I'm sorry, but I can't add much of my own wisdom to this excerpt. I can't say it any better than Mr. Coyne did.
Look at it from the climate scientists’ perspective. They have spent many years of their lives immersed in the subject. The data they cite has been drawn from any number of sources, thousands of measuring points, hundreds of studies, all of them submitted to rigorous peer review. Yet they are asked to debate people who in many cases have plainly not read or thought seriously about the issue, and who persist in raising objections that have long since been knocked to the ground. Small wonder that global warming advocates have taken to referring to them as “deniers,” flat-earthers or worse.
But now look at it from the public’s perspective. I don’t mean the already committed, pro or con, most of whom live in the bliss of believing what they want to believe. I mean the honestly confused, trying to puzzle out a complex scientific question they are not remotely qualified to judge, yet which will ask them to make the most profound political choices, with all sorts of potential consequences for their future welfare.
I include myself in this group. I have spent many hours reading as much of the literature on either side as I can, and come away, as it were, serially convinced: first by one side, then the other. Because, contrary to what one would absorb from the CRU emails, not all of the skeptics are yahoos. Though they are in the minority among climatologists, they include many eminent scientists, whose insights, whatever their field, cannot be ignored, raising as they do issues of scientific and statistical methodology that cross all disciplines. It is grotesque to lump nuanced skeptics like Freeman Dyson, perhaps the most celebrated physicist alive, in with creationists and 9/11 “truthers.”
But that does not resolve the dilemma. It is pleasing to lecture global warming advocates, as many have, that “science is never settled,” but it is not quite true. That the earth is round may once have been subject to dispute, but it would be ridiculous to suggest the same today. The issue is not whether scientific questions can ever be settled in principle, but whether the particular thesis of man-made global warming has reached that stage.
It is true there is a fever of unreason abroad. It draws on multiple sources—the relativism of the left, the anti-intellectualism of the right, the absolutism of fanatics of all stripes—and spreads, notoriously, via the Internet, with the illusion of expertise it provides. What is produced often has nothing to do with skepticism. To be a skeptic is to doubt something is true, not—as with many global warming “skeptics”—to declare with ex cathedra certainty that it is not.
But self-professed defenders of science should not fall into the trap of regarding every dissent from orthodoxy in the same light. There are two traps, actually: being too closed-minded, and too open. We are not obliged to give 9/11 truthers and other cranks a respectful hearing. Indeed we are obliged not to: we dishonour our worthy opponents if we treat our unworthy opponents with the same deference. But we do far worse when we dismiss eminent scientists who happen to fall outside the scientific consensus as lunatics or hired guns.
The error here is not only scientific. It is also political. If your desire is to persuade the unpersuaded among the general public, the very worst way to go about it is to advertise your bottomless contempt for your adversaries. That the IPCC scientists reacted in this way shows how unprepared they were, for all their activist enthusiasm, to enter the political arena.
When a new planet is found, its discoverers are treated with appropriate deference, even reverence. The latest theory of the origins of the universe may be the cause of some head-scratching among the general public, but not outright disbelief, even if it displaces what had previously been the prevailing view. Who are we to say?
But the same deference does not apply when science presumes to answer more political questions, though the gap between expert knowledge and the public’s may be no less wide. Who are we to say? Only the voters, that’s who. It is not enough to admonish the public to “listen to the experts.” Experts can get it wrong. Freud was once near-universal dogma. Today his theories have been largely discredited. Perhaps—who knows?—global warming will one day meet a similar fate.
To believe, or pretend to believe, that man-made global warming is as well established as evolution is a sure sign of hubris, and sows doubts not about the skeptics but their antagonists. Humility is especially in order in the face of a problem as knotty as global warming, with so many interdependent variables, and such degree of “human contingency,” as the climatologist Mike Hulme has written. Where the consensus claims to be able to predict the course of events far into the future—average temperatures a century from now—there is naturally more room for skepticism than in the interpretation of past events.
A third test: what sorts of long-established scientific axioms would have to be overturned in order to reject the orthodox view? That’s always possible: every now and then a radical “paradigm shift” occurs that requires us to throw out much of what we thought we knew about a subject. But is it plausible? To doubt that concentrations of carbon dioxide in the air create a greenhouse effect, for example, would require us to renounce much elementary physics and chemistry. Unlikely. But in fact the mainstream of climate skeptics do not doubt this at all. Rather, it is the relative shares of greenhouse gases, as opposed to other “forcing agents,” in causing the warming we have observed that is at issue.
Reasonable people can differ, in other words, but so can unreasonable people. Between “the science is settled” and “global warming is a hoax,” the experts and the public must grope their way to a common understanding.
Need I say more?