Derb Versus the Weather

John Derbyshire has been banging the climate change drum lately on his weekly broadcasts. I suspect listeners are disappointed in his apparent embrace of the alarmist position on climate change. Most on the Right instinctively oppose the climate change theology of the Left. Most are skeptical about what is promoted as science, in the same way they are skeptical about utopian claims. I certainly find it surprising that an otherwise sensible person would stake out this position:

And just a footnote here on my own position. I defined it last week as affirmative on warming, agnostic on the causes, negative on alarmism and hysteria. I got a lot of email and read it all carefully. As a result, there’s been a shift in my position. Hey, there’s no disgrace in changing your mind in response to persuasive arguments.

I’m still affirmative on warming and negative on big globalist programs to counter it. I’m no longer agnostic on causes though. Yes, I’m persuaded that at least some of the warming is due to human activity. So instead of affirmative, agnostic, negative, now put me down as affirmative, guardedly affirmative, and negative.

John is an empirically minded person with a strong interest in science. He is not, however, a scientist. Specifically, he is not a climate scientist. Therefore he is unqualified to come down on key parts of the topic. This is true of most people, even people who are climate scientists. It is a massive subject with many narrow specialties within it. There is no one authority one can point to on this stuff. Instead, there are competing tribes with agendas other than the search for truth.

Further, the science is new and woefully incomplete. That does not mean climate science has not accumulated a lot of useful data that allows for some preliminary conclusions, but this is not physics. We are just scratching the surface of an enormously complex topic. Again, that’s not to say the alarmists are all wrong or that Richard Lindzen is a modern Galileo. We don’t know right now. Consider this from Haldane:

Even if man does not perish in a dramatic manner, there is no reason why civilization should not do so. All civilization apparently goes back to a common source less than ten thousand years ago, possible in Egypt. It is a highly complicated invention which has probably been made only once. if it perished it might never be made again.

When in the past its light was extinguished in one area – for example when the Angles and Saxons wrecked Roman Britain – it could be lit again from elsewhere, as our savage ancestors were civilized from Italy and Ireland.

A modern world followed by revolutions might destroy it all over the planet. if weapons are as much improved in the next century as in the last, this will probably happen. But unless atomic energy can be tapped, which is wildly unlikely, we know that it will never be possible to box up very much rapidly available energy in a given place than we can already box up in a high explosive shell, nor has any vapor much more poisonous than mustard gar been discovered in the forty-one years that have elapsed since that substance was first produced. I think, therefore, that the odds are slightly against such a catastrophic end of civilization.

That’s from The Inequality of Man, written in 1937. Haldane was the father of population genetics and one of the best scientific minds of his day. I think that bit is actually from a talk he did with H. G. Wells, but I don’t have the book in front of me. He was hilariously wrong about all sorts of things. Most notably, he was an enthusiastic supporter of Soviet communism. H. G. Wells, the John Derbyshire of his day, was similarly wrong about important stuff. The properly skeptical person is wise to wait on new science like climatology before jumping to many conclusions.

The other thing about the climate change stuff is it has all the trappings of a political racket. We never hear the word “consensus” in other areas of science, unless it is in a discussion of the current state of speculative science. In other words, members of a particular field may say there is a consensus around this or that guess being right, but nowhere in science is the truth put up to a vote.

More important, the folks who know they are right don’t conduct witch hunts and demand those who disagree with them be thrown out of the profession. At the minimum, someone with a passion for science should recoil in horror at what is clearly anti-scientific attitudes. Much of what people like Michael Mann have been doing flies in the face of accepted scientific debate and open inquiry. When you have the facts on your side, there’s no need to resort to these tactics.

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6 years ago

That does not mean climate science has not accumulated a lot of useful data that allows for some preliminary conclusions, but this is not physics.

but what about theoretical physics? I suppose the problem with Climate science is that it’s being used to push a political agenda, whereas you don’t see that with physics.