by Judith Curry
The opinion pieces published in the WSJ continue to be discussed, and perhaps finally they are stimulating some useful insights.
I know, like, and genuinely admire several of the authors of both pieces. But both dangerously use earned authority in their areas of expertise as a substitute for careful argument in other fields. The original authors do this far more egregiously that the respondents, but both succumb to the same unfortunate temptation.
This phenomenon doesn’t only show up when climate scientists lecture on economics or particle physicists assert that only they know how the atmosphere works – it appears all over the climate debate. Clean energy entrepreneurs regularly assert that because they’ve created solar jobs, they know that more solar energy is good for the U.S. economy. Oil barons are similarly authoritative in asserting that their industry experience tells them that a transition away from fossil fuels would be economically ruinous. Too many economists will assert that this or that policy won’t affect investors’ and consumers’ behaviors, since that’s what their theories tell them, even if investors and consumers themselves can tell you from experience (and hence some authority) that that is dead wrong. Other economists will tell you thatthey know that cutting emissions will be cheap, when smart political scientists can readily point out that real world politics will likely lead to considerably more expensive policies.
This isn’t an argument for why people should only write in areas where they have PhDs. After all, if that were the standard, I’d be out of a job. But if people want to invoke authority (something that should be kept as rare as possible), they ought stick to areas where they’ve earned it, rather than sliding into ones that seem closely related to uninformed readers but that actually aren’t all that similar. Otherwise, they’d be well advised to stick to careful argument. This would leave the writers of the original Journal op-ed without much to say on an opinion page (save their observations about the unpleasant culture in some university departments), this week’s respondents focusing on climate science, and everyone better off.
The phenomenon of physicists claiming authority on climate science derives from the not incorrect sense that major elements of climate science are applied physics. However, unless a physicist has spent some time reading atmospheric science and climate texts and journal articles, the physicist is unlikely to know much if anything about how the climate system works. Apart from that, there is also the issue of hidden knowledge in a particular field. Of the hundreds of authors that contribute to the IPCC WG1 Reports, how many individuals have sufficient grasp of the material in all of the Chapters even to provide a credible review? I suspect the answer is very few, if any.
Given that, is the meta-cognitive abilities of someone like Freeman Dyson of greater value in sorting through all this than the typical IPCC author with narrow expertise? And finally, the POST briefing paper discussed in the Week in Review attempts to provide an independent and balanced analysis, something that is lacking from the experts on a topic of complexity with disagreement among experts, not to mention the politicization. The bottom line is that rather than invoking authority, they’d be well advised to stick to careful argument. JC note to the IPCC: rely less on expert judgment and appeal to authority, and more on carefully crafted and documented arguments.
In terms of solutions, people tend to filter them in terms of what they personally know about and would benefit and need. There is an old saying (in the U.S., anyways) that if you ask the Teamsters what is needed to solve any problem, they will tell you ‘more trucks.’ The point is that there are no simple solutions to complex problems, and that multiple perspectives from multiple areas of expertise are needed.
Then add to this mix politics and a clash of values, and you have the unholy mess that is the climate fight. Then it is up to the policy makers to decide what to make of all this. At this point, I don’t think scientific experts appealing to their own authority carries much weight.
Update: Bill Hooke has a must read essay “Cockpit resource management for climate scientists and policy makers.” Excerpt:
And because, fact is, if planes were piloted by (climate) scientists and politicians, airports and their environs would be a hellish landscape, littered with the wreckage and debris of crashed planes, awash with jet fuel, towers of flame sending huge plumes of black, oily smoke skyward.
And that’s not just because of any lack in piloting skills…but rather the result of how we scientists and our colleagues seem to prefer to communicate. We place (over)-much value on being right. We will go to great lengths to prove ourselves right. We’ll allow ourselves to be easily offended if someone suggests we’re wrong. We are prone to believe that a record of distinguished past accomplishment in science makes us right in the present, and to believe that distinguished accomplishment in one area makes us the expert voice in other contexts.
These attitudes have been tolerated – maybe even encouraged – for years in the climate-change arena.