The emails hacked from East Anglia University don’t add up to a climate change conspiracy. But now the scientists who were building – or, as one wag at the Wall Street Journal put it, forging – the climate change consensus have lost control of their story. And only two weeks out from the climate conference in Copenhagen. This cannot end well.
This may not be “the worst scientific scandal of our generation,” as Christopher Booker put it in the Daily Telegraph, and Copenhagen may not be “mankind’s last chance…to save civilization on the planet,” contrary to what an Australian newspaper says. But the email scandal gives deniers and demagogues the opportunity they’ve been seeking; and the Copenhagen conference may simply end in confusion.
Self-proclaimed “skeptics,” many of whom are know-nothings with a political or business agenda to advance, will now press their case that climate change is just a big scare, or, as Nick Griffin would have it, an “elite scam.” This is the worst kind of nonsense, and Mr. Griffin himself is, of course, an elite scam artist of the highest order — a Cambridge University graduate, Holocaust denier, former member of the National Front, now Chair of the right wing British National Party — a man who trades on fear, hatred and feelings of disenfranchisement to gain power for himself. That he has been awarded a place on the EU delegation to the Copenhagen conference does not exactly inspire confidence. Look forward to a circus.
One of the more positive things that could come out of this whole imbroglio would be some new awareness of the role that science plays in society, some attention to the authority science has in shaping policy, and some fresh critical thinking about science as a discipline and a discourse — a public discourse, and, even, an ideology. I am aware that this is probably wishful thinking on my part. I’m also aware that scientists like to think that they have no influence on public policy, or not enough; but to my mind they only think that because they haven’t really looked into the matter. Ultimately their concerns are a form of special pleading, and less interesting than concerns about the philosophical deficit on the other side.
Apart from charges of elitism, or scary stories about great wizards behind curtains and the brave new world they are foisting on us — either the world is going to end in a huge polar tidal wave or Al Gore is going to usher in one world government, who can say which? — apart from all this, what language do we have for talking with one another about science? How are we to debate its findings, decide its limits, its proper application or real world consequences, both intended and unintended?
Gore himself seems enthralled to science and scientific thinking. Think about An Inconvenient Truth, or consider the article he published with David Blood just last week in the Financial Times. Here, Gore and Blood discover the causes of the 2008 financial crisis in how “our brains are hard-wired to think short term because evolution has rewarded serial short-term successes such as avoiding predators and other dangers that faced our ancestors.” A good day trader may have all the instincts of Australopithecus; but one wonders why Gore and Blood have to reach so far back into the past, millions of years back, to a dangerous era of hunting and gathering, to make their case. They could just as easily follow Weber back five hundred years to the moral basis of capitalism in the Protestant ethic, or or look at structural changes in the financial markets in the era of Morgan, or review the more recent history of deregulation beginning with Ronald Reagan and continuing right through the Clinton and George W. Bush years. A careful reading of recent history might suggest we are not so hard-wired after all.
Be that as it may, where the authority of science goes unquestioned, one might well ask (with Mark Steyn), who is guarding the guardians? And the answer today is, no one, really. It seems fair to say that philosophy, our philosophy, the kind we use every day to orient ourselves in the world, is not up to the task.
There are many reasons for this – some having to do with the fact that we understand science to be an amoral enterprise, neither good nor bad in and of itself; some having to do with the macroscopic and microscopic scales on which science is conducted, beyond the reach of ordinary human means. And as a society we haven’t cultivated the discipline and habits of mind, or created the institutions, to deal with science’s encroachment on our lives. It’s commonplace to say that over the past century or so, science has delivered enormous social benefits; but scientific advances and the technologies they muster and require have also exacted a social cost that we have yet to calculate. This is a failure, not of science, but of the unscientific community.