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Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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#22: The Real Struggle Behind Climate Change = A War on Expertise

David Brin

Ethical Technology

December 10, 2010

The schism over global climate change (GCC) has become an intellectual chasm, across which everyone perceives the other side as Kool-Aid drinkers. Although I have mixed views of my own about the science of GCC and have closely grilled a number of colleagues who are front-line atmospheric scientists, I’m afraid all the anecdotes and politics-drenched “questions” flying about aren’t shedding light. They are, in fact, quite beside the point. That is because science itself is the main issue: its relevance and utility as a decision-making tool.

According to IEET readers, what were the most stimulating stories of 2010? We’re answering that question by posting a countdown of the top 31 articles published on our blog this year (out of more than 600 in all), based on how many total hits each one received.

The following piece was first published here on February 10, 2010, and is the #22 most viewed of the year.

Let there be no mistake, this is all about power, and the struggle goes way back. In Britain, the "Boffin Principle" long held that technical people have no business making policy suggestions to their betters. In America, waves of anti-intellectual populism - like the 19th century Know Nothing Party - were  deliberately stoked by aristocracies who saw the new mental elites as a threat. 

There have been counter-surges. In the 1930s, propelled by ambitious modernism and depression-era desperation, a briefly popular "Technocracy Movement" held that knowledge and skill should be paramount criteria for positions of leadership. A milder version of this eagerness for expertise was seen from Sputnik through the 1960s and 1970s, with glimmers during the Internet Boom years. (Notably, these were all lush times for science fiction literature.)

Of course, Technocracy was boneheaded and scary - though not as much as the new know-nothing era that we have endured during the last decade or so, a time when things became dicey even for the Civil Service and the U.S. Officer Corps. Chris Mooney documents how relentless this agenda has been, in The Republican War on Science. Though, let’s be fair. If films like Avatar are any indication, a variant of dour anti-scientific fever rages on the left, as well.

This is the context in which we should reconsider the Climate Change Denial Movement. While murky in its scientific assertions — (some claim the Earth isn’t warming, while others say the ice-free Arctic won’t be any of our doing) — the core contention remains remarkably consistent. It holds that the 99% of atmospheric scientists who believe in GCC are suborned, stupid, incompetent, conspiratorial or untrustworthy hacks.

As part of a more general assault on the very notion of expertise, the narrative starts with a truism that is actually true:

“Not every smart person is wise…”

only then extrapolates it, implicitly, to a blatant falsehood

"all smartypants are unwise, all the time; and my uninformed opinion is equal to any expert testimony."

Does that sound like a polemical stretch? But it is precisely the implied subtext - a perverse kind of populism - at all levels of the War on Science. In the specific case of GCC, since almost all top atmospheric scientists accept human-propelled climate change, they must be all cretins, corrupt, or cowards.

Here’s a telling point. This uniformity of craven venality has to include even the ambitious postdocs and recently-tenured junior professors who, in every other field, sift constantly for some flaw in the current paradigm in order to go gunning after the big boys and thus make a reputation. What, even the Young Guns are sellouts? Even the paladins of skeptical enquiry are conspiring together in a grand cabal to… what?  Ah, now the story gets even better. All the scientists and post-docs are colluding to foist this scam, in order to win a few ten-thousand dollar grants. This  loose-change-grubbing, paradigm slavery is cited to explain the GCC imbroglio—while the oilcos and petroprinces, who operate major propaganda outlets and have TRILLIONS staked in the status quo… they have no agenda at all.

Of course, to typify any lawful profession as across-the-board corrupt or cowardly is absurd, but to so besmirch the one professional cohort that is unambiguously the most brave, individualistic, honest, curious and smart of all, well, there has to be an agenda behind such drivel — and there is one. The good old Boffin Effect.

My late colleague, Michael Crichton, crystallized it when he claimed "there is no such thing as scientific consensus," and thus he deemed it reasonable to ignore measures recommended by 99% of the people who actually know stuff about a problem that might damage our nation and world.

Now, as many of you know, I have my own complaints against expert communities. I’m known for promoting the “Age of Amateurs.” But empowered citizenship should supplement, not replace, the people who actually know the most about a topic. Respect toward professionals is compatible with keeping an eye on them.

Especially since — and this is the kicker — all the major recommended actions to deal with Global Climate Change are things we should be doing, anyway.

That’s the most bizarre aspect. I’d listen patiently to GGC Deniers and strive to answer their endlessly refurbished narratives, if they would only say the following first:

“Okay, I’ll admit we need more efficiency and sustainability, desperately, in order to regain energy independence, improve productivity, erase the huge leverage of hostile foreign petro-powers, reduce pollution, secure our defense, and ease a vampiric drain on our economy. Waste-not and a-penny-saved and cleanliness-is-next-to-godliness used to be good conservative attitudes. And so, for those reasons alone, let’s join together and make a big (and genuine*) push for efficiency.

"Oh, and by the way, I don’t believe in Global Climate Change, but these measures would also help deal with that too.

"There, are you happy? Now, as gentlemen, and more in a spirit of curiosity than polemics, can we please corner some atmospheric scientists and force them into an extended teach-in, to answer some inconvenient questions?"

When I meet a conservative who says all that (and I have), I am all kisses and flowers. And so will be all the atmosphere guys I know. That kind of statement is logical, patriotic and worthy of respect. It deserves eye-to-eye answers.

But that isn’t the faux-narrative. Instead it boils down to “I hate smartypants.” And it is thereupon understandable that (being human) the boffins are losing patience with the new Know Nothings.
David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."


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