Are They Right?

I’ve been reading StopTheACLU.com, because I want to get into their heads, because I want to avoid the classic mistake of intellectual isolation, and because I want to be challenged. Sure, they’re weirdos, but that doesn’t mean they don’t make sense. But there’s at least one thing in the StopTheACLU worldview that I find very hard to method-act: in their universe, global warming is a myth.

Okay, but how did I end up on this side and not that side?

I went through this in Russia last year, when I was hosted in Moscow by a global warming skeptic; apparently it’s politically popular there to deny global warming, which sounds like a slight to Russia except when you remember that it’s politically popular here, too. But anyway, I was plunged headfirst into the debate with an ambitious little snot of a web-startup wannabe millionaire (“You should see our new offices! The Mafia used to operate out of there! They still visit someimes.”) Running through the arguments in great detail (as I previously reported here) I was forced to ask the very pertinent question, why do I believe that global warming is real, and man-made, and a serious problem?

The quick answer is that I believe the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, but that’s also just ink on paper. Why do I trust them?

It has to do with process. To begin with, I know what the IPCC process actually is. They have devoted almost as much dead tree to how they reached their conclusions as to the conclusions themselves. In short, they collected something like 600 climate scientists from 40 countries, locked them in a library with a complete and current set of all relevant academic and scientific publications, and threw raw meat at them through the bars until they reached consensus. Actually, that’s not quite how it happened. Some of them were vegetarians.

The 2007 Fourth Assessment Report was then further reviewed by another 600-odd people, corrected, argued over, politicized, and finally published. Although there is no way to guarantee against bias in the author and reviewer selection process, at least a very diverse range of viewpoints could be expected to be represented, and at least the people involved have some reason to know what they’re talking about, having spent significant chunks of their lives asking questions about the ecosystem. This is as global and as sincere an effort to answer a question as humanity has ever seen, and it was all meticulously open and transparent.

There is a moral here.

One of the great things that thorough education teaches you — any education — is just how deep the rabbit hole of knowledge goes. It’s a smart person who realizes how big and complex and subtle any real discipline is; and I am absolutely at a loss to answer the tricky questions of someone else’s field, be they about global warming, the effectiveness of acupuncture, or whether cutting taxes will really help with unemployment (or not.) The only truly universal approach, our only hope for living in a world too big for reason, is to learn to evaluate how any given body of knowledge decides what is true and what is not true. In painful depth and detail.

The method, philosophy, and process of coming to believe: that is everything. I can’t say I even understand this process in myself, let alone an entire civilization, but I can say with conviction that it’s my favorite field of study.

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