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Global Warming Deniers Aren't "Experts" At All: It's Time for a New View of Science

The "debate" over global warming has never been about productive dialogue. Rather, it's an indication of our eagerness to doubt issues that threaten our very existence.

Selected from

Merchants of Doubt

by permission of Bloomsbury Press. Copyright 2010 by Naomi Oreskes and Erik m. Conway.

Imagine a gigantic banquet. Hundreds of millions of people come to eat. They eat and drink to their hearts’ content— eating food that is better and more abundant than at the finest tables in ancient Athens or Rome, or even in the palaces of medieval Eu rope. Then, one day, a man arrives, wearing a white dinner jacket. He says he is holding the bill. Not surprisingly, the diners are in shock. Some begin to deny that this is their bill. Others deny that there even is a bill. Still others deny that they partook of the meal. One diner suggests that the man is not really a waiter, but is only trying to get attention for himself or to raise money for his own projects. Finally, the group concludes that if they simply ignore the waiter, he will go away.

This is where we stand today on the subject of global warming. For the past 150 years, industrial civilization has been dining on the energy stored in fossil fuels, and the bill has come due. Yet, we have sat around the dinner table denying that it is our bill, and doubting the credibility of the man who delivered it. The great economist John Maynard Keynes famously summarized all of economic theory in a single phrase: “There is no such thing as a free lunch.” And he was right. We have experienced prosperity unmatched in human history. We have feasted to our hearts’ content. But the lunch was not free.

It’s not surprising that many of us are in denial. After all, we didn’t know it was a banquet, and we didn’t know that there would be a bill. Now we do know. The bill includes acid rain and the ozone hole and the damage produced by DDT. These are the environmental costs of living the way citizens of the wealthy, developed nations have lived since the Industrial Revolution. Now we either have to pay the price, change the way we do business, or both. No wonder the merchants of doubt have been successful. They’ve permitted us to think that we could ignore the waiter while we haggled about the bill.

The failure of the United States to act on global warming and the long delays between when the science was settled and when we acted on tobacco, acid rain, and the ozone hole are prima facie empirical evidence that doubt-mongering worked. Decision theory explains why. In their textbook, "Understanding Scientific Reasoning," Ronald Giere, John Bickle, and Robert Mauldin show that the outcome of a rational decision-theory analysis is that if your knowledge is uncertain, then your best option is generally to do nothing. Doing something has costs -- financial, temporal, or oppor - tunity costs -- and if you aren’t confident those costs will be repaid in future benefits, you’re best off leaving things alone. Moreover, acting to prevent future harm generally means giving up benefits in the present: certain benefits, to be weighed against uncertain gains. If we didn’t know that smoking was dangerous, but we did know that it gave us plea sure, we would surely decide to smoke, as millions of Americans did before the 1960s.

Uncertainty favors the status quo. As Giere and his colleagues put it, “Is it any wonder that those who benefit the most from continuing to do nothing emphasize the controversy among scientists and the need for continued research?”

To change the way the problem of global warming looks, Giere and his colleagues conclude, you’d need “undeniable evidence both that doing nothing will lead to warming and that doing something could prevent it.” But as we have seen, any evidence can be denied by parties sufficiently determined, and you can never prove anything about the future; you just have to wait and see. So the question becomes, Why do we expect “undeniable” evidence in the first place?