I rouse myself from my leisured sloth to comment on the latest pronouncement by the prophet of doom, Naomi Oreskes. Today the New York Times, that newspaper “of record,” has seen fit to give her a lot of space to continue her attack on the scientific method: Playing Dumb on Climate Change.
Ms. Oreskes has a Ph.D., and is a professor at Harvard, so she is instantly given credence as a reliable expert, but her work, on which I have commented extensively, is pretty much at the level of hack polemic as far as I am concerned. From her sylvan altars – doesn’t she just look the part of the serious, concerned, and not to be trifled with Mother Nature? – she makes some of the most outrageous pronouncements to be heard from the academic realm on the topic of global warming. Okay…let’s see what she said this time.
Her gripe is that scientists are too conservative about the risks of global warming – they should be ringing alarm bells, as she does, warning us of the horrors to come and pushing for the solutions that she supports. Note that there is significant scientific controversy about many of the claims that Ms. Oreske makes, e.g. that recent extreme weather events are clear evidence of the negative impacts of burning fossil fuels, and that her argument is, therefore, neatly circular. It amounts to this: scientists who are not screaming about the coming End of Days are too conservative, period!
She goes on to discuss a central notion of the scientific method:
We’ve all heard the slogan “correlation is not causation,” but that’s a misleading way to think about the issue. It would be better to say that correlation is not necessarily causation, because we need to rule out the possibility that we are just observing a coincidence.
This is typical of her method. She doesn’t say that correlations always indicate a clear causal chain, but she doesn’t want to rule it out, either. Who would? But she wants to make it seem that scientists that won’t jump on the bandwagon of this or that theory simply because they are not more than 95% sure that the correlation is not chance are missing essential risks. But how do you decide when to jump on, and when not to? When she thinks you should? When you’re scared enough to ignore evidence and jump to conclusions?
She’s very worried about Type 2 errors: being too conservative and missing causes and effects that are really there. I would ask, too conservative for whom or what? Here we are moving from the realm of science to that of policy and politics. It is certainly true that when one creates policy, the scientific standard is too strict – policy makers cannot always wait for better information. But then, one must make a case for the preponderance of risk warranting action now, rather than later. Ms. Oreskes won’t do that: she simply avoids having to make the case by attacking the scientific method. Circularity again.
The dilemma that this opinion piece presents us with is obliquely indicated by Ms. Oreskes here:
When applied to evaluating environmental hazards, the fear of gullibility can lead us to understate threats.
Clearly, we can make the converse argument that lack of caution can lead to overestimating threats, wasting money, disrupting lives, ordering medical tests with high likelihood of false-positives…all sorts of bad stuff. She doesn’t consider this. When we face this obvious fact, we are back at Square One: Ms. Oreskes, prove your case with facts! This is exactly the discussion she seeks to short-circuit. Because she knows she’s right. She sees. She is a Prophet.