By Scott Sumner
Arnold Kling has a post pointing out that anti-science attitudes are not confined to the right. He starts by quoting Jonah Goldberg:
Why does the Left get to pick which issues are the benchmarks for “science”? Why can’t the measure of being pro-science be the question of heritability of intelligence? Or the existence of fetal pain? Or the distribution of cognitive abilities among the sexes at the extreme right tail of the bell curve? Or if that’s too upsetting, how about dividing the line between those who are pro- and anti-science along the lines of support for geoengineering? Or — coming soon — the role cosmic rays play in cloud formation? Why not make it about support for nuclear power? Or Yucca Mountain? Why not deride the idiots who oppose genetically modified crops, even when they might prevent blindness in children?
Then Arnold adds these comments:
Actually, he is quoting something he wrote three years ago.
The occasion for recycling it is the litmus test that reporters are applying to Scott Walker, namely whether or not be believes in evolution. Can we imagine a reporter asking Elizabeth Warren whether she believes that people at the extreme right tail of the distribution for math skills are more likely to be male than female, and using that as a litmus test for whether she believes in science?
It’s natural for people to be skeptical of scientific claims that conflict with their deeply held beliefs about religion, politics or morality. People on both the left and the right do this, and they do it often. And this is not about which scientific theories are “true,” it’s about whether people are receptive to scientific evidence. Will they consider the evidence in favor of evolution, cognitive differences between genders, or other hot button issues? Quite often the answer is no, on both sides of the ideological spectrum. I thought of this while reading a piece in The Economist on experiments in geoengineering:
For both the clouds and the stratosphere, the direct effects of the proposed experiments are tiny. Cloud-brightening on the scale imagined requires less than a litre of seawater a second. The amount of sulphur that might be put into the stratosphere would be about 2% of what a passenger jet crossing the Atlantic emits in an hour. These proposals are not distinguished by the scale of what is envisaged, but by the precision with which they would be carried out and the care with which their effects would be monitored.
The worried ones
Another distinction weighs more heavily. Though these experiments would provide insights useful to scientists in other areas–the physics of clouds and the chemistry of the stratosphere are big topics in their own right–they are being proposed as ways to further research into geoengineering. That concerns many people, and a number of environmental campaign groups oppose all such experiments. Academic critics such as Clive Hamilton of Charles Sturt University in Australia argue that, though the risks to health or the environment may be minor, such experiments pose “political and social risks” that are much more troubling. Experiments could create “lock-in” around a particular research path, forming a constituency that would downplay subsequently uncovered risks and obstacles. And the mere fact of experiments going ahead might lead people to assume that geoengineering could easily be made feasible, and thus to give up on reducing carbon emissions.
I’d actually prefer we address global warming by reducing carbon emissions, not via geoengineering. But even I could not in good conscience argue that the public should not be given the relevant information about costs and benefits of alternative strategies. And if they were given this information then I’m reasonably confidently that my views would not prevail, as I think most people are poorer, more impatient, and more materialistic than I am. And given that I enjoy snorkeling, I’d guess that most people don’t care as much about the deterioration of the ocean’s coral reefs, a problem that would be addressed by carbon abatement, but not by geoengineering.
Consider the possibility of geoengineering as just one more scientific “inconvenient truth” that the Al Gores of the world would prefer to pretend didn’t exist.