that we need to worry about it right now. If there happened to be one such piece, would I know about it? I am pondering the likelihood that it would come to my attention without my actively looking for it. There is a good place to look: the contrarian website Watts Up With That. The website is presented on Wikipedia in mostly derogatory terms. Why would that be? Seekers of balance may be outnumbered and not be able to keep up with “crowd” contributed changes in the relevant Wikipedia entry or entries, changes that nearly anyone can effect. Note that this scenario does not require a conventional conspiracy, just plural enthusiasm.

I also ask myself what is the probability that such a piece of research could actually be published in any refereed journal, with all the advantages such publication confers in terms of credibility. I have to ask, for two reasons. The first is that refereed journals have a well-documented anti-negative bias. Other things being equal, a submission that claims that something happens has a better chance of making it through the refereeing process than one that announces that, on the contrary, nothing of the sort happens.

I am impressed, both from my research experience, and from daily life, with most people’s bad memory and by the ease with which they are influenced.

Here is my second reason to doubt: I suspect there exists a well-established, high-brow, politically correct orthodoxy that makes it difficult to consider, process, and finally accept even a very well-constructed scholarly paper denying the reality, source, or importance of climate change. It’s well documented that even reputable scholarly journals are often loathe to retract anything. This is true even when they don’t object to the reasons for which the retraction is requested. (See, for example, “Confirmation Bias Hurts Social Science,” by Robert P. George, Wall Street Journal, March 6, 2019, A15.)

I spent 30 years in American academia. I have witnessed there the construction of intellectual orthodoxies from their earliest beginnings. I have suffered from some of them (not much), and I may have benefited from one. It happened in and around the discipline of sociology — which has a reputation for being soft, it’s true, though it’s a reputation that has not been much deserved for 30 years. I am not pointing here to the kind of cynical publication conspiracy I evoke elsewhere but to smaller, more tacit cultural movements within academic subspecialties. Such orthodoxies regularly emerge spontaneously and aboveboard. They do not require bad consciousness from believers. Some may even be inherently virtuous.

So, if I were not a skeptic, I would have to believe that given its scarcity in scholarly journals there is no good research on the other side of the HCC narrative divide regarding the credibility of all, or even of part, of this narrative. Is this possible, I ask? It seems to me that to raise the question is to answer it. This section is somewhat subjective. I don’t expect it directly to change anyone’s mind. It’s useful to raise the issue though. At least it can hurt no one, except the devout.

Unused Usable Metrics

I wrote above of the importance of proper measurement and of the possible suppression of non-conforming information. The two ideas blend with respect to the matter of uninterrupted series of measurement going back a long time that are readily available but seem mysteriously absent from the public discussion of climate change.

Little effort is made to explain to the unwashed masses how the ocean level can be durably different in different locations.

One of the most dramatic features of the HCC narrative is the purported rise of the ocean. In the past five years, a good consumer of news, I have seen two sorts of very different expressions of the assertion. One is the kind of imagery in which a guy in a loincloth stands up to his belly in seawater while telling us that he used to help his father when he was a kid grow taro exactly where his feet are now placed. (Seen in the old and lovely French television series “Thalassa”; it was taking place in some remote island in French Polynesia.) The second kind of measure related to the rise of the ocean with which I am familiar involves esoteric satellite metrics.

I dismiss the first kind of testimony out of hand because I am impressed, both from my research experience, and from daily life, with most people’s bad memory and by the ease with which they are influenced. I hold the second kind in high regard, but it’s the sort of superstitious regard that was in the hearts of the first New Guineans who saw an airplane. I am incompetent to judge myself, and I don’t know what or who is competent, to vouch for those measurements. And no, I don’t suspect a monstrous plot to feed us false and alarming measurements. I suspect instead a great deal of collective self-indulgence if the measurements are the least bit ambiguous. (And wouldn’t they often be ambiguous, I inquire — naively, to be sure?)

I also have some conceptual trouble with the impression that little effort is made to explain to the unwashed masses (me) how the ocean level can be durably different in different locations. After all, it does not happen in my bathtub, or not for long. (Yes, the close proximity of references to “unwashed” and to “bathtub” is deliberate.)

Against this background, I have to ask why no one appears to be using the obvious to make the rise of the ocean obvious to rational nonspecialists like me. Here is a practical case in point. The English Channel and the North Sea are lined with nations possessing a long maritime past associated with an age-old economic dependence on fishing. Still today, thousands of small boats on both sides of the Channel go up and down entirely according to the tides. The same boats spend a significant portion of each year resting on muddy or sandy harbor bottoms during many low tides. In spite of the construction of convenient deep-water marinas everywhere, many pleasure boat owners, and some fishermen, still find their movements in and out of harbors constrained by a complex tide regimen. Until recently — in my lifetime — all boats in that region except the biggest naval ships were so constrained. Approximately the same situation prevails in the Baltic (which I don’t know as well). I am told it’s also true of Japan, of course. It’s probably the same on much of the Chinese and Korean coastlines facing the Japanese archipelago.

Almost everyone understands that the main solutions actually offered (as in the 2015 Paris Agreement) involve a significant decline in the standard of living of presently well-off societies.

All the societies I mentioned have one thing in common besides their maritime positioning. They have all included fair numbers of literate people for a thousand years or more. Accordingly, in those with which I am a little familiar, Ireland, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, there are detailed written records going back hundreds of years about conditions affecting the movements of boats and ships. These include water height on given dates at tight spots, which are largely the same as today. In some harbors, on both sides of the Channel, large iron spikes in seawalls mark record high tides.

This is all easily usable material and also convenient of access. To exploit it requires only inexpensive, low-tech methods (comparable to reading annual temperatures from tree rings). It would seem to be perfect raw material for many graduate students in search of data. The exploitation of individual records would not even need to be coordinated to contribute to our understanding. And finally, any such endeavor would have the immense advantage of being intuitively clear to ordinary, alert people. It’s mysterious why none of this seems to have been undertaken. Perhaps it’s considered superfluous to be clear to the rank and file on this issue also.

But maybe the kind of studies I long for have actually been done, and they escaped my attention. If that’s true, I must ask why? I explained above, when presenting my credentials, that I am literate, very interested, and well connected to the media. If I failed to notice such intuitively accessible research, how many other, responsible parties also did? Whose fault?

Partial Solutions Missing

HCC narrative advocates seldom propose reasonable partial solutions to the greenhouse effect that do not require government intervention or any sort of centralization of power. Also, almost everyone understands that the main solutions actually offered (as in the 2015 Paris Agreement) involve a significant decline in the standard of living of presently well-off societies.

HCC believers do diffusely promote a handful of tiny personal solutions that have the merit of making individuals feel virtuous but that cannot make a dent on disasters of the magnitude they predict. Those include, for example, biking to work (I don’t knock it; it’s good for the bikers; it helps to alleviate traffic congestion), and buying electric cars. (I understand that these are marginally less polluting than contemporary internal combustion vehicles, when you take into account the processes by which electricity powering them is produced.) When it comes to big, non-government global-level efforts, I hear only silence.

Planting a tree, or two, or three, could easily become the fashionable thing to do. It might morph into a nearly universal ethical obligation.

I am wondering, for example, how difficult it would be to plant two additional billion trees each year (20 billion in ten years). Supposing that half survive after two years, the world would still have an additional ten billion CO2 reducers. Any semblance of success would probably create a salutary contagion to repeat the process. Perhaps this number, ten billion, is too low to make a difference, but some number of trees must be able to mitigate the existing CO2 emissions, or begin to. I don’t know what the number is, but I am sure that every little bit helps and that trees are cheap. A Swiss scientist, John Christian, claimed recently that 1.2 additional trillion trees would absorb all (current) emissions. If half the current residents of the earth (roughly) each planted 15 trees every year, we would be there in 20 years, without major transformation of society, or mass impoverishment (but this assumes that CO2 emissions were kept at the current levels). It all seems feasible, if there’s enough space available. The same Swiss author affirms that there is. I couldn’t check.

Whatever would be a useful number, I am also certain that planting billions can be done in a decentralized manner, even on a personal basis, in the absence of a permanent organization, without resorting to the coercive power of government. Individuals, including schoolchildren, households, clubs, affinity groups, could do it on their own and at their own pace. Billionaire philanthropists would be glad to pay for the saplings, I think. (They would cost about a quarter each, wholesale.) Planting a tree, or two, or three, could easily become the fashionable thing to do. It might morph into a nearly universal ethical obligation, because everyone likes trees. A single family in Brazil planted more than two million trees in eight years.[1]

Globally, there are plenty of vacant lots, urban rooftops, roadside paths, rights-of-way (such as abandoned railroad tracks), and other unused land available for planting. Most of the US, most of Canada, much of South America, most of Australia, and most of Russia are nearly empty. Not all of this land is already covered by forest, and the density of trees could be improved in much of it. Even China, even Japan have mountainous areas unsuitable for agriculture, some not already forested. In some developed, old industrialized countries, such as France, close to major CO2 pollution, former agricultural land is quickly returning to wilderness. (In about 80 years in the 20th century, French forests increased by 50% as a result of the abandonment of agriculturally marginal lands. {B. Cinotti, Évolution des surfaces boisées en France: proposition de reconstitution depuis le début du XIXe siècle [1996].) Spontaneous reforestation in such areas could simply be helped along by volunteer actions. The same is true for other parts of Europe. Remember that if HCC is really global, trees planted anywhere at all are somewhat helpful. We might also try to open a worldwide subscription, a vast GoFundMe to purchase and maintain more expensive nut and fruit-bearing trees. NGOs could give them outright to villagers in the Sahel without otherwise intruding in local affairs. This enterprise would get us a two for one: less CO2 globally, and a rampart against further desertification locally.

My own skepticism about the HCC narrative would not prevent me from subscribing to such pleasant, optimistic, and joyful endeavors. (I would hope there would be a humble “Delacroix Grove” somewhere, of course.)

It’s a mystery, unless some other agenda than saving the planet is involved here.

I raise the idea of planting trees because we have now nearly forgotten that CO2 is also plant food. It’s common knowledge and (as far as I understand) still undisputed that trees can consume large quantities of CO2. Strangely, I almost never hear this fact mentioned anywhere in my casual, haphazard following of diverse media. The only time in several years when I have come across the idea that rising temperatures and especially rising CO2 levels are both separately beneficial to plant food production was in an item apparently smuggled into the pages of a small (circulation 45,000) conservative weekly, the Washington Examiner. (“Scientists: CO2 the ‘miracle molecule’ key to feeding the world,” February 26, 2019.)

It’s a mystery why the kind of proposal exemplified by my tree planting scenario has not already been pushed vigorously. I am thinking of the likes of National Geographic, which never publishes a single issue lacking some sort of catastrophic climate prediction. It’s a mystery, unless some other agenda than saving the planet is involved here, or unless climate change is relevant to something else, something I can only guess at. The list of potential nongovernmental remedies to increasing CO2 emissions appears endless to me. Why doesn’t it seem to occur to Green activists? Aren’t they interested in innocent, painless, heartwarming, noncoercive solutions with little potential to induce poverty?

What’s Going On?

Of course, I have been asking myself what accounts for the viciousness, the ludicrousness, the gobbledygook, the inconsistencies, the bad faith, and the plain deceitfulness, which the social movement that has grown around the HCC narrative demonstrates so frequently. The attachment to bad scientific presentation and, to some extent, to bad scientific practice by those who ought to know better perplexed me for a long time.

For several years, I told myself that the Green opinion current was made up of amiable, foo-foo headed treehuggers, plus some disappointed or disoriented leftists. When they started to make demands that governments should impose big, significant restrictions on nonbelievers — on everyone, indeed — I thought they would eventually go away. I scoffed at Al Gore’s crude, mendacious movie An Inconvenient Truth. But some around me treated it with complete seriousness. As the Green voices became increasingly shrill, I began to get a sense of déjà vu. I realized little by little that I had been there before, perhaps even twice.

Aren’t they interested in innocent, painless, heartwarming, noncoercive solutions with little potential to induce poverty?

When I was growing up in France, in the ’40s and ’50s, the French Communist Party regularly pulled more than 20% of the votes in legislative elections. It was always the first, second, or third largest party. Communist leaders were everywhere in the newspaper and on the radio. My family’s aspiring middle-class apartment block was next to a blue-collar block where everyone was a Communist, a fellow traveler, or else kept quiet. Of course, I went to elementary school with children from that block and I knew some of their parents. Truth be told, in many ways they were similar to people in my more familiar Catholic environment: most of the Communists lived by faith alone. Looking back on them, it seems to me that eight out of ten Communists were naive True Believers (I use the words as Eric Hoffer did in his book by that title [1951]), vaguely hoping for a better life and for abstractly defined “social justice” They put their faith in Comrade Stalin, and in his dwarfish deputies in their own country. The cult of personality was out in the open, unabashed, and it borrowed openly from familiar forms of religious devoutness. (Some of my neighbors even lowered their voices piously when they mentioned His name.) They thought that soon, very soon, France would become a fair society, as the Soviet Union already was.

Of every ten Communists whom I knew or knew of, one was a determined and cynical seeker of power, and another was in transition. The Communists, in the papers, on radio, and on the street, treated viciously those they considered their class enemies (not me, for sure). Their faith in the Soviet Union and in the forthcoming Communist utopia was ludicrous. They seemed to speak two languages. Their everyday language was normal; I mean that it was like mine. Yet when they explained why the victory of socialism was inevitable, they became incomprehensible.

There were even evening Party schools that young adults attended, just to be able to understand the esoteric language of “dialectical materialism.” Some just pretended. Attendance at the schools was a requirement for good Party standing. In their second language, the Party-Marxist talk, they made no sense whatsoever. But then, neither I nor most of my friends understood Mass Latin.

The Communists always left some things out of their description of the Soviet paradise, small things such as famines, mass arrests, and concentration camps. (The latter were well known already in the ’50s.) When confronted with contrary facts, they first insulted viciously; then they just lied. It appears that the lies were enough to stop sufficient numbers of followers from asking further questions. The French Communist leadership came and went, but there was never any grand moment or reckoning. Unlike the Communist Party of the Soviet Union itself (under Khrushchev), the French Party never said, “We were wrong on this and that.” Communists and fellow travelers had such influence on attitudes and language (same thing in the long run) that by the time I was 18, being overtly anti-Communist constituted a kind of social death. Only two brave French public intellectuals stood firm throughout (Raymond Aron and Jean-Francois Revel).

In many ways the Communists were similar to people in my more familiar Catholic environment: most of them lived by faith alone.

The Communist Party as a political force eventually almost disappeared through attrition, leaving behind little left-wing parties composed of those who had parted company at various times, and of those who were excluded for ideological sins. The remnants of the Party and its leftovers keep re-supplying a foul residue of vague and murky statism. They have been poisoning the French political discourse ever since. In the current (2018–2019) “yellow vests” crisis in France, participants are even unable to voice their demands in other than vulgar Marxist terms. I believe the French Communist Party and its offshoots destroyed long ago the conceptual vocabulary the protesters would now need.

Of course, French Communists — adopting Karl Marx’s shameless claim — contended that their analysis (of society) was “scientific.” (Scientism had long been a source of holiness.) The scientific pretension was their quick path to inexorability. Incidentally, they believed and declared that their actions would save not only themselves but the whole of humanity. (Little philosophical problem here: the victory of communism is inevitable, but our deeds are necessary to its victory. This probably requires a little muscular persuasion.) I believe, however, it never even crossed their minds to affirm that their actions would save Mother Earth herself. They were a backward lot, you might say.

The HCC narrative promoters promise us worse than hell on earth, the end of earth itself — if we don’t take on an emergency-basis step that entails a massive enlargement of government relative to the rest of society, and an increase of several orders of magnitude in the coercion applied to ordinary people. The solutions proposed also constitute a kind of drastic deindustrialization. They would cause large-scale impoverishment in the prosperous countries and a diminished likelihood that poor countries would ever achieve the prosperity of currently advanced ones. The only political processes imaginable to implement the key propositions associated with the HCC narrative involve a hefty form of authoritarianism and the suppression of dissenting forces, as well as a fair degree of popular participation. That’s a textbook definition of fascism, of course. (Maybe, see my “Fascism Explained.”) This is not a difficult guess, as the process is observable already in attenuated forms in several countries.

The authoritarianism I forecast does not come out of my imagination. The impeccably democratically chosen Chancellor Merkel decided pretty much on her own that Germany must abandon the production of electricity from fossil fuels within a few years, starting immediately. She also decreed the rapid closure of nuclear plants. She could do all this in spite of predictable hardships the decisions would entail because a large fraction of German public opinion was already persuaded of the imminent danger global warming posed. (The discussion of the dangers of nuclear energy had been closed long before.) Chancellor Merkel’s decisions trod on minorities of opinion in a manner reminiscent of the crushing of the religiously unorthodox everywhere. (To be fair, she did not propose to burn anyone at the stake.) The moral weight of electoral majorities, and even of simple pluralities, was in this case sufficient to begin the dismantling of the admirable edifice of centuries of German effort and ingenuity.[2]

When they explained why the victory of socialism was inevitable, they became incomprehensible.

In its most extreme manifestations, the HCC narrative and its policy implications look like the latest avatar (but not the last avatar, surely) of the same strand of authoritarian collectivism that appeared before as Communism, and in various other brands of Fascism. And like the narratives of these other millenarian social movements, the HCC narrative has a pronounced religious character.

New or Old Cult?

The parallel between the climate change movement and Christianity has been drawn many times, by me and others. After all, the movement has its dogma, a hatred of heretics sometimes bordering on the murderous, repeated attempts to remand heretics to the “secular arm” — government — for legal punishment, and a strong sense of individual sin. It also traffics constantly in apocalyptic imagery.

But I have now come to think that the sociopolitical movement associated with the HCC narrative is not pseudo-Christian but more like an older cult, some Bronze Age religion. It harbors no idea of individual redemption, it has no Messiah, and, certainly, it entertains no nonsense about God becoming human and thus exalting Man. Its deity does not heed the prayers of the faithful, but yet demands from them complete and exclusive submission. It does seem to respond to incantations (in the mass media). It craves sacrifices. When I see two middle-class parents each towing a toddler in tiny trailers behind their bikes, near blacktop-level, at night, sharing the street with old men in trucks, I think Moloch, I think Baal. The stern but caring God of the New Testament is nowhere to be seen. And Jesus seems to have gone home early.

Note, please, that if all the HCC models are factually correct and if all the predictions they entail are also, it does not negate the religious character of the corresponding movement. It’s just that the more obviously true the HCC statements of all kinds are to ordinary people, the more superfluous is the religiosity attached to the movement.

Where Do I Stand?

In the end, am I deeply convinced that there is no climate change caused by human activity that demands quick solutions?

I am not. I am not convinced of anything, at this point. All it would take is exposure to one good document, to several good discussions, preferably ones with an overall design that does not betray basic logic, to make me fall off the high stool of my skepticism. The discussions would have to be principled, along traditional lines, fairly respectful of the presentation of opposite viewpoints. They would incorporate no insults and no condemnations of a quasi-religious nature. They would take place in the local vernaculars of ordinary educated people rather than scientific and pseudoscientific jargon. I must admit that I fear it may be too late to hope for any of this, because so many careers are at stake. I would like to be wrong, though.

I have now come to think that the sociopolitical movement associated with the HCC narrative is not pseudo-Christian but more like an older cult, some Bronze Age religion.

Even a single good book, a clear, well organized book, would do it for me. But the last good books I read on environmental issues are old. One is Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday (2012), which does not directly address the HCC narrative though it has much to say about climate. The other is the statistician Bjorn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist (2001). Lomborg currently accepts the main tenets of the HCC narrative but he agrees with almost none of what the movement presents as its unavoidable policy implications.

Concretely, it would take two or three steps to undermine my skepticism.

First, I would have to become convinced that the earth has been warming abnormally, based on all that we know of past temperatures. I am not even convinced that it has been warming abnormally in recent years — because of a few inconvenient scattered facts. One is that Greenland was warmer during the 1000–1200 period than it is now. I gleaned this by reading the same environmental activist and serious intellectual Jared Diamond. Here is what I gathered from his best-seller, The World Until Yesterday: the Norse settlers of Greenland ate significant quantities of beef. Now, it seems to me that there were only two possible sources for that beef. Either they imported mature cattle for butchering from Iceland or from Norway in large numbers, in their little boats, or they raised cattle right in Greenland. The first explanation I discount as technically and economically untenable. So the Norse evidently raised cattle in a part of the world where you could not do it now. You could not because Greenland is too cold to produce the hay necessary to feed cattle during its long winter season. Greenland was warmer then than it is after nearly two centuries of big human CO2 emissions. I am pretty sure Norse peat fires were not at fault.

Second, one would have to demonstrate to me the likelihood of a causal link between CO2 emission and warming. I am too moderate to ask for actual proof. Fairly tight coincidence in time between the two variables — with the purported cause preceding the alleged effect — will not kill my skepticism outright, but it will give me pause. Of course, no trick, no hockey stick! All the data available must be used, or a good reason provided as to why they are not. The consequences of not using all data available must be carefully and frankly explored and explained.

If you tell me that the ocean will rise by three inches, I will say, “Call in the Dutch; they will know what to do!”

In the above, substitute any reasonable variable connected to the climate for “warming” or “temperature,” if you please. “Frequency of extreme weather events” would be conceptually fine with me but I warn you it’s a can of definitional worms! It’s the kind with which HCC advocates have not been dealing too well as a far as I am concerned.

After accomplishing the above, HCC narrative promoters must provide some verifiable metric prediction that’s truly dreadful if they want me to even consider the possibility of adopting any part of their lethal agenda of authoritarian deindustrialization. I warn you, HCC militants: if you warn me that average global temperature will be 2 degrees centigrade higher in 50 years, I won’t care. If you tell me that the ocean will rise by three inches, I will say, “Call in the Dutch; they will know what to do!” You are demanding of this citizen something extremely alarming. Your admonitions have to be irresistibly alarming.

I would also be more likely to pay attention if the bright features of climate change were mentioned more often. It would be nice if those who did it were famous exponents of HCC. It would be even nicer if they had scholarly credentials. (I can imagine teams made up of one scholar and of one famous, trusted media person.)

Finally, it would help the credibility of HCC declaimers if, once in a while, they reached out and made a public example of the myriads of enthusiastic, ignorant fools who at all times babble irresponsibly and without foundation about climate change.

Oh, and I almost forgot, no more of the kind of vicious insults historically associated with religious fanaticism!

Been There?

Filling my mind with any sense of urgency is going to take some doing anyway, because of past experiences. I was a young adult in the good old days of the Club of Rome and of Paul Ehrlich’s glory. The first published The Limits to Growth in 1972, promising us a series of calamities, and especially of famines, if we did not change our ways radically. We did not. Global food production increased radically instead. The consensus of the Club of Rome was if anything more impressive than the HCC consensus. It included just about everyone who counted — scientists, of course, other kinds of scholars, business decision makers, prominent politicians.

Famines within 12 years. Does this time horizon sound familiar?

The entomologist and mite specialist Ehrlich (also a Nobel Prize winner, but not in anything related to climate disciplines) had earlier also promised famines, due to overpopulation. His 1968 book The Population Bomb began with these words: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” (Emphasis mine.) Famines within 12 years. Does this time horizon sound familiar?

Ehrlich was wrong; the Club of Rome was wrong. The former continued his distinguished academic career at Stanford University pretty much as if the facts had proven him right and the earth had swallowed hundreds of millions of victims of hunger. The Club of Rome is still in existence. It’s a well-funded, apparently respected organization.

Of necessity, dire predictions pertaining to global warming ensued. According to AP’s Peter John Spielman, in 1989 a senior UN environmental official declared that “entire nations could be wiped off the face of the Earth by rising sea levels if the global warming trend is not reversed by the year 2000”! (“Notable and Quotable: Warming.” Wall Street Journal, March 8, 2019, A17.) I observe with interest that in that early case, the time allotted to remedy the situation did not even reach 12 years; it was only 10.5 years!

That previous apocalyptic narratives with an environmentalist inspiration were wrong, that no one stood up to apologize, does not prove that the current HCC narrative is also wrong. Still, experience should inspire intellectual prudence. Given those past fiascoes — in addition to the enormous stakes involved — rigorous, critical scrutiny is in order. The more esoteric the topic, the more removed from the average citizen’s competence, the more exigent must one be with respect to the general credibility of the exponents of the narrative. Collectively HCC narrative activists have low credibility, in my estimation. That’s why I think there is no reason to worry right now. The HCC narrative still bears watching, though, just in case proponents of the HCC narrative clean up their act and turn out believable. But using the very numbers that they, the HCC proponents provide, it’s still hard to see how all human CO2 emissions together, plus cow burps and flatulence, can do much damage to our atmosphere, compared to your medium-size volcanic eruption, or even to three consecutive above-average El Niños.

How About You?

I mean you, supporters of the human-caused disastrous climate change narrative, you who assess the evidence supporting the narrative as overwhelming, you who demand immediate and drastic action: what would it take to turn you around? To clam you up even a little? Anything at all?

I believe it’s up to those who would upend our pretty good civilization to persuade me, without appeal to the sort of quasi-religious abracadabra we left behind in the 18th century. I refuse to put to sleep my rationality and even my common sense before unverifiable claims of expertise. I also don’t want to be forced to master arcane areas of the physical sciences just to be able to stop my government from doing something irreversibly destructive. That’s not too much to ask.

You who demand immediate and drastic action: what would it take to turn you around? To clam you up even a little? Anything at all?

Personally, I would like to walk away from the messy and often acrimony-inducing issue of climate change. I can’t afford this luxury because I am afraid that someone is going to do something with it that’s incredibly stupid and harmful to me and mine.

P.S.: If you are attracted to the minutiae of climate research and if you want a reliable source of detailed, quantitative, scientific contrarian information about the HCC narrative, you may wish to visit this blog. That outfit has posted a globe displaying a number of graphs summarizing much climate information, including some severely at variance with the popular version of the HCC narrative. And Wikipedia in French (for some reason) has published a list of credentialed experts who have expressed skepticism about HCC. I have not checked its credibility; I probably wouldn’t know how. The list includes Nobel winner Gary Becker of the University of Chicago.


[1] Somewhere in India, 1.5 million volunteers are supposed to have planted 66 million trees in one hour. That would be 660 million in ten hours, or in one hour by 15 million volunteers. I don’t know if the story is true; it’s in the Guinness Book of World Records. If it is true, it makes my proposal look ridiculously humble.

[2] No one should lament too much the fate of the German populace shivering in their cold dark houses as a result of Chancellor Merkel’s suddenly decreed switch to so-called “renewable energies” (i.e., minus nuclear). In 2018, the German government discreetly began buying electricity from plants across its southwestern border. The French plants there are powered by coal. One may thus add official hypocrisy to the list of virtues associated with the implementation of an HCC inspired agenda.




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Climate Change Denier

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Part I

As the climate change End Time-ism appears to grow inexorably, I keep reading and hearing good debunking attempts. Most don’t do me lasting good, however, because they require me to know, or to gain knowledge of, rudiments of physics, and of other sciences of which I am mostly innocent. It seems to me that it’s not right, that it’s not fair even, that deciphering these technically expressed instances of skepticism must be a distraction for the average citizen, as it is for me.

After all, when I take my car to the repair shop, I don’t really have to know much auto mechanics. Similarly, I don’t study dentistry before I choose a dentist, or entrust myself into his hands. And when I had a pacemaker put in, there was no requirement that I know where the surgeon planned to place it, or why. Nevertheless, everything went fine. Both my heart and my car run well, and my teeth are in reasonably good condition for my age.

Americans have never wanted to be ruled by experts. The experts work for us. We are not their subjects.

Incidentally, the American citizenry has maintained for 230 years a fair version of representative government. We achieved this in spite of (or because of) the paucity of individuals with advanced political science degrees in our midst. We relied mostly on our ordinary intellectual and moral faculties. What I personally bring to all these crucial choices of a car mechanic, of a dentist, of a heart surgeon, of a president, is intuition fed by experience, sometimes a capacity for quick reasoning, a willingness to apply elementary logic to new situations, and all-round skepticism. I am pretty fair at assessing others’ credibility, thanks to my possession of a good detector of what they would call in French caca de taureau. I suspect that other ordinary citizens do more or less what I do. Specialized training should not be required to make the most important choices imaginable.

We Americans have never wanted to be ruled by experts. I think we still don’t want to be ruled by experts. The experts work for us. We are not their subjects. They have to convince us rationally that their positions are right. Trying to panic us is not convincing us rationally. Quiet persuasion is the only way compatible with representative government.

So it seems to me that there exists, upstream from scientific debunking, another potential critique of the general doctrine of apocalyptic climate change, one that relies on the same basic skills we use in everyday life. It seems to me also that skeptics who allow themselves to be drawn into the debate on specialized scientific grounds are falling into a kind of trap. I mean, for example, discussions of sunspots and controversies about the speed with which glaciers melt. By now, the dogma of climate change is so deeply and widely established, so many resources have been expended and continue to be expended to support it, so many careers are at stake in the media, in politics, in science, and in academia, that the only effective strategy of skepticism must start with a loud comment that “the King is naked.” I try to do this below.

Trying to panic us is not convincing us rationally. Quiet persuasion is the only way compatible with representative government.

A word of warning: at several points, my own comments may seem overly technical, thus betraying my self-awarded mission. I ask you to believe that they only seem technical. This essay, like most of my writing, is not intended for the technically trained but for the intelligently ignorant.

Although I am trying to reach a more general position, I have learned from several examples of climate change skepticism with a libertarian point of view. I am thinking, for instance, of “Global Village Idiots,” by Steve Murphy, and of Murphy’s vivid discussion of mindless and aberrant climate-change blaming, “Butterfly Police.” Others have commented on the astounding contortions climate change reformers perform to push their policy proposals. The Paris Accord would be an example. It was widely claimed that it was vital to sign and implement it although there was little disagreement with the view that it was unenforceable and would make no difference anyway. As Robert H. Miller has said, “But most of all, the dispute is about increasing government power.” (All in “Climate Change Wars.”)

Definition

The subject of this essay is the current idea of human-caused climate change. By this I mean the narrative that describes the global climate as changing more or less permanently, as a result of human activities, with severe adverse consequences for people and for the world itself, in magnitudes requiring immediate attention.

At the heart of this narrative is the so-called “greenhouse effect,” the release of gases that amplify the warming of the earth by the sun. Singled out among such gases in the versions of the narrative presented in mass media is carbon dioxide (  CO2).  

It was widely claimed that it was vital to sign and implement the Paris Accord although there was little disagreement with the view that it was unenforceable and would make no difference anyway.

Some other gases are also said to be responsible for the greenhouse effect, including methane burped and passed by cattle, but CO2 is usually considered the most worthy of attention. I am not sure if anyone makes the case that this gas is the main contributor to the greenhouse effect, or if it’s singled out because it’s the most convenient to manipulate (to decrease), or if it’s emphasized for some other reason.

My Credentials

I have previously discussed various forms of irrationality surrounding the climate change narrative. (See the list of links that follows this part of the essay.) Now it’s time for me to be more thorough than I have been so far. It’s also time to gather in a single essay the several sources of my skepticism. This isn’t going to be pretty! Here are my nonspecialist qualifications toward this endeavor.

I know as much about the physics of weather as the average observant person who pays attention to the daily weather forecast. I may know slightly more, because I was a sailor for 50 years, which implies an interest in winds and tides. Probably none of this adds up to much.

In addition, as a result of living for a long time, I know a lot about viciousness, ludicrousness, gobbledygook, inconsistencies, bad faith, and plain old deceitfulness. For 30 years I was a teacher, a good observation point. A few years in the graduate program of an expensive university gave me clear ideas about what constitutes good scientific design in general, and also about sampling. Finally, I gained from my past occasional service as a referee for American scholarly journals an exquisite sensitivity to measurement issues. Because of the malevolent inquisitiveness linked to the same past scholarly activity, I am keenly interested in what should logically be there but isn’t — what for all the world ought to be there but can’t be found. You tell me there is an elephant in a dark room; I grope for a trunk. If I don’t find one after reasonable effort, I begin suspecting there is no elephant. Then I ask myself why you told me there was an elephant in the room, when there is not.

I am optimistic about both air and water, which have become cleaner in prosperous European and North American countries during my lifetime.

Excuse me if it sounds like bragging, but I think that’s quite a bit. Reminder: I am still innocent of “climate science,” whatever that is.

Let me add that I am a retired citizen and that I have much more time to remain informed that most other citizens. I do it routinely. I follow the media and I read daily. I travel on the internet, in two languages. I do it for six or seven hours a day. This is not by way of boasting. I am just building up the case that if something important escaped even my attention, other, less well-situated citizens are likely also to remain unaware of it.

The Scope of my Skepticism

My skepticism is only about global warming and more, generally, about the human-caused climate change (HCC) narrative as described above. I am much in favor of clean water and of pure air but for other reasons. Incidentally, I am optimistic about both air and water, which have become cleaner in prosperous European and North American countries during my lifetime. I also think plastic trash in the ocean is a disgrace, but it’s a problem that could be solved at little cost: just make the discarded plastic valuable so that it either will not be thrown away or will be collected if it is. As for energy sources, I am taken by the sheer elegance of power production from sun, wind, tides, and waves. I also like the potential of the first two to separate individuals from the grid more or less at will. And it’s true that my wife and I, both old, don’t often need more than a hundred miles of transport autonomy. So I would sort of wish electric cars well, if only they did not require so much in public subsidies, a kind of admission of failure.

If you break something that belongs to the people in general, you should pay for it. Period.

If I were young and starting off in life, I would do my best to give myself an energy-efficient house with some ability to produce power. That’s because I dislike both waste and dependency on public organizations, especially on organizations that are excused from competing in the market place.

So, all in all, I am not one of those who miss the good old days of LA smog, chemical rivers, and filthy beaches. I am acutely aware of the general economic problem of externalities: if you break something that belongs to the people in general, you should pay for it. Period. Finally, and before the question arises nastily, I want to affirm here that I am not on any Big Oil payroll, at least, not yet. (I keep hoping though.) But I am casting a wide net in this essay. It’s possible that I am factually wrong on something or other. Please, draw my attention to any error of fact. I will be gracious and even appreciative.

The following is a systematic catalog of the reasons I am skeptical of the HCC narrative and the corresponding political agendas.

Breaches of Decency and Common Sense

The word “denier” was chosen deliberately to stigmatize skeptics like me by evoking “Holocaust deniers.” It refers to those who maintain that the mass assassination of Jews during World War II never took place. Holocaust deniers are underinformed, deliberately so in most cases, semi-literate, intellectually stubborn, and anti-Semitic. I am none of the above. This word choice is vicious. Repeating it makes one either an accomplice in viciousness or a moron.

I have to ask myself what would prompt such viciousness? Have I encountered it before, either personally, or in my broad reading? I have. More on this later.

“But,” other people ask me, “how can you deny the reality of climate change when 98% [or 95%, or 97%, same thing] of “climate scientists” agree that it’s real?” Between the lines: “Who TF do you think you are?”

This word choice is vicious. Repeating it makes one either an accomplice in viciousness or a moron.

Well, there is not a single instance, in the whole history of the world, of a survey returning 98% “Yes.” None; you can check for yourself.

There must be some confusion here with the presidential election results in some central African republic. If indeed, there were a 98% consensus, by anyone about anything, there is no way we would know about it. To be able to state this, you would have to:

  1. rigorously define the whole relevant population (in this case, I imagine, climate scientists, worldwide);
  2. actually circumscribe, delineate the population;
  3. gain access to all of it, or to a random sample of it;
  4. administer a clear and unbiased questionnaire that produces near zero unusable responses. (Or actively remedy the problems that unusable responses and non-responses pose for correct inference.)

Do the calculations in your head: suppose the survey produces 10% unusable responses, an excellent, low result by any standard. How then do you treat the 2% of disagreeing responses that are one-fifth of that figure?

The reality is worse than this. The published scholarly paper link from which the 98% figure (or 9X% figure) seems to come is referenced below in Note 1. The article admits to a whopping 86% nonresponse rate. Out of 8,457 persons identified as climate scientists whom the authors contacted, only 1,189 provided usable responses. Of those, nearly all said they believed in human-caused climate change. That’s the source of the 9X% figures. The question remaining is: what do the 86% who did not respond think of HCC? That’s a big 7,268 scholars whom the article’s authors, on their own, using their own freely chosen criteria, had determined to be real climate scientists.

The nonresponders cannot simply be considered irrelevant. Suppose that 20% of them, 1,454, are firm “deniers” who have not responded because they are gun-shy, suspicious of an ideological trap, or simply too busy to respond. Suppose further that the remainder, 80% of nonresponders, actually have no opinion. The percentage of those who have an opinion and believe in climate change is now 1,189/1,189+1,453 = 45%, instead of the astounding 98%, 97%, or more, when nonresponses are ignored.

There is no reason to think the survey sample is representative of the whole population from which it is drawn.

Now, obviously I chose nonresponding deniers to be 20% for my own demonstration purposes. I don’t know what the percentage of deniers among nonresponders is, any more than the authors of the study do. It might be much less than 20%; it might be zero percent. The percentage of deniers among those who are not represented in the article might also be much higher — 97%, or even 99%. I don’t know, and, again, the article’s authors don’t know either. It’s plausible that the percentage would be high, because of a common positive bias among survey responders in general. Those who are on the positive side of the answer to a survey question appear generally more motivated to answer than those who are on the negative side. So the climate change skeptics could easily be underrepresented among those who responded.

There is worse. The original 8,457 climate scientists contacted are, in fact, a sample of an unknown population of real, credentialed climate scientists that may be much larger, possibly several times larger. It’s a sample arrived at in a principled (and even ingenuous) manner well described in the article, but it’s not a random sample. There is no reason to think it’s representative of the whole population from which it is drawn. Thus, one conceptual problem piles up on top of the others.

The authors could have easily avoided this latest, unavoidable criticism. They could have simply asserted that the number 8,457 — all those contacted — constituted the whole relevant population. That would have avoided my second criticism of their sampling method. The fact is that they did not. I am guessing that they did not because they wanted to stake a much broader claim than their data legitimately allowed. What other explanation is there?

Much humility is in order here; it has not been forthcoming from the authors of the study, and less from those who have followed them blindly.

Here is the real finding expressed in traditional, nontriumphalist scientific manner: >97% of a possibly biased (possibly grossly biased) sample of a nonrepresentative sample of a loosely defined population of climate scientists affirm the reality of human-caused climate change.

I don’t fault the authors’ craftsmanship at all. They worked well with what they had. I blame their conceit, (or their unexamined zeal) and even more, the conceit of their nonscientist followers. Much humility is in order here; it has not been forthcoming from the authors of the study, and less from those who have followed them blindly.

The consumers of percentage-based pronouncements should always ask forcefully: “X% of what, exactly?” An earlier article in the respected peer-reviewed Organization Studies claims that fewer than 40% of geoscientists and engineers agree that humans are creating a global warming crisis. Change the population of reference, change the percentage! (“Science or Science Fiction? Professionals’ Discursive Construction of Climate Change,” Lianne M. Lefstrud and Renate E. Meyer, November 19, 2012.) That study was performed in oil-rich Alberta, which may, of course, have affected it. Other extraneous factors may have affected other surveys, in opposite directions.

One more issue of credibility with statements of the form, “9x% agree . . .”: someone — not necessarily me — has to have access to the list of all actually surveyed, someone relatively neutral, or better, someone a little hostile, to check that the list is clean, that it does not include, for example, 40% high school dropouts, 10% environmental activists with no scientific credentials, or all the mothers of the researchers and their activist friends. Normally, this kind of scrutiny is performed by scientific journals and by the referees or reviewers they appoint. (If you are not familiar with the way in which scholarly and scientific journals work, see my didactic essay on the subject.)

If there is one rotten apple in this barrel, there are probably more; possibly the whole barrel is rotten.

I don’t know whether this precise degree of scrutiny has occurred in the survey we are examining, although the article of reference was apparently published in a peer-reviewed journal. My own limited experience says that only somewhat hostile reviewers can be solidly expected to perform thoroughly the kind of verification I describe above. And, no, I am not accusing the authors of cheating. I just think, again from experience, that one tends to be indulgent toward what confirms one’s viewpoint. I know this from having been brutally yanked back to reality by several peer reviews during my own research career.

As it is commonly used in the non-scholarly big media and on social media, the widespread appeal to a 95%, or 97%, 98 % consensus is simply ludicrous.

This is one of the many cases in which the rotten apple in a barrel concept may apply: if there is one rotten apple in this barrel, there are probably more; possibly the whole barrel is rotten.

It’s tempting to move on. But by the way: science does not advance by consensus. Just ask Charles Darwin. (See his struggle against the consensus of his day in Adrian Desmonds and James Moore, Darwin's Sacred Cause: How A Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin's Views on Human Evolution [2009].)

Lack of Clarity

Next, I will try to do my homework about what should happen, on a proximate basis, practically, to a belief in the HCC narrative. The semi-official spokesorgan for the climate change movement seems to be the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UNIPCC or IPCC for short). That organization publishes periodic reports — some of them stained by little scandals. (Once, a photographer was found to have inserted his uninformed but firm opinion about the speed of glaciers melting in an allegedly scholarly summary.) I took the trouble on one occasion to read in its entirety the special summary of an IPCC report aimed at government decision makers. It was incomprehensible. I take the position that whatever I don’t understand will not be understood by most (or any) members of my city council. (Why, the former mayor is a former student of mine!) But those are the very people to whom the summary is addressed. I don’t know why the directive summary for decision makers was so poorly written, whether because of incompetence, or for some other reason. (Hold that thought.) At any rate, it was gobbledygook, exactly where clarity should have been expected.

Science does not advance by consensus. Just ask Charles Darwin.

The IPCC document is not an isolated case of opaqueness in HCC communications. In fact, it’s routine. HCC partisans habitually speak with the thick tongue of mornings after. Take the term “renewable energy.” It implies that barring the adoption of some restrictive HCC-driven environmental agenda, humanity will run out of natural gas, of petroleum, of coal, in some foreseeable future. None of this is true, of course. We have seen known reserves of petroleum grow prodigiously in our lifetimes, even as we were burning oil with abandon. And why would the modifier “renewable” be used at all, if not to imply forthcoming shortages?

Inconsistencies and Bad Faith

I believe that if I hate the way something is done, hate it so much that I want everyone to stop doing it whatever the cost, hate it so much that I am willing to use force to stop them from doing it, then I am first morally obligated to try to promote other ways of doing things.

So climate change advocates tell us that the greenhouse effect — fed by human produced CO2 — will raise global temperatures to catastrophic levels. Many add that this will happen very soon, that there is extreme urgency. Well, it turns out, there is a sure way to produce unlimited amounts of energy — including electricity to power electric cars — that results in zero CO2 emissions (none). I refer, of course, to energy produced by nuclear plants. The French have been getting more than 80% of their electricity that way for 50 years. Japan’s share was about 40% until 2010. A detailed record exists for both countries. So, climate change partisans should be in the forefront of those advocating for the multiplication of nuclear plants. In every locale, at the state and city level, they should be insisting on a simplification of many of the superfluous regulations that now obstruct such expansion. They should even demand the elimination of some of those regulations that currently make building nuclear plants artificially expensive. They are not doing this, to say the least.

The vague, and in fact seldom well expressed, objection is that nuclear energy is dangerous. That belief used to be plausible; it’s not anymore. The worst has happened, and nothing happened. Three Mile Island did not amount to much, although a good, dramatic movie was shown at about the same time (The China Syndrome). The Fukushima plant was hit in 2011 with one of the worst of unexpected forces: a full blast tsunami. The resulting nuclear accident did not amount to much in terms of fatalities, or in terms of anything. (“The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation and World Health Organization reports that there will be no increase in miscarriages, stillbirths or physical and mental disorders in babies born after the accident”: Wikipedia.) Many people confuse the death toll from the nuclear plant with that of the tsunami itself — deaths by drowning, for example. That’s wrong, but I have not noticed any HCC advocates condemn the confusion. Maybe I missed it.

Climate change partisans should be in the forefront of those advocating for the multiplication of nuclear plants.

The International Atomic Energy Agency lists 33 serious incidents, total, for the whole world, since the beginning of nuclear energy production. The seriousness of only two merited its highest score of seven. The first was Chernobyl, naturally. The second was Fukushima, where this highest score seems to have been given by the Japanese government, for somewhat bizarre reasons. The plant itself was put out of commission, but the tsunami alone would have probably done that. Evidence of specifically nuclear damage, as opposed to destruction from flooding and the physical force of the tsunami, is hard to find.

Even the Chernobyl accident turns out, even on superficial examination, not to have been what it was cracked to be. Sixty-three people died directly from the accident. Beyond the 63, estimates of additional deaths, of deaths above and above the expected, of deaths above the number from the natural death rate, vary widely enough to cause me to dismiss out of hand the methodologies involved. Thirty-three years after the event, I see no evidence that anyone died of radiation effects. The large area around the entombed Chernobyl plant, prudently evacuated by the Soviets at the time of the accident, remains uninhabited by humans. It’s now the largest de facto game preserve in Europe. Animals of all kinds thrive there. Does this tell us anything about the safety of that area for homo sapiens?

Would you guess that nuclear safety techniques have improved since 1986? Since the demise of the shaky Soviet Union? That’s a good bet. But while you’re computing the few nuclear-related deaths caused by the Three Mile Island accident, the destruction of the Fukushima plant by a tsunami, and the Chernobyl disaster, you may want to consider how many deaths are due to the production of energy by other means, in amounts equal to those produced by the nuclear plants just mentioned. Would these traditional modes of energy production cost fewer or more lives? How many more or fewer? I am thinking coal, petroleum, natural gas. I am also curious — and open-minded — about the comparative lethal dangers of hydroelectric, wind, and solar power. In the meantime, even France is making confused energy production choices under the influence of the HCC narrative. (“La France fait de mauvais choix technologiques,” by Gérard Kafadaroff and Jean-Pierre Riou.)

Offering a forceful denial of absurdity once in a while would go a long way toward making them appear more trustworthy.

Questions regarding the absence of nuclear solutions to alleged climate problems are worth asking, unless you care little or not at all about intellectual and moral consistency. Yet public figures identified with the climate change narrative are nowhere to be found when it comes to opining on the desirability of nuclear power. It makes me think that they are gravely flawed intellectually, or that they wish for something other than a reduction in CO2 emissions, or that the reduction of CO2 emission is only a means to some other end. Their absence in this matter is a major reason why I don’t trust HCC experts. At the very least, some of these experts should appear in the same media they inhabit day in and day out and explain, like this: “Some people think that nuclear energy production is a solution to global warming because it emits no greenhouse gases. However . . .” Their failure to appear, the fact that rank-and-file believers do not ask that they appear, makes me see the whole movement as existing in bad faith.

Failures to Intervene on the Side of Virtue and Reason

Bad faith is also demonstrated by omission. When loud voices insist that the world is going to come to an end in about 12 years unless we take radical measures, no audible contradiction comes from the HCC side. (Correct me if I am wrong; I will publish the contradiction right here, in bold letters.) When a newly-minted politician of no particular intellectual distinction affirms that we must eliminate jet-plane travel within 30 years or at least not much later, the silence of responsible HCC advocates is deafening. When multiple declared presidential candidates of the largest political party join her publicly . . .

More prosaically, there is not a day that goes by when I don’t read or hear in the media absurd and unsupported pronouncements attributing this or that untoward event to “global warming” or to “climate change.” Once I even heard a television weather reporter blame climate change for an (imaginary) increase in the frequency of . . . earthquakes. OK, this was on the international francophone television channel TV5 but, so? The HCC narrative seems to me to have further advanced toward uncontested truth in France and in Belgium than in the US. That might explain its mindless audacity. I paid much attention afterwards, and I think no correction was ever made on TV5. So, somewhere in West Africa, there may be some alert school kids who watch TV5 to improve their French and are now affirming that climate change causes earthquakes.

Before such stupidity, I expect climate scientists, the real ones with scholarly credentials, to reach down from their ivory towers to administer contradiction. They must know that unsupported and unsupportable statements like these give their cause a bad name among the thinking and the rational. They may not be able to do it often; transgressions of this kind are daily and probably worldwide. Yet offering a forceful denial of absurdity once in a while would go a long way toward making them appear more trustworthy. If they don’t, it suggests to me that they don’t care to persuade the thinking and the rational. It might be that after a certain point, persuasion becomes irrelevant because there are other means, forceful means, to achieve their desired ends. Their inaction makes me suspicious.

Climate change narrative folks, if you could lose the semi-literate, untruthful and frequently embarrassing, giant-energy-footprinted Al Gore himself, your collective credibility would soar.

I am aware of only one case when contradiction was actually meted out, when a climate scientist with scientific credentials reached down to try and straighten out the record. In 2007, when Al Gore received his Nobel Peace Prize, the media made next to nothing of the fact that it was awarded jointly with the UN International Panel on Climate Change. One little known scientist from IPCC, maybe piqued for being left in a dark corner while Gore was bathing in the limelight, wrote a brief, timid, mildly corrective op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. That’s it! Some readers may have noticed other corrective interventions that escaped my attention. I would like to hear about them, too.

And by the way, HCC narrative folks, if you could lose the semi-literate, untruthful and frequently embarrassing, giant-energy-footprinted Al Gore himself, your collective credibility would soar. Just my opinion but, ask around.

Omitting the Good

The climate change narrative includes other striking sins of habitual omission. But there is little doubt that if the various scenarios linked to climate change — global warming specifically — are correct, some good things will follow, in addition to the bad ones. This matters, because rational decisions are normally made after consideration of the pros and cons. Not to know the pros is to be condemned to making bad decisions. Two significant such omissions come to mind.

The first concerns shorter polar routes linking Europe and East Asia to each other and to North America, as ice melts near the North Pole. This means cheaper transportation, cheaper goods and, besides, a decrease in fuel consumption and therefore an abatement in CO2 emissions! I think this has already happened. It seems worth the occasional mention.

Rational decisions are normally made after consideration of the pros and cons. Not to know the pros is to be condemned to making bad decisions.

The second omission is warmer temperatures, which would undoubtedly ensure that the global area where cereals can mature will push northward. More wheat, for example, will be grown in Canada and in Siberia. This will mean more food and cheaper food. Perhaps it will even delay the moment when we must stop raising cattle because of their gross gas-processing manners. The warming of northern regions of the Northern Hemisphere may also give humanity some agricultural flexibility. Areas where cereals are grown under conditions favoring CO2 emissions might be retired, to the benefit of new areas, less favorable to them. Serious climate researchers frequently try to frighten us with the prospect of more malaria, a rebirth of the bubonic plague, species extinction, and desertification. That they omit to mention the good side of the same coin looks simply like another form of bad faith.

And then there is the simple fact, which the moderate environmentalist Bjørn Lomborg pointed out in the Wall Street Journal a couple of years ago, that many more people die of the cold than from the heat.

It would be fine for HCC publicists to omit the favorable stuff about global warming if we had a real adversarial debate going on. We don’t have one because the climate change proponents overwhelmingly insist that there is no opposite side, that there is only their side, and elsewhere there is simply a mass of uneducated, illiterate imbeciles who are probably also evil (“deniers”). After all, 98%, or 97% of climate scientists, etc. . . .

Deviousness and Nonchalance

And then, there is what looks like cheating and is at least devious. Let me say first that so many people are involved in doing research, quasi-research, vulgarization of research, and promotion of the climate change narrative that it’s expected that some would be dishonest. So I am less interested in describing the liars and cheats than in gauging the response to dishonesty — or cutting corners, or manipulating data, or concealing data — of what has become, deliberately or not, a social movement.

Serious climate researchers frequently try to frighten us with the prospect of more malaria, a rebirth of the bubonic plague, species extinction, and desertification.

In 2009, hacked (stolen) emails sent by climate researchers at the University of East Anglia seemed to show coordinated attempts to suppress adverse research by deniers, by mere skeptics, and by simple rivals. Researchers at Pennsylvania State University were also implicated. See, for example: “From Phil Jones [University of East Anglia] To: Michael Mann (Pennsylvania State University). July 8, 2004: ‘I can't see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report. Kevin and I will keep them out somehow — even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!’” [Emphasis mine.]

About more suppression, see: “Climategate 2.0: New E-Mails Rock The Global Warming Debate,” by James Taylor, in Forbes, November 23, 2011. There was also an unexplained mass destruction of data, including publicly accessible data, after questions were raised about findings on which they may have been based; this, although keeping the same data involved little or no cost: “Scientists at the University of East Anglia (UEA) have admitted throwing away much of the raw temperature data on which their predictions of global warming are based. It means that other academics are not able to check basic calculations said to show a long-term rise in temperature over the past 150 years.” A government-supported outfit admitted to having thrown away a large amount of climate data because of a “lack of storage capacity.” This prevents others, of course, from trying to duplicate their findings.

Here is an articulate summary of what an alert and critical layman could have read about what came to be known as “ClimateGate” — I mean a literate interested person with no training in physics or related fields, a citizen, like me: “What’s Up with That”: “Men Behaving Badly — a Short Summary for Laymen.” See also another work by the same author, and yet another by Fred Pearse, in the British center-left Guardian. Note: Pearse was also sometimes a debunker of the climate change debunking.

So many people are involved in doing research, quasi-research, vulgarization of research, and promotion of the climate change narrative that it’s expected that some would be dishonest.

So, it looked for all the world as if there were an international conspiracy of people with real scientific credentials — not publicists — to censor and to steer research in ways supportive of the HCC narrative. Soon, prestigious associations of scientists, their own universities, and some respected scientific journals responded by reaffirming the reality of climate change without, however, explicitly denying the apparent cheating or condemning the apparent cheaters. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, for example, concluded: ‘based on multiple lines of scientific evidence that global climate change caused by human activities is now underway . . . it is a growing threat to society.’”

After following this complicated story for 15 years, I am left with the impression that no one with any public intellectual credibility has addressed the following: however correct many of the HCC findings are, no matter how real global warming may be, top climate researchers did repeatedly violate scientific and academic norms, as well as basic individual ethics. This speaks, of course, to future credibility, to the post-scandal credibility of the scientific basis of HCC.

Ten years earlier, another climate scientist and his colleagues had produced a striking graph showing an abrupt and dramatic rise in temperature for the period more or less from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution to today. Thus, the “hockey stick”: from left to right, flat, flat, flat, and then steeply up (to the right side of the graph, the last hundred years or so). He excluded available data for the period immediately preceding his period of observation. Had those data been included — extending the period to earlier times — the graph would have represented global temperature change over time as a sort of shapeless U instead of the striking “hockey stick.” The resulting graph might still have been interpretable as supporting the HCC narrative, but much less spectacularly than the hockey stick. It would have made more room for honest doubt. The alternative graph, with full data, could have been used in the way graphs are intended: to make information readily available to others — including the untrained — so they may make up their own minds. For a hostile view of the hockey stick, read: “Climate change: this is the worst scientific scandal of our generation,” Christopher Booker, The Telegraph, November 20, 2009. “Our hopelessly compromised scientific establishment cannot be allowed to get away with the Climategate whitewash,” says Booker.

The piece includes a graph that, to my eye, shows mean Northern Hemisphere temperature around 1050 as the same as in the 1950s.

The scientific transgression involved in the hockey stick graph is a subtle one, but the relevant rule is clear: researchers are supposed to include all the relevant data available, or they must say why they don’t. If they don’t follow this rule, they must at least signal clearly the existence of data they exclude so that others may try alternative formulations. (See note 2 below.) In their rebuttal of the widespread criticism accompanying their initial report, the chief creator of the hockey stick and his colleagues published a response with more complete data — through an interview with Chris Mooney of The Atlantic. The piece includes a graph that, to my eye, shows mean Northern Hemisphere temperature around 1050 as the same as in the 1950s. They insist nevertheless that they were right all along.

The graph entitled “Reconstructed Temperature” (which uses several measurements) in the Wikipedia entry, “Hockey Stick Controversy” shows about the same thing.

This, the most relevant Wikipedia entry, gives wide coverage to the associated issues and it is abundantly referenced (to mostly scientific journals). It gives an impression of scholarly thoroughness. It must also leave the noncommitted reader with the view that after much back and forth, the controversy has now disappeared, to the benefit of the hockey stick creators’ viewpoint. Nevertheless, the last, concluding sentence in this long Wiki entry reads as follows: “Marcott et al. 2013 used seafloor and lake bed sediment proxies to reconstruct global temperatures over the past 11,300 years, the last 1,000 years of which confirmed the original MBH99 hockey stick graph.” (Italics mine.) So, the data before 1012 do not support the hockey stick graph? Pretty much the suspicion I started with.

The controversy began when a handful of researchers violated good research practice about including all relevant data.

None of the above demonstrates to me that there is no HCC. There is however an unfinished controversy, a healthy debate around complicated issues of statistical analysis and of even more difficult issues of measurement. I think it’s far from over. The controversy began when a handful of researchers violated good research practice about including all relevant data. They thereby drew unwanted attention to themselves and to their alleged conclusive findings. Why they would have adopted such a cavalier attitude toward good practice is anyone’s guess, but the fact makes this citizen consumer of such news suspicious.

Neither instance of academic nonchalance proves anything in itself, but both give us the right to wonder whether they are the tip of a giant iceberg of intellectual dishonesty. Personally, I can’t put these stories to rest because the critical examination by the legitimate upper scientific establishment was too weak, given the implied tremendous policy stakes. I feel as if the relevant credentialed persons had just closed the door instead of cleaning the room.

If the watchdogs are doing their watching indulgently, why should I — who am unable to perform my own watching — believe that what is being watched is legitimate?

The article continues in Part II.

Notes

1. “Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature”: To cite this article: John Cook et al (8) 2013 Environ. Res. Lett. 8 024024 Environ. Res. Lett. 8 (2013) 024024 (7pp). I thank my friend and FB friend Vernon Bohr for the link.

2. I have performed this kind of longitudinal research myself. My old coauthored sociology articles on the history of the Irish press and of the Argentinean press would have shown different things, and possibly more interesting things if we had had the luxury of deciding which years of observation to include, which to exclude. Instead, we performed statistical operations on all data available, from the very first newspaper to be published in each country. This proper inclusion might have cost me tenure! No regrets here though; both articles were published in one of the best journals available (Jacques Delacroix and Glenn Carroll. "Organizational foundings: an ecological study of the newspaper industries of Argentina and Ireland," Administrative Science Quarterly, 228:274-291(1983); Glenn Carroll and Jacques Delacroix, "Organizational mortality in the newspaper industries of Argentina and Ireland: an ecological approach," Administrative Science Quarterly, 27:169-198 (1982).

My postings on climate change:




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Butterfly Police

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The iconic orange- and black-winged monarch butterfly, one of North America’s insect wonders, is on the path to extinction. Its population has collapsed by 90% since the 1990s.

Each fall, the butterflies travel up to 3,000 miles from their breeding grounds in the US and Canada to their winter sanctuaries in the oyamel fir forests of central Mexico. In late winter, they mate, and begin the return trip to the US and Canada, where they lay their eggs on milkweed plants, and die. The eggs hatch into caterpillars, who feed exclusively on these host plants, until they fly back to Mexico.

Freezing temperatures in March! In central Mexico! Blamed on global warming!

The reported population decline is based on annual estimates of the number of butterflies overwintering in Mexico. That number is, in turn, based on the number of acres occupied by the monarchs. In 2016, ten acres were occupied, compared with 44 acres 20 years ago. The cause of the decline has been attributed to habitat shrinkage, both in Mexico (trees, because of illegal logging) and in the US (milkweed acreage, because of urban sprawl and agriculture). The problem, of course, is anthropogenic: global warming and pesticide use. So says the Center for Biological Diversity, and the solution, of course, is “immediate action to rein in pesticide use and curb global climate change.”

And, of course, there is no real-world connection to either. Regarding devastation of the monarch’s Mexican habitat, environmentalist Homero Aridjis wrote, in 2016, "The Mexican government should be taking measures to mitigate the probable effects of climate change on the [monarch butterfly] reserve.” The operative word is “probable.” In March of that year, Mexico experienced the destruction of 133 acres of forest, in a storm that froze or killed an estimated 6.2 million monarch butterflies. Said monarch expert Lincoln Brower, "Never had we observed such a combination of high winds, rain and freezing temperatures.” According to Weather.com, “this storm was unexpectedly intense, fueled by shifting temperatures due to climate change.” Freezing temperatures in March! In central Mexico! Blamed on global warming!

As to the habitat effects of illegal logging, most of the land occupied by overwintering butterflies is owned by indigenous Mexicans, who must cut the forest to survive. To stave off such habitat devastation, conservationists have tried to convince impoverished landowners that “the forest is worth more to them in terms of tourism when left standing instead of being cut down.” The thinking apparently is that if the conservation pitch is successful, then future tourists will joyously snap memorable pictures of a soaring monarch migration, as it descends onto oyamel fir forests — whose then-dense canopy will hide the waning, forgotten indigenous farm and mountain communities, as they descend into deeper poverty.

No announcements have been made as to how the butterfly police will handle the environmental crimes of bark beetles.

But in case destitute locals cannot be persuaded to give up their supplemental logging incomes, “Mexico's government announced it would create a special national police squad to patrol nature reserves and fight environmental crimes.” No announcements have been made as to how the butterfly police will handle the environmental crimes of bark beetles, whose infestations of the monarch sanctuary have no doubt destroyed at least as many trees as has illegal logging.

Not to be outdone by Mexico, the US has concocted measures of equal inanity. For example, the Obama administration proposed a “fly-way” program in which milkweed refuges for the butterflies would be created along highways that follow monarch migration routes. “According to the national strategy plan released by the White House, the fly-way is intended to increase the population to 225 million butterflies by 2020.” Another plan calls for placing the monarch on the Endangered Species List. “Our government must do what the law and science demands, and protect monarchs under the Endangered Species Act, before it’s too late,” scowled George Kimbrell, legal director at the Center for Food Safety. As a resident of Alabama, I pledge that as soon as the insect appears on the list, never to stomp on a monarch that lands in my yard, and to encourage my fellow Alabamians to demonstrate similar restraint. Good God, it’s our state insect.

"Monarch Watch" counted milkweed instead of monarchs?

Unfortunately, what science demands is evidence. And the scientific evidence does not support the climate change or pesticide propaganda. According to an exhaustive study of World Wildlife Fund and citizen scientist butterfly migration data, it is most likely that neither milkweed nor herbicides limit monarch population. “Monarch numbers begin declining at the end of the summer, when the butterflies begin their long migration to Mexico, and the numbers continue to decline as they travel. During this southern migration, adult monarchs do not feed on milkweed,” wrote lead author Anurag Agrawal. “By the time they get to Mexico their numbers are plummeting, but at the end of the summer when they start their migration, their numbers are not down . . . Herbicides are not likely to be the problem, and genetically modified crops that are herbicide resistant are not likely to be the problem for the monarch.”

In their incurious haste to blame the plight of monarchs on the climate change and pesticide boogeymen that they so vividly, and obsessively, imagine, crack US scientists relied on the overwintering counts estimated by crack Mexican scientists. They didn’t think to estimate the number of butterflies that depart the US in the fall. They counted the milkweed loss (up to 6,000 acres of potential habitat a day, because of US land development, says Monarch Watch), but not the monarchs. Monarch Watch counted milkweed instead of monarchs?

Had that storm not occurred, the headline story might have been the miraculous resurgence of our cherished monarchs.

Who knows what is happening to the monarch butterfly? Most of its population decline — as any non-environmentalist would guess — seems to be occurring during its arduous 3,000-mile journey to Mexico. Some of the decline in Mexico may be caused by illegal logging, and some by the bark beetle. But even this possibility is suspect. It’s extremely difficult to believe that tenacious monarchs could not find 44 acres of sufficiently dense and healthy fir trees, unassaulted by loggers and bark beetles, somewhere in their 138,379-acre biosphere reserve. And none is caused by the shrinkage of milkweed acreage in the US.

The monarch population had been rebounding in the few years prior to the March 2016 storm. Had that storm not occurred, the headline story might have been the miraculous resurgence of our cherished monarchs. Instead, the storm was used to blame climate change and pesticides for their demise. One can only hope that this silly, condescending, ideological attribution — that millions of monarchs were frozen to death, in the spring of the year, in central Mexico, by global warming — causes a similar decline in the population of braying environmentalists, and the rapid extinction of moronic, politically motivated scientists who come up with ideas such as butterfly highways and butterfly police.




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Why Do Economists Disagree?

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The influence of economics suffers from the idea that economists disagree to the point of uselessness. George Bernard Shaw supposedly complained that “if all the economists were laid end to end, they'd never reach a conclusion.” A similar old adage says that if you ask the advice of five economists, you will get five different answers, or, if Keynes is one of the five, six answers.

Such talk may be fun, but it is unfair. "The first lesson of economics,” said Thomas Sowell, “is scarcity: there is never enough of anything to fully satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics." Why? With characteristic exaggeration, H.L. Mencken observed that “no educated man, stating plainly the elementary notions that every educated man holds about the matters that principally concern government, could be elected to office in a democratic state, save perhaps by a miracle . . . by a combination of miracles that must tax the resourcefulness even of God” (Notes on Democracy, 1926, pp. 103, 106). A politician who understands economics and tries to apply it loses votes. One who understands it but conceals that fact is dishonest. Honest ignorance is an electoral advantage.

Externalities, monopoly, inflation, recessions, mistakes, inadequate foresight — all do occur. Economists are tempted to damn reality for being real.

Economists agree on the basics of their subject; disagreement on policy has other sources. The following list merely names the main points of agreement. Explaining them would go beyond this note, although, toward the end, it does expand on the most fundamental of them.

  1. Scarcity and the need for choice; opportunity cost.
  2. The division of labor, gains from trade, and comparative advantage.
  3. Marginalism and diminishing marginal returns.
  4. The role of the price system in exploiting the fragmented knowledge and coordinating the productive efforts of millions and billions of people in the nationwide and worldwide economy. The task includes allocating resources between the present and the future. The midget economy of the Swiss Family Robinson on its desert island contrasts instructively with the vast capitalist world of diverse resources, abilities, and preferences.
  5. “Economic calculation,” which is more than the mere dovetailing of such activities as automobile production and tire production, suitably proportioned. It refers, further, to producing the chosen amount of each good and service at minimum sacrifice of other desired things. Efforts at such calculation without genuine markets and prices, whether in theory or in the real world, have failed.
  6. Money as an institution that vastly promotes specialization and gains from multilateral trade. Money prices express opportunity costs, convey information and incentives, and ration scarce resources and goods.
  7. Private property, innovation, and entrepreneurship as essential to a thriving economy.
  8. Refutation of fallacies that have contaminated policy for centuries, especially ones relating to international trade and to a supposed self-regulation of money — the “real-bills doctrine” that the money supply will be correct if based on short-term bank loans to finance the production or marketing of real goods.

Shared understanding does not end there. Economists agree that reality has “imperfections” in comparison with an imaginary perfectly working price system. Externalities, monopoly, inflation, recessions, mistakes, inadequate foresight — all do occur. Economists are tempted to damn reality for being real, and they agree on many such matters. Price inflation traces above all to creating too much money.

Recessions are episodes of snowballing impediments to transactions, and economists explain them in various ways. In no field do professionals totally agree. An example in macroeconomics is the opinion of central bankers worldwide, shared by many but not all economists, that 2% inflation — a halving of money’s purchasing power every 36 years — is a proper objective of policy and that lower inflation is a cause for concern. Some technically valid arguments do exist for chronic mild inflation, but they are not decisive. Economists disagree on the weights to be accorded to agreed considerations.

Disagreement on policy traces overwhelmingly to matters other than economics.

But disagreement makes news while agreement does not. Lack of total agreement parallels what also occurs in the natural sciences: total understanding and consensus never are reached; room always remains for further research. As in other disciplines, economists disagree, when they do, on details and at the “frontiers” of research but not on the basics.

Disagreement on policy traces overwhelmingly to matters other than economics. Economists are not equally bold in predicting the future. They (as well as political scientists) hold differing opinions about how well government and politics function. Scientific issues join in policy disagreement, as about how serious a problem global warming is.

Economists are not equally knowledgeable about history, as about periods of advance and stagnation, crises, recessions, and monetary systems. Historical knowledge is valuable for making judgments about prospective population growth and technical and other innovation, but agreement cannot be expected to the extent that it can be expected on the basics of economics.

Psychology is sometimes at issue. Not all economists have the same understanding of people’s psychological quirks and of whether policy “nudges” might improve their decisionmaking.

Economists sometimes yield to wishful thinking. An example is the belief that proposed tax-rate cuts will so stimulate economic activity as to increase, not reduce, tax revenues.

Sociological questions arise, such as whether and to what extent welfare programs foster a culture of dependency and undermine the traditional family. So do issues of ethics and social philosophy, as about inequality of wealth and income, concern for future generations, how progressive the tax structure should be, whether the estate tax is fair, and what claims poor people at home and abroad are entitled to make on the more fortunate. “Bleeding-heart libertarians” do exist and have a web site of that name.

Like other people, economists sometimes yield to wishful thinking. An example is the belief that proposed tax-rate cuts will so stimulate economic activity as to increase, not reduce, tax revenues. Such a belief does not mean rejection of economic principles; in rare circumstances, that happy result could occur.

Career advancement can be a factor. Some economists seek distinction in cleverly working on the “frontiers” of research, in deploying impressive mathematics, or in finding exceptions to generally agreed applications of basic principles. Alternatively, some may be paid for rationalizations about policy that selectively emphasize some valid principles while disregarding (though not denying) others.

Some economists, perhaps seeking influence and fame, make compromises by taking account of political feasibility (i.e., votes), endorsing policies other than those they truly consider best. Full honesty would require openly acknowledging what they are doing (see Clarence Philbrook’s eloquent article in the American Economic Review, December 1953).

If enough demand exists, wouldn’t private enterprise satisfy it, and in a less costly and otherwise more suitable part of town?

Not all so-called economists are real ones who have completed graduate studies in the field and try to keep up with and occasionally contribute to the professional literature. It is not enough to hold an economics-related government position or to be prominent on TV. Disagreement among such people shouldn’t be allowed to disparage the professionals.

The most basic economic principles concern scarcity and opportunity cost. The city council of Auburn, Alabama, has voted to build an outdoor ice-skating rink downtown, where it will gobble up scarce parking space, worsen traffic problems, and otherwise inconvenience nonskaters. Evidently the council has not made a full cost-benefit analysis. Might not the money be better spent for other city purposes or left to taxpayers for their own purposes? How intense, anyway, is the demand for ice-skating here in the Deep South, where, by the way, the ice would have to be artificial? If enough demand exists, wouldn’t private enterprise satisfy it, and in a less costly and otherwise more suitable part of town?

I conjecture that the city council simply agreed with someone’s idea that a rink would be a good thing. So why not build it? It is easy to forget asking how desirable it would be and how great the opportunity cost in sacrifice of other public or private use of resources.

Disregard of opportunity cost is disregard for a principle accepted by all economists.

Such blitheness about opportunity cost shows up on the big-city and national levels. If a proposed museum would be nice or another overseas military base would seem to be a wise precaution, why not vote for it? A new sports stadium might please the fans, and consultants will conceive of side benefits for nearby restaurants, so why not support it with city money? An individual legislator pays practically nothing himself and might gain some votes.

James L. Payne shows how disregard of opportunity cost supports thinking that government money is somehow “free” (The Culture of Spending, 1991). Lobbyists not only for governors and mayors but also for industries swarm Washington seeking local projects and grants of money. Understandably, witnesses calling for such favors in congressional hearings far outnumber those who dissent. A similar explanation applies to firms and industries seeking protection from competition. But disregard of opportunity cost is disregard for a principle accepted by all economists.

Nothing said here denies that economists have expertise in contributing to policy judgments and that they — and quasi-economists — often disagree. Such disagreement rarely hinges on core principles and does not excuse disregarding them. Specialists cannot and should not have the decisive vote on policy, but that judgment does not excuse neglecting the basic principles that concern everybody and on which economists emphatically do agree.




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And Now For Something Completely Different

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What can one say about a book on infinity that hasn’t been said before? An infinite number of things, presumably, but I’ll make this brief.

The book, Approaching Infinity, is by philosopher Michael Huemer. Perhaps you’ve heard of him — but why? If you’re a libertarian, but not a philosopher or “into philosophy,” it’s likely because of his well-received book, The Problem of Political Authority (2013).

If you’re a libertarian and, though not a philosopher, are into philosophy, you may also be aware of Huemer’s excellent online-available essays on the right to own a gun and the right to immigrate. (I imagine readers on both the Left and Right are now gnashing their teeth.)

Huemer, like Robert Nozick before him, is clearly better described as a philosopher who is a libertarian than as a “libertarian philosopher.”

But Huemer is nothing if not prolific. Libertarians who are really into philosophy may even be aware of his criticism of Ayn Rand, his argument that we sometimes have a duty to disregard the law, his argument that attorneys have a moral obligation not to defend unjust causes, his criticism of the US government’s War on Drugs, and his essay on why people are irrational about politics (also a TED talk!).

But — and this is the point I want to stress — even though he’s published much of interest to libertarians, Huemer, like Robert Nozick before him, is clearly a person better described as a philosopher who is a libertarian than as a “libertarian philosopher.” His first book, Skepticism and the Veil of Perception (2001), dealt with epistemology (the field of study that led to his hiring at University of Colorado, Boulder); his second, Ethical Intuitionism (2005), focused on ethics. Now, having covered epistemology, ethics, and politics, Huemer, in Approaching Infinity, turns to the philosophy of mathematics (with an occasional nod to some issues in the philosophy of science). Clearly a well-rounded guy, philosophically speaking.

Also an iconoclast:

  • Although most philosophers since Descartes have opposed direct realism (the view that we are directly aware of real, physical objects), Huemer argues for just that point of view.
  • Although most modern philosophers oppose ethical intuitionism, the view that we can have direct knowledge of objective moral truths, Huemer again argues for exactly that.
  • Although most people readily accept political authority, and most philosophers are not anarchists, Huemer argues both against political authority and for a capitalist version of anarchy.

So it should surprise no one that Huemer, in analyzing some foundational issues in mathematics in order to solve various paradoxes of infinity, is willing to advance bold claims.

Almost everyone is familiar with at least some infinity paradoxes. We’ve all heard about Zeno and why that ball coming at you will never reach you, or why the hare can never catch the tortoise. Any you’re probably aware that strangeness results when even simple arithmetic is applied to infinity. E.g., ∞ = ∞ +1. Subtract ∞ from both sides: 0 = 1.

But I had no idea there were at least 17 different paradoxes associated with infinity. From Hilbert’s hotel to Gabriel’s horn . . . from Thomson’s lamp to Benardete’s paradox . . . from ancient Greek problems to dilemmas developed only in the past century . . . Huemer describes them all and then starts to evolve some background needed to solve the infinity paradoxes. There are discussions of actual and potential infinities, of Georg Cantor’s set theory, of the theory of numbers, of time and space, of both infinity and infinitesimals. Of the metaphysically impossible and the logically impossible. Of the principle of phenomenal conservatism (which Huemer introduced in his epistemology text), and even of the synthetic a priori.

Huemer, in analyzing some foundational issues in mathematics in order to solve various paradoxes of infinity, is willing to advance bold claims.

In building the background to handle the infinity paradoxes, Huemer argues that extensive infinities (including the cardinal numbers) can exist but not as specific magnitudes. Thus, the positive integers are infinite, in the sense that for any such number you can find higher positive integers, but not in the sense that there is a number “infinity” that is higher than all the positive integers. You cannot add and subtract “infinity” as I did in the previous paragraph. And he argues that while extensive magnitudes (time, space, volume) can sensibly approach infinity in this understanding, infinite intensive magnitudes (such as temperature, electrical resistance, attenuation coefficient, etc.) are metaphysically impossible. This distinction allows several paradoxes to be solved, or avoided.

A fascinating section of the text discusses various forms of impossibility. Sometimes philosophers note that X is physically impossible, given the laws of the universe as we now understand them, but nonetheless that it could be possible in a similar but slightly different possible world — say, with a slightly different Coulomb constant. But at other times X is deeply physically impossible. Consider these two alternatives described by Huemer:

Compare this pair of questions:

A. If I were to add a teaspoon of salt to this recipe, how would it taste?

B. If I were to add a teaspoon of salt to this recipe in an alternative possible world in which salt is a compound of plutonium and mercury and we are sea creatures who evolved living on kelp and plankton, how would it taste?

Huemer notes that it’s not merely that we have no idea about how to answer B but that, more importantly, even if we could answer B, answering it gives us no intuitions, is of no help in trying to figure out the answer to A. Though Huemer makes this point in the context of determining what counts as a solution to an infinity paradox, it also has direct application to various thought experiments in other areas of philosophy and to what counts as a helpful or unhelpful thought experiment. (On this see my own work, “Experiment THIS!: Libertarianism and Thought Experiments.”)

Related to the paradoxes of infinity are the problems of infinite regress. You may have heard of the problem of the regress of causes: asked what caused A, you explain that it was caused by B. But what caused B? C caused B. But … here is an infinite regress. Does this imply that we never really understand what caused A?

There are other interesting infinite regresses: of reasons, of truths, of resemblances, etc. Huemer offers helpful insights here as well, elaborating various factors that determine whether such infinite regresses are vicious or benign.

Did I mention that Huemer can be iconoclastic? Consider these passages from Approaching Infinity:

  • There are certain philosophical assumptions that tend to generate strong resistance to my views, and these assumptions are commonly accepted by those interested in issues connected with science and mathematics . . . I have in mind especially the assumptions of modern (twentieth-century) empiricism . . . the doctrine that it is impossible to attain any substantive knowledge of the world except on the basis of observation.”
  • “In the original, core sense of the term ‘number,’ zero is not a number. . . . Why is zero not a number in the original sense? Because a number, in the primary sense, is a property that objects can have, whereas zero is not a property that objects can have.” Huemer extends the concept of number to include zero but explains why such an “extension” does not work for “infinity” as a number.
  • There are reasons to doubt that sets exist. No one seems to be able to explain what they are, they do not correspond to the ordinary notion of a collection, and core intuitions about sets, particularly the naive comprehension axiom, lead to contradictions.”

In his final chapter, Huemer, taking to heart Nozick’s concerns about coercive philosophy, offers readers his own thoughts about problems that remain: which of his answers leave him concerned or unsatisfied, arguments that are incomplete, areas for further exploration.

As in his earlier books on ethics, epistemology, and politics, Huemer’s style is as easy and enjoyable as his logic is rigorous. Intelligent laypeople who are interested in philosophy can follow his thoughts without difficulty. No Hegel here.

Because I have little background in the philosophy of mathematics, I approached Huemer’s latest effort with trepidation, despite having very much enjoyed his three earlier books. But now that I’ve read it, I highly recommend it. The best news: before finishing Approaching Infinity, you’ll have to read halfway through it, and before that one-quarter of the way, and before that one-eighth, and before that. . . . Yet despite this you can read it through to the very end, and be enthralled on every page.


Editor's Note: Review of "Approaching Infinity," by Michael Huemer. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016, 275 pages.



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Pandora’s Book

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What would you do if you were told that something you believe is not true? It would depend on who was telling you, I guess. It would also depend on how important the belief was to you, and on the strength of the evidence offered, wouldn’t it?

Suppose the belief in question had shaped your career and your view of how the world works. What if you were offered strong evidence that this fundamental belief was just plain wrong? What if you were offered proof?

Would you look at it?

In his 2014 book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, Nicholas Wade takes the position that “human evolution has been recent, copious, and regional.” Put that way, it sounds rather harmless, doesn’t it? In fact, the book has caused quite a ruckus.

What if you were offered strong evidence that this fundamental belief was just plain wrong? What if you were offered proof?

The following is not a review of Wade’s book. It is, instead, more a look at how the book was received and why. There are six parts: a story about Galileo, a summary of what I was taught about evolution in college, a sharper-edged rendering of the book’s hypothesis, an overview of some of the reviews, an irreverent comment on the controversy over Wade’s choice of a word, and, finally, an upbeat suggestion to those engaged in the ongoing nurture vs. nature debate.

1. It is the winter of 1609. In a courtyard of the University of Padua, Galileo Galilei closes one eye and peers at the moon through his recently improved telescope. As he observes the play of light and shadow on its surface, there comes a moment when he realizes that he is looking at the rising and setting of the sun across the mountains and valleys of another world. He is stunned.

Galileo hurries to tell his friend and colleague, Cesare Cremonini, then drags him to the courtyard, urging him to view this wonder. Cesare puts his eye to the scope for just a moment, then pulls his head back, pauses, frowns, and says, “I do not wish to approve of claims about which I do not have any knowledge, and about things which I have not seen . . . and then to observe through those glasses gives me a headache. Enough! I do not want to hear anything more about this.”

What a thing to say.

A little context might help. Cesare taught the philosophy of Aristotle at Padua. Aristotle held that the moon was not a world but a perfect sphere: no mountains, no valleys. Furthermore, the Inquisition was underway, and a tenured professor of philosophy who started rhapsodizing about “another world” would have been well advised to restrict his comments to the Celestial Kingdom. The Pope, you see, agreed with Aristotle. To him, and, therefore, to the Roman Catholic Church, the only “world” was the earth, the immobile center of the universe around which everything else moved. Any other view was taboo. Poor Cesare! Not only did he not want to look through the telescope; he did not want there to be mountains on the moon at all.

The question in the present drama is this: who is playing the role of Cremonini?

It would get worse. Soon Galileo would point his scope at Jupiter and discover its moons, heavenly bodies that clearly weren’t orbiting the earth. Then he would observe and record the astonishing fact that Venus went through phases as it orbited not the earth but the sun. So: Ptolemy was wrong, Copernicus was right, and Cesare Cremonini would go down in history as the epitome of willful ignorance. Galileo, of course, fell into the clutches of the Inquisition and became a hero of the Renaissance.

To be fair to Cesare, the story has been retrospectively streamlined into a sort of scientific morality tale. While the part about Galileo’s discovery is probably more or less right, Cremonini’s remark wasn’t made directly to Galileo. It was reported to him later in a letter from a mutual friend, Paolo Gualdo. The text of that letter is included in Galileo’s work, Opere II. And while those jagged borders of light and dark on the moon, imperfectly magnified, were certainly thought-provoking, to say that the case against Ptolemy was closed on the spot, that night in Padua, would be too neat.

It makes a good story, though, and a nice lens for viewing reactions to scientific breakthroughs. Changing our focus now from the moons of Jupiter to the molecular Rubik’s cube we call the human genome, the question in the present drama is this: who is playing the role of Cremonini?

2. In an undergraduate course, taken decades ago, I was taught that human evolution had more or less stopped when the glaciers retreated about 10,000 years ago. Evolution had been driven primarily by natural selection in response to a changing environment; and, as such changes had, for the time being at least, halted, so too had the evolution of man.

I was taught that races exist only as social constructs, not as meaningful biological categories, and that these constructs are only skin deep. They told me that the social behavior of an individual is not genetic, that behavioral and cognitive propensities just aren’t in our genes.

I was taught that the differences among social organizations are unrelated to the genetic differences of the populations that comprise those various organizations, and that social environments have no influence on human evolution.

3. To show how Wade’s book stirred things up, I will present his central hypothesis with an emphasis on the controversial parts. I’ll avoid scientific jargon, in an effort to make the meaning clearer to my fellow nonscientists.

Wade believes that humanity has been evolving rapidly during the past 30,000 years and continues to evolve rapidly today. It is not just our physical characteristics that continue to evolve. The genes that influence our behavior also evolve. (Yes, that’s what the book says, that our behavior is influenced by our genes.)

is humanity rapidly evolving? Is there such a thing as race in biological terms? Nicholas Wade believes that the answer is “yes.”

He also believes that humanity has evolved differently in different locations, most markedly on the different continents, where the major races evolved. (Yes, the book calls them races.)

These separately evolved genetic differences include those that influence behavior. (Yes, the book says that race is deeper than the skin.)

Furthermore, these genetic differences in behavioral propensities have contributed to the diversity of civilizations. The characteristics of any given civilization, in turn, influence the direction of evolution of the humans who compose it.

Oh, my.

We now know that the earth goes around the sun. But is humanity rapidly evolving? Is there such a thing as race in biological terms? Does the particular set of alleles in an individual’s genome influence how that person behaves? Does the particular frequency of alleles in the collective genetic material of the people who compose a civilization influence the characteristics of that civilization? Do the characteristics of a civilization influence the direction of the evolution of the humans that compose it? Nicholas Wade believes that the answer to all these questions is “yes.” While he does not claim that all of this has been proven, he is saying, in effect, that what I learned in college is not true. Am I now to be cast as Cremonini?

4. There are those who disagree with Wade.

In fact, lots of people didn’t like A Troublesome Inheritance at all. I’ve read about 20 reviews, few of them favorable. Even Charles Murray, writing in theWall Street Journal, seemed skeptical of some of Wade’s arguments.Most of the others were simply unfavorable, among them reviews in the Washington Post, the New York Review of Books, Scientific American, the New York Times, The New Republic, and even Reason. Slate and The Huffington Post piled on. While Brian Bethune’s review in MacLean’s was gentler than most, it was gently dismissive.

The reactions run from disdain to anger to mockery. Nathaniel Comfort’s satirical review Hail Britannia!,in his blog Genotopia, is the funniest. Donning the persona of a beef-fed, red-faced, pukka sahib at the height of the Raj, he praises Wade’s book as a self-evident explanation of the superiority of the West in general and the British in particular. (I once saw a retired British officer of the Indian Army being told by an Indian government official that he had to move his trailer to a remote area of a tiger preserve to ensure the security of a visiting head of state. He expressed his reluctance with the words, “I’m trying to be reasonable, damn it, but I’m not a reasonable man!”)

There’s some pretty heated language in these reviews, too. That the reviewers are upset is understandable. After all, they have been told that what they believe is not true. And the fellow doing the telling isn’t even a scientist.Sure, Nicholas Wade was a science writer and editor for the New York Times for three decades, but that doesn’t makehim a scientist. Several of the reviews charge that Wade relies on so many historical anecdotes, broad-brush impressions, and hastily formed conclusions that it’s a stretch to say the book is based on science at all.

Of course they’re angry. Some of these guys are professors who teach, do research, and write books on the very subject areas that Wade rampages through. If he’s right, then they’re wrong, and their life’s work has been, if not wasted, at the very least misguided.

The consensus is that Wade has made a complete hash of the scientific evidence that he cites to make his case: cherry-picking, mischaracterizing, over-generalizing, quoting out of context, that kind of thing.

Another common complaint is that, wittingly or not, Wade is providing aid and comfort to racists. In fact, the animosity conveyed in some of the reviews may spring primarily from this accusation. In his review in the New York Times, David Dobbs called the book “dangerous.” Whoa. As I said, they don’t like A Troublesome Inheritance at all.

So, is Nicholas Wade just plain wrong, or are his learned critics just so many Cremoninis?

5. While the intricacies of most of the disagreements between Wade and his critics are over my head, one of the criticisms is fairly clear. It is that Wade uses the term “race” inappropriately.

The nub of the race question is that biologists want the word “race” as it applies to humans to be the equivalent of the word “subspecies” as it applies to animals. As the genetic differences among individual humans and the different populations of humans are so few, and the boundaries between the populations so indistinct, biologists conclude that there are no races. We are all homo sapiens sapiens. We are one.

Several of the reviews charge that Wade relies on so many historical anecdotes, broad-brush impressions, and hastily formed conclusions that it’s a stretch to say the book is based on science at all.

Just south of Flathead Lake in Montana is an 8,000-acre buffalo preserve. One summer day in the mid-’70s, I walked into its visitors center with my wife and father-in-law and asked the woman behind the counter, “Where are the buffalo?” She did not hesitate before hissing, “They’re bison.” Ah, yes: the bison-headed nickel, Bison Bill Cody, and, “Oh, give me a home where the bison roam . . .” You know the critter.

Put it this way: to a National Park Ranger, a buffalo is a bison; to a biological anthropologist, race is a social construct. That doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as a buffalo.

I don’t mean to make light of it. I’ve read the explanations. I’ve studied the printouts that graph and color-code populations according to genetic variation. I’ve studied the maps and charts that show the differences in allele frequencies among the groups. I’ve squinted at the blurry edges of the clusters. I get all that, but this much is clear: the great clusters of genetic variation that correspond to the thousands of years of relative isolation on the various continents that followed the trek out of Africa are real, and because they are genetic, they are biological. In any case, we are not in a biology class; we are in the world, where most people don’t talk about human “subspecies” very often, if ever. They talk about human “races.” To criticize Wade’s use of the term “race” seems pedantic. Whether to call the clusters “races” or “populations” or “groups” is a semantic dispute.

Put it another way: If you put on your “there is no such thing as race” costume for Halloween, you’ll be out trick-or-treating in your birthday suit, unless you stay on campus.

Besides, use any word you want, it won’t affect the reality that the symbol represents. The various “populations” either have slightly different genetic mixes that nudge behavior differently, or they don’t. I mean, are we seeking the truth here or just trying to win an argument?

6. While Wade offers no conclusive proof that genes create behavioral predispositions, he does examine some gene-behavior associations that point in that direction and seem particularly open to further testing. Among them are the MAOA gene and its influence on aggression and violence, and the OXTR gene and its influence on empathy and sensitivity. (The symbols link to recent research results.)

What these have in common is that the biochemical chain from the variation of the gene to the behavior is at least partly understood. The chemical agents of the genes in question are L-monoamine oxidase and oxytocin, respectively. Because of this, testing would not be restricted to a simple correlation of alleles to overt behaviors in millions of people, though that is a sound way to proceed as well. The thing about the intermediate chemical triggers is that they could probably be measured, manipulated, and controlled for.

We are in the world, where most people don’t talk about human “subspecies” very often, if ever. They talk about human “races.”

The difficult task of controlling for epigenetic, developmental, and environmental variables would also be required but, in the end, it should be possible to determine whether the alleles in question actually influence behavior.

If they do, the next step would be to determine the frequency of the relevant allele patterns in various populations. If the frequency varies significantly, then the discussion about how these genetic differences in behavioral propensities may have contributed to the diverse characteristics of civilizations could be conducted on firmer ground.

If the alleles are proven not to influence behavior, then Wade’s hypothesis would remain unproven, and lots of textbooks wouldn’t have to be tossed out.

Of course, it’s not so simple. The dance between the genome and the environment has been going on since life began. At this point, it might be said that everything in the environment potentially influences the evolution of man, making it very difficult to identify which parts of human behavior, if any, are influenced by our genes. Like Cremonini, I have no wish to approve of claims about which I do not have knowledge.

But the hypothesis that Wade lays out will surely be tested and retested. The technology that makes the testing possible is relatively new, but improving all the time. We can crunch huge numbers now, and measure genetic differences one molecule at a time. It is inevitable that possible links between genes and behavior will be examined more and more closely as the technology improves. Associations among groups of alleles, for example, and predispositions of trust, cooperation, conformity, and obedience will be examined, as will the even more controversial possible associations with intelligence. That is to say, the telescope will become more powerful. And then, one evening, we will be able to peer through the newly improved instrument, and we shall see.

That is, of course, if we choose to look.




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Born That Way

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Do You Speak Political?

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In Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, several members of the British aristocracy — back when it was an aristocracy — argue about the amorous theft of a lock of hair. A peer of the realm has captured the lock. Sir Plume, another aristocrat, demands that it be returned:

With earnest Eyes, and round unthinking Face,
He first the Snuff-box open'd, then the Case,
And thus broke out — "My Lord, why, what the Devil?
Zounds! — damn the Lock! 'fore Gad, you must be civil!
Plague on't! 'tis past a Jest — nay prithee, Pox!
Give her the Hair” — he spoke, and rapp'd his Box.

“It grieves me much” (reply'd the Peer again)
“Who speaks so well shou'd ever speak in vain.”

I thought of that passage when Drew Ferguson, Liberty’s managing editor, alerted me to the following statement by Timothy M. Wolfe, then president of the University of Missouri, responding to demonstrations about alleged mistreatment of blacks on his campus:

My administration has been meeting around the clock and has been doing a tremendous amount of reflection on how to address these complex matters. We want to find the best way to get everyone around the table and create the safe space for a meaningful conversation that promotes change.

The next day, Wolfe was forced to resign. He had spoken every bit as well as hapless Sir Plume, and yet he spake in vain.

You can see why. If there was ever a meaningless assemblage of bureaucratic buzzwords, Wolfe’s statement was it. “Address complex matters . . . get everyone around the table [query: does that include people like you and me?] . . . safe space . . . meaningful conversation . . . promote change.” It makes you long for just one academic politician to say, “I want a meaningless conversation, so I can get back to my golf game.” That would be honest, at least.

Anyone who speaks this way is either incapable of critical thought or believes that everyone else is. Who among us advocates change without saying what kind of change he means? Who among us wants to have conversations all day, with total strangers, or with people who don’t like us? And who thinks that what university students need is a safe space, as if they were surrounded by ravening wolves, or panzer battalions?

If there was ever a meaningless assemblage of bureaucratic buzzwords, Wolfe’s statement was it.

The answer is, I suppose, “the typical college administrator,” supposing that these people can be taken at their word, which on this showing is very hard to do. If you had something sincere and meaningful to say, would you say it like that?

My suggestion is that everyone who speaks that lingo should be forced to resign, no matter what his job and no matter what the occasion. I’ve had it with stuff like that. You’ve had it with stuff like that. I suspect that normal people all over the world have had it with stuff like that. Even members of the official class now faintly sense this fact, and they’re trying to turn the incipient rebellion against meaningless buzzwords into their own new set of meaningless buzzwords.

Before I give an example, I want to say something about the official class or, in the somewhat more common phrase, political class.

For many decades, libertarian intellectuals have engaged in what I call a two-class analysis. Instead of analyzing people’s behavior primarily in terms of economic classes, they think in terms of a political class and a class of everyone else. So, for instance, Bernie Sanders claims to represent the working class, and Hillary Clinton claims to dote on the middle class, but what they really are is people who crave official power and expect to get it from their class affiliation with other such people — politicians of all sorts, czars of labor unions, ethnic demagogues, environmental poohbahs, denizens of partisan thinktanks, lobbyists for the interests of women who attended Yale Law School, people who share their wisdom with Public Radio, and the like.

Who thinks that what university students need is a "safe space," as if they were surrounded by ravening wolves, or panzer battalions?

The two-class analysis works pretty well at explaining American political culture. But it wasn’t until this year that the phrase political class got into the political mainstream. It happened because the supposed outliers among Republican conservatives started using it. And when such people as Ben Carson used it, it wasn’t a buzzword. It meant something.

But now it has penetrated far enough to produce this:

I’m not gonna be part of the political class in DC. (Jeb Bush to Sean Hannity, October 29, 2015)

Message to the Chamber of Commerce: “Beware! Jeb’s gonna betray you on the immigration issue.” But of course he wouldn’t. He’d just lie about it, as his brother did. The good thing is that for once nobody believed what one of these icons of the official class had to say. The statement was scorned and ignored. Jeb spake in vain.

I suppose he thinks that nobody really understood him. If so, maybe he’s right. He’s used to speaking the language of the political class, and if you do that long enough, you start behaving like people who are trying to speak Spanish and don’t understand that when they think they’re asking where to catch the bus, they’re actually shouting obscenities. They wonder why the audience turns away.

Naturally, the linguistic divide functions in the other way, too. People who speak Political eventually think in Political too, and they can’t comprehend what people who speak a normal human language say or think.

Everyone who speaks that lingo should be forced to resign, no matter what his job and no matter what the occasion.

The process of linguistic self-crippling usually starts early. People learn Political in high school or college and soon are astonishing their friends with strange chatter about advocating for change around issues of social justice, or demanding that their college create a safe space for them, or else they’ll shut the m***** f***** down. To understand such comments, people who speak English must laboriously translate them into their own language, a boring process that they seldom complete. The Political speakers then complain that they are not being acknowledged, that they are not, in fact, being listened to. And indeed, they’re not — because they’re not speaking the same language as their audience, or hearing it.

A couple of weeks ago, Neil Cavuto, the business guy on Fox News, interviewed a college student representing the cause currently being advocated for by a nationwide coalition of students who have been speaking out on campuses throughout the country. Their program calls for a $15 an hour minimum wage for all campus workers, free education at all public colleges and universities, and forgiveness of all student loans.

“Who’s going to pay for this?” Cavuto asked.

There was a long silence. The advocate had apparently never heard those words before. Finally she struggled to answer, in her own language. She said that the hoarders would pay.

Now it was Cavuto’s turn to be surprised. He couldn’t understand what she meant by this strange, apparently foreign, word. When English speakers use those two syllables, hoard-ers, they’re referring to people who pile up supplies of some commodity — whether uselessly, out of obsession, or prudentially, to preserve life or comfort in case of emergency. It turned out, however, that in the young woman’s lexicon hoarder meant “the 1% who own 99% of the country’s wealth.” I know, that was somewhat like saying, “The unicorns will pay for it,” but I want to emphasize the linguistic, not the metaphysical, problem. She had obviously come to exist in a monolingual environment in which hoarders means something quite different from what it means to, let’s say, 99% of the population.

No one gets offended by a foreigner’s struggles with the language of a new country. Native speakers may, however, become upset by people who grew up speaking the common language and then suddenly decide to speak something else, to the bafflement of everyone they’re talking to. Or shouting at. Or lecturing, as if from a position of intellectual superiority. And that, I think, is what’s happening now, all over the Western world.

It turned out, however, that in the young woman’s lexicon "hoarder" meant “the 1% who own 99% of the country’s wealth.”

If you want to see the Platonic form and house mother of the political class, try Angela Merkel. It’s not surprising that her constituents are disgusted by her commitment to lecturing them in a foreign language. Responding to criticism that she has precipitated an uncontrolled flood of immigrants into her country, where taxpayers will be expected to support them, Merkel said it is “not in our power how many come to Germany.” This from a woman who runs a welfare society based on the idea of, basically, controlling everything. To make confusion more confusing, she also said that she and her government “have a grip on the situation.” Like other members of the political class, she left it to her listeners to divine the secret meanings of such terms as “power” and “have a grip,” and to discover when certain arrays of sound mean “I’m just kidding you” and when they mean “No, really, I’m telling the truth this time.”

When you’re trying to decipher a foreign language, you’re not just challenged by the vocabulary. You’re also challenged by those sentences in which you think you understand all the individual words, but there’s still just something about them — something about their logic or their assumptions or . . . something — that continues to elude your understanding. (This is especially true of French.) Sigmar Gabriel, Merkel’s Vice Chancellor and Economy Minister, provided a good example when he reproved people who might be alarmed by the terrorist attacks in Paris, in which at least one participant was carrying Syrian asylum-seeker documents. "We should not,” he said, “make them [Syrian migrants] suffer for coming from regions from which the terror is being carried to us."He appeared to be arguing that because a country generates terrorists we should welcome more people from that country. But that would be ridiculous; he must have meant something else.

Of course, in any language one finds expressions that, one thinks, must be symbolic of broad social attitudes, concepts that are deeply meaningful but that only a native speaker can understand. The difficulty is that there are no native speakers of Political. So when Merkel talks about keeping true to her “vision” and defines that vision by saying, as she said (unluckily) on the day of the Paris attacks, "I am in favor of our showing a friendly face in Germany," her thought remained elusive, even to Germans. What was she talking about? Was she simply babbling to herself?

President Obama’s use of language has long inspired such questions. You know the kind of tourists who inflict themselves on a foreign land, refusing to learn its language, and then get angry at the natives for not understanding them? That’s Obama, and he’s getting worse and worse. On November 21, he visited children in a refugee center in Malaysia and took the occasion to act out his incomprehension of the vast majority of the American populace — the people whom he often, in his own language, denounces as Republicans.

“They [the kids] were indistinguishable from any child in America,” Mr. Obama said after kneeling to look at their drawings and math homework. “And the notion that somehow we would be fearful of them, that our politics would somehow leave us to turn our sights away from their plight, is not representative of the best of who we are.”

More strange Obama statements can be read at the same place in the New York Times.

The repeated somehow (a word to which the president is becoming addicted) signals a profound linguistic divide. Obama marvels at the ordinary language of ordinary Americans. How can they say the things they do? How can they even think them? When they express their fears of such asylum seekers as the Tsarnaev family; when they comment on the many news reports, written in plain English, showing that the vast majority of people now seeking asylum in the West are not little kids from Muslim South Asian families enjoying the hospitality of the officially Muslim South Asian state of Malaysia but young men from the hotbed of Islamic fanaticism, bound for non-Islamic countries; when they reflect that these young men are destined to spend years living on the resentful charity of neighbors who have been forced by their governments to support them — when people speak of these things, Obama interprets all objections, fears, and caveats as the product of a hideous moral deficiency that has somehow insinuated itself into the body politic. Even supposing he’s right on the policy issue — which I don’t think he is — the word somehow is enough to convince most people that he’s no longer speaking their language.

This dawning realization, not just about Obama but about the entire political class, is good news. It means that people are finally thinking about the private language of the political elite. And here’s some more good news, though from an unlikely source.

Obama marvels at the ordinary language of ordinary Americans. How can they say the things they do? How can they even think them?

Last week, I saw an announcement that fellowships are being offered by something called the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey. The Center is inviting academics to come and be supported for eight months of research and “conversations” about the “societal” implications of “astrobiology.” The program appears to be supported, at least in part, by those friendly old astrobiologists, NASA.

The announcement begins in this way: “Societal understanding of life on earth has always developed in dialogue with scientific investigations of its origin and evolution.” That’s an assumption that may be questioned. It recalls the typical first sentence of a freshman essay: “Since the beginning of time, humanity has always been troubled by the problem of indoor plumbing.” But the “Societal understanding” sentence goes beyond that — although it’s hard to tell where it’s going, unless one pictures Neanderthals holding scientific seminars about the validity of Darwinism before deciding whether hunting and gathering is a good idea.

Yet the next sentence clearly has a hopeful tendency: “Today, the new science of astrobiology extends these investigations to include the possibility of life in the universe.”

True, the syntax is bad. Investigations don’t include possibilities. But you have to agree with the last part of the sentence: there is some possibility of life in the universe. And I believe that’s a good thing.




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