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The Philosopher Speaks: Why Don't You Shut Up?

by James Bowman

Posted: Jul 14, 2011 10:00 PM

The New York Times’s "Opinionator" blog includes something called "The Stone" — that would be "the Philosopher’s Stone" — which advertises itself as "a forum for contemporary philosophers on issues both timely and timeless." One such philosopher is professor Gary Gutting of the University of Notre Dame who writes for "The Stone" his views "On Experts and Global Warming." He’s for the experts and against Global Warming, as you might expect, but the point of his piece is to tell those of us who are against the experts and for Global Warming — or who harbor doubts that man has caused it or can do very much about it — that we really have no rational choice but to fall in behind the experts.

All creditable parties to this debate recognize a group of experts designated as "climate scientists," whom they cite in either support or opposition to their claims about global warming. In contrast to enterprises such as astrology or homeopathy, there is no serious objection to the very project of climate science. The only questions are about the conclusions this project supports about global warming. There is, moreover, no denying that there is a strong consensus among climate scientists on the existence of [Anthropogenic Global Warming] — in their view, human activities are warming the planet. There are climate scientists who doubt or deny this claim, but even they show a clear sense of opposing a view that is dominant in their discipline. Nonexpert opponents of A.G.W. usually base their case on various criticisms that a small minority of climate scientists have raised against the consensus view. But nonexperts are in no position to argue against the consensus of scientific experts. As long as they accept the expert authority of the discipline of climate science, they have no basis for supporting the minority position. Critics within the community of climate scientists may have a cogent case against A.G.W., but, given the overall consensus of that community, we nonexperts have no basis for concluding that this is so. It does no good to say that we find the consensus conclusions poorly supported. Since we are not experts on the subject, our judgment has no standing. It follows that a nonexpert who wants to reject A.G.W. can do so only by arguing that climate science lacks the scientific status needed be taken seriously in our debates about public policy. There may well be areas of inquiry (e.g., various sub-disciplines of the social sciences) open to this sort of critique. But there does not seem to be a promising case against the scientific authority of climate science.

Mr Gutting goes on to insist he is not "denying that there may be a logical gap between established scientific results and specific policy decisions," correctly noting that "the fact that there is significant global warming due to human activity does not of itself imply any particular response to this fact." But he seems not to recognize that this is the very heart of the matter and not an incidental consideration. "The essential point," he concludes, "is that once we have accepted the authority of a particular scientific discipline, we cannot consistently reject its conclusions." No, the essential point is what do its scientific conclusions have to do with its policy prescriptions? That’s the first question for any expert seeking a political authority — and Professor Gutting begins by saying that "experts have always posed a problem for democracies" since the days of Plato — on the foundation of his expertise.

The trouble with the Global Warming experts is that too many of them simply assume, as Professor Gutting does here in spite of his incidental caveat, that there must be such a continuity between scientific expertise and political sagacity. Most egregiously, it’s what Al Gore does throughout the philosophically shoddy documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, as I pointed out in my review of the movie at the time it came out. In fact, whatever may be the scientific consensus about what is, when it comes to Global Warming, there is no political consensus about what is to be done about it. For those proposing left-wing solutions to the problem involving a huge growth in government power — and lots of new jobs and influence in government for scientists, by the way — and a huge new set of burdens on an already overburdened economy, "science" is just rhetoric: it’s their entitlement, so they imagine, to make policy prescriptions which only those who are "anti-science" could oppose. No thanks, kid. I’m not falling for that one again.

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