Friday, May 18, 2007

Climate Change: Scientific Consensus vs. Common Sense (amv)

Seeing the news one may receive the impression that common sense and critical thinking can be substituted for Scientific Consensus. Well, I doubt it. First, climotologists may be right about the weather but they usually do not have a clue about economics. If they would, they may be more reluctant to surge governments to act "now," at all costs, because all costs today are few compared to the costs of Climate Change. As Robert Higgs rightly claims

we need to develop a much keener sense of what a scientist is qualified to talk about and what he is not qualified to talk about. Climatologists, for example, are qualified to talk about the science of climatology (though subject to all the intrusions upon pure science I have already mentioned). They are not qualified to say, however, that “we must act now” by imposing government “solutions” of some imagined sort. They are not professionally knowledgeable about what degree of risk is better or worse for people to take; only the individuals who bear the risk can make that decision, because it’s a matter of personal preference, not a matter of science. Climatologists know nothing about cost/benefit cosiderations; indeed, most mainstream economists themselves are fundamentally misguided about such matters (adopting, for example, procedures and assumptions about the aggregation of individual valuations that lack a sound scientific basis). Climate scientists are the best qualified people to talk about climate science, but they have no qualifications to talk about public policy, law, or individual values, rates of time preference, and degrees of risk aversion. In talking about desirable government action, they give the impression that they are either fools or charlatans, but they keep talking―worst of all, talking to doomsday-seeking journalists―nevertheless.

Further, keep in mind that we are all driven by our self-interest, not only by the income we may earn, but also by the reputation we may raise in participating in significant scientific councils. And today, all major scientific councils are in some ways sponsored by governments. Again, it is Higgs who makes this point clear:

If your work, for whatever reason, does not appeal to the relevant funding agency’s bureaucrats and academic review committees, you can forget about getting any money to carry out your proposal. Recall the human frailties I mentioned previously; they apply just as much in the funding context as in the publication context. Indeed, these two contexts are themselves tightly linked: if you don’t get funding, you’ll never produce publishable work, and if you don’t land good publications, you won’t continue to receive funding.

When your research implies a “need” for drastic government action to avert a looming disaster or to allay some dire existing problem, government bureaucrats and legislators (can you say “earmarks”?) are more likely to approve it. If the managers at the NSF, NIH, and other government funding agencies gave great amounts of money to scientists whose research implies that no disaster looms or no dire problem now exists or even that although a problem exists, no currently feasible government policy can do anything to solve it without creating greater problems in the process, members of Congress would be much less inclined to throw money at the agency, with all the consequences that an appropriations cutback implies for bureaucratic thriving. No one has to explain all these things to the parties involved; they are not idiots, and they understand how the wheels are greased in their tight little worlds.

I, for my part, remain sceptical about this "scientific consensus." I prefer common sense.