The Problem From Hell

| Fri Dec. 11, 2009 11:45 AM PST

Over at Democracy in America, one of the Economist's teeming masses of anonymous bloggers1 takes a deeper look at Willis Eschenbach's claim that climate data was cooked in Darwin and concludes:

So, after hours of research, I can dismiss Mr Eschenbach. But what am I supposed to do the next time I wake up and someone whose name I don't know has produced another plausible-seeming account of bias in the climate-change science? Am I supposed to invest another couple of hours in it? Do I have to waste the time of the readers of this blog with yet another long post on the subject? Why? Why do these people keep bugging us like this? Does the spirit of scientific scepticism really require that I remain forever open-minded to denialist humbug until it's shown to be wrong? At what point am I allowed to simply say, look, I've seen these kind of claims before, they always turns out to be wrong, and it's not worth my time to look into it?

Well, here's my solution to this problem: this is why we have peer review. Average guys with websites can do a lot of amazing things. One thing they cannot do is reveal statistical manipulation in climate-change studies that require a PhD in a related field to understand. So for the time being, my response to any and all further "smoking gun" claims begins with: show me the peer-reviewed journal article demonstrating the error here. Otherwise, you're a crank and this is not a story.

This, of course, gets to the nub of the problem: climate deniers claim that the scientific community is engaged in a wide-ranging conspiracy (or, more subtly, "groupthink") designed specifically to keep them out of the literature.  The fact that their stuff isn't peer-reviewed has nothing to do with its quality, only with the fact that they aren't part of the community.

Now, I don't really know what the answer to this is.  It's a feature of every conspiracy theory that the very fact that experts don't take you seriously is evidence that the conspiracy exists.  So this isn't going to stop.  But what to do?  From a scientific point of view, you don't want to shut out legitimate dissent, but you also don't have the time to deal with every one of the hundreds of cranks who claim to have found an anomaly in your data.  From a public opinion point of view, you don't want to be so dismissive that even reasonable people think you're being a jerk, but you also don't want to give this stuff enough oxygen that you're implicitly saying it's legitimate criticism.  This tightrope is especially difficult to navigate since everyone's self interest (including mine) leads them in the direction of desperately preferring to believe that climate change isn't real.2  So you have to deal with that.

Climate change: it's the public policy problem from hell.  It's the scientific problem from hell.  It's the PR problem from hell.  If you had a classroom assignment to dream up a problem what would be almost impossible to solve given the realities of human nature and global institutions, climate change would be it.  It makes healthcare reform look like a walk in the park.

1And look: if you won't allow these guys to blog under their own names, shouldn't you also ban them from using the words "I" or "me," or from directly arguing with other anonymous Economist bloggers?  This really makes no sense.

2I can't tell you how many times I've wished the deniers were right.  I read their stuff with a combination of contempt for their crankery leavened with a teensy bit of hope that maybe they're onto something this time and the globe really isn't warming.  Because it would make a whole bunch of liberal projects a lot easier if greenhouse gases weren't a problem.

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