04.24.2013 1

On Global Warming Advocates and Scientific Consensus

By Victor Morawski

Commenting on John Kerry’s recent trip to China and his emphasis on anthropogenic (i.e. man caused) global warming as one of the most significant problems that the two nations should work together on solving, talk show host Rush Limbaugh voiced an opinion on science and scientific truth that the majority of his listeners and a majority of my readers share: that scientific truth is determined by how much our scientific views conform to the way the world actually is and not by mere human agreement.

Striking back at Kerry’s opinion that the science behind manmade global warming (or climate change if you prefer) is “settled” because a supposed “consensus of scientists” agrees that it is happening, Limbaugh said “science is not up to a vote. It either is or isn’t. Whatever it is, it is or isn’t, but it’s not up to a vote. Global warming doesn’t exist because a ‘consensus of scientists’ agree. Manmade global warming either is happening or it isn’t, but it isn’t up to a vote.”

One main reason for the enormous success that Rush has enjoyed over the years is that he speaks for the common man and, of course, woman.  In his analyses of current events he articulates views his listeners may share but are unable to formulate for themselves with the clarity for which he is now famous.  And this issue is a clear case in point.

To be sure, Kerry has spoken with the Chinese and others about a scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming as the official State Department Press Release on his visit bears out in saying that the “two countries took special note of the overwhelming scientific consensus about anthropogenic climate change and its worsening impacts.”

Investors.com notes that the consensus of scientists claim is a line that global warming alarmists repeat endlessly. And who can forget Al Gore’s continuing insistence on such a consensus as part of his claim that anthropogenic global warming is established science.

Yet it may seem unlikely to readers that these alarmists really mean by the claim what they seem to mean.  Could they actually mean what Rush takes them to mean?  Do they subscribe to the unlikely view that scientific truth is to be determined by the most votes?

Surprising though it may be to some, I am convinced that this is exactly what they mean and what many of them ascribe to as their view of scientific truth.

Most of those who point to consensus among the community of scientists as the determiner of scientific truth do not adhere to the sort of relativism that would make any view true if there is a consensus behind it.

Sometimes called “Cultural Relativism,” this view holds all beliefs to be equally valuable if supported by a cultural consensus.  For science, this extreme form of relativism would set a primitive culture’s view that the earth is flat or resting on the back of an elephant on a par with our own culture’s view that the earth is a sphere, hurtling through space and subject to the laws of Newtonian Mechanics.  Consequences like this make this sort of relativism an implausible candidate for a standard of scientific truth.

Most advocates of truth as consensus in science adopt some form of Instrumentalism, a view that judges the worth of scientific theories not by how well they succeed in describing the world as it actually is but by how useful they are at doing things like making successful predictions.  On this view, the task of a theory is to be a useful instrument in scientists’ hands, not a mirror of reality.  For Instrumentalists, some theories really are better than others not because they reflect reality better but because they are more useful.  So, as science progresses, old theories are rejected and new ones are accepted not because what they say better corresponds to things in the world as they are but because they are more useful and less fraught with problems (anomalies) than the older theories.

But who makes the decision to leave an old theory and go to a new one?  And who decides whether an old theory is too full of difficulties to keep around anymore?  Why, the community of scientists, of course.  Here is where consensus comes in.  Instrumentalism adopts the Pragmatists’ view of truth as usefulness.  As I once heard contemporary Pragmatist Richard Rorty put it, truth is a compliment we pay to theories that we find useful.  It is the community of scientists that pays this compliment to theories that it finds useful.  For people like John Kerry, Al Gore, and a supposed consensus of professional scientists, truth is a compliment we should pay to anthropogenic global warming as a theory.

That he indeed thinks that the theory is very useful in its predictions can be gleaned from Kerry’s recent remarks that “We are seeing the science of climate change come back to us now at a rate that is far faster and with far greater levels of damage than anything that scientists predicted 10, 15, 20 years ago,” Kerry said. “Every prediction that has been made is coming true, but coming true bigger and more dangerously.”

Now if truth really is consensus, then maybe Kerry’s followers would agree with him on the truth of his remarks but for those of us for whom truth is conformity with reality, his remarks are simply not borne out by the reality of the situation concerning the abysmal failure rate of modeled predictions on anthropogenic global warming.  My own piece of a few weeks ago here and on Youtube discusses some of these failures in detail.

To return to Rush, in the same show he discussed a recent release by Reuters which points out that in response to the failure of those predictions scientists need to either cling to their theory that human activity has warmed the planet and hope that the warming returns much like an old girlfriend who has unexpectedly left town leaving no forwarding address, give into an opposing view that ocean oscillations might have a lot more to do with global heating and cooling than they figured or abandon their view that CO2 emissions (especially those that are man-caused) are a significant factor in planetary warming.

Fortunately, those who seek a refuge from objective truth in human consensus cannot hide from the truth of failed predictions.  These failures are now making even the Pragmatists wonder whether the theory of anthropogenic global warming is useful enough to keep around.

Victor Morawski, professor at Coppin State University, is a Liberty Features Syndicated writer for Americans for Limited Government.

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