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Skeptic vs. imbecile May 3, 2017

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Politics, Science.
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In his first op-ed column for The New York Times, Bret Stephens blames a supposed lack of concern among the American public about climate change on science advocates who (according to Stephens) claim to have “100 percent of the truth” on their side:

Claiming total certainty about the science traduces the spirit of science and creates openings for doubt whenever a climate claim proves wrong. Demanding abrupt and expensive changes in public policy raises fair questions about ideological intentions. Censoriously asserting one’s moral superiority and treating skeptics as imbeciles and deplorables wins few converts.

Who are these censorious, arrogant ideologues, derailing our climate policy conversations with their claims of total scientific certainty? Curiously, Stephens never offers any examples. In any case, he’s just muddying the waters by focusing on tone rather than substance. The scientific method is the best tool we have for understanding reality and predicting the future (as close to certainty as is allowed by the available evidence), and it has been amazingly successful; so we ought to be basing our public policy on the scientific consensus. And unfortunately, abrupt and expensive changes are sometimes called for — especially when earlier scientific recommendations have been delayed and avoided for years. Being skeptical is certainly a good default position when considering claims not sufficiently supported by evidence, but willfully ignoring the judgement of the overwhelming majority of experts doesn’t make you a skeptic; it does, in fact, make you an imbecile.

Stephens’s anti-science nonsense only gets worse as the column concludes:

None of this is to deny climate change or the possible severity of its consequences. But ordinary citizens also have a right to be skeptical of an overweening scientism. They know — as all environmentalists should — that history is littered with the human wreckage of scientific errors married to political power.

… Perhaps if there were less certitude about our climate future, more Americans would be interested in having a reasoned conversation about it.

If you don’t remember learning about “scientism” in school, that’s because it’s a bullshit term — used to preemptively dismiss a scientific thesis you don’t like without actually confronting it. (Despite all his insinuation, Stephens doesn’t directly challenge the accepted climate science.) Here’s a trick you can try at home: the next time someone presents you with a well-reasoned argument whose consequences you wish to avoid, just say “I have a right to be skeptical of your overweening reasonablism.” If they persist, tell them their assertions of certitude and moral superiority raise fair questions about their ideological intentions, then blame them for the failure of conversation. You might lose a friend, but maybe you’ll get a column in the Times!

This would all be laughable if it weren’t so dangerous: let us not forget the political climate we are living in. We have a U.S. President who claimed global warming is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, appointed a climate-change denier to head the Environmental Protection Agency, proposed deep budget cuts to many scientific programs and agencies (including the EPA) — the list goes on. Sophistry and misdirection may deceive voters (and readers), but nature will not be cheated; we ignore reality at our peril. Stephens is right about one thing: we need a politically engaged public who care about climate change. But more fundamentally, what we need is a scientifically literate public — who are committed to a rational conversation based on objective facts; who demand policies based on the best scientific evidence; who can tell the difference between a skeptic and an imbecile.