THE ISLAND OF DOUBT
An irregular exploration of the ongoing struggle between the power of rational discourse and the scientific method on one hand, and the forces of superstition and dogma on the other.
The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
by Carl Sagan
The Doubter's Companion:
Skeptic Magazine: www.skeptic.com
Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal: www.csicop.org
A poem by Yehuda Amichai:
Chris C. Mooney
The Meaning of
the Island of
Random Douglas Adams quote
UP AGAINST THE WALL
There's a difference between skepticism and stubborn pigheadedness, but the distinction seems to have been lost on the members of the editorial board of one of America's most influential newspapers.
The refusal of the Wall Street Journal's editors to admit that maybe, just maybe, the vast majority of the world's climatologists might actually know what they're talking about was almost endearing for a while. Skepticism is almost always valuable when it comes to something as complex as atmospheric heat budgets .
Over the years, though, the editorial board's obsession with gainsaying every confirmation of the theory that human activities are responsible for the majority of the observing warming of the planet over the last 150 years or so has wandered across the line. Now they're in the realm of blind faith, not sincere doubt.
The WSJ's editorial of June 21 is so far beyond the pale of reason that one could fairly wonder if the authors even believe their own words. Almost every statement involving the current state of scientific understanding is just plain wrong. Rebuttals litter the web's responsible corners. Among the most devastating can be found at Real Climate, a cooperative blog of people who actually study the topic for a living.
For example, to the WSJ's assertion that "no one knows whether this is unusual or merely something that happens periodically for natural reasons," the Real Climate gang responds:
This is incorrect. The natural causes of past climate variations are increasingly well-understood, and they cannot explain the recent global warming.Real Climate then goes on to cite the papers in leading scientific journals that support their claims. Imagine that.
The editorial, one of a long line of evidently successful attempts to sow doubt about the nature of climate change among policy-makers in Washington, relies on: discredited papers by non-experts (Soon and Baliunas are astronomers, not climatologists, which is why their paper (PDF) was quickly debunked), historical misunderstandings (just what qualifies as "Medieval" anyway?), confused science (yes, the central Antarctic ice pack is thickening, but if you'd bother to read the paper, you'd see why this only supports the consensus, not undermines it), and an accompanying schematic that wasn't even based on real data (and was 15 years old for Pete's sake).
Some of the editorial actually draws on findings that the Journal's own reporters have criticized. But that only reminds us of the huge gulf between the newsroom and the editorial board, historically one of the biggest in the industry.
What could explain the editorial board's failure to accept reality? A look at its composition gives some hints. Mary Anastasia O'Grady is a former investment options strategist with an MBA in financial management; Jason Riley is a former copy editor with a BA in English; Robert Pollock is an award-winning journalist with a BA in philosophy; and Kimberley A. Strassel is a writer with an unspecified degree from Princeton.
Upstanding journalists all, but none appear to have any experience that would warrant a "you're all fools" attitude.
OK. Perhaps the editorial was written by one of the irregular contributors, one with more relevant qualifications. There's world chess champion Garry Kasparov, novelist and Bob Dole adviser Mark Helperin, and George Bush (Sr.) speechwriter Peggy Noonan. Oh well.
I'm not arguing you have to hold a PhD in earth sciences to understanding solar insolation, carbon cycles and climate forcing. But it helps. And if you're going to challenge those who do, you might at come armed with least a cursory familiarity with the facts.
There are people out there who assume the Journal's editorials meet those standards. People like senators, representatives and presidents. People who don't have time to read climatologist Stephen Schneider's comprehensive overview of the world's climate change contrarians. If they did, the country's only newspaper editorial board with its own TV show would have a better grasp of the difference between true skeptics, who continue to offer valuable constructive criticism to a field that is frustatingly hobbled by uncertainties, and the dilettantes who just think they know better.