The Age Of Embarrassment

Tenth of a series

I may have mentioned this before, but as a way of supporting real news I obtained a digital subscription to The New York Times, for which I am being pleasantly rewarded. I get to read prior issues, going back to 1851. That was before most of us were born. Anyhow, I consider the NYT to be a reliable news source, certainly compared to a raft of other spigots adorning the wires these days.

Conservatives, and also the newest President, consider the Times to be a liberal fire hose. Many liberals, as well, claim to notice a leftward slant. My thinking is this appearance is due to the paper’s contrast with concerted right wing outlets. Readers should look to a source’s editorial section to pick up any scent of tip to one direction, and in this respect the Times asserts some balance. We see, or have seen:

  • David Brooks
  • Maureen Dowd (an equal opportunity agitator)
  • Mark Shields
  • Paul Krugman
  • Thomas L. Friedman
  • George Will

Now there is Bret Stephens, and his first column appeared today, 28 April. He opens with the following:

When someone is honestly 55 percent right, that’s very good and there’s no use wrangling. And if someone is 60 percent right, it’s wonderful, it’s great luck, and let him thank God.

But what’s to be said about 75 percent right? Wise people say this is suspicious. Well, and what about 100 percent right? Whoever says he’s 100 percent right is a fanatic, .

— An old Jew of Galicia

We soon learn he is talking about the scientific consensus supporting anthropogenic global warming (AGW), and he is cautioning against certainty. In fact, the headline of his opinion piece is “Climate of Complete Certainty.”

My first take on his column’s epigraph is that it is overly general. Supposing the old Jew of Galicia is right, in which case I am “a thug, and the worst kind of rascal.” And so is columnist Stephens. And I added my comment to that effect to the on-line piece. I (Stephens, as well) am 100% certain the Earth rotates counterclockwise as viewed from above the North Pole. Equally certain are we that the sun rises in the east. So, the old Jew notwithstanding, 100% certainty is not a mark of thuggery.

But Stephens spreads his message thinner:

There’s a lesson here. We live in a world in which data convey authority. But authority has a way of descending to certitude, and certitude begets hubris. From Robert McNamara to Lehman Brothers to Stronger Together, cautionary tales abound.

We ought to know this by now, but we don’t. Instead, we respond to the inherent uncertainties of data by adding more data without revisiting our assumptions, creating an impression of certainty that can be lulling, misleading and often dangerous. Ask Clinton.

The Clinton reference is thought to be regarding Hilary Clinton’s strong stand on AGW during her campaign, a factor that cost many votes in conservative areas.

But surely certitude does beget hubris, and if you want to appear warm and fuzzy (as when you are seeking somebody’s vote) it may be better to be less certain. In politics.

I’m not a politician, and I have no need to please anybody. At this I am immensely successful. Take the screen shot gracing the head of this column. That’s from a Facebook dialog I had with a friend named Dan. He opened with:

I guess Algor is coming out with a sequel to his “Inconvenient ‘Truth'” film.

I hope the film will answer these questions:

  1. How does CO2, which is 1.4x the weight of air get up above the Troposphere to  form a greenhouse? What is its density there, given that CO2 is less than 004 of 1% (= four ten-thousandths or 40 PPM) of all gasses in the atmosphere?

Followed by items 2 through 8 in a similar vein. Others chimed in, including Mark. As one who studied some science in college (also high school) I have to say Mark’s understanding of science does not bode well for the American educational system. Details on request.

Again, forgetting the politicians, Bret Stephens can forgive scientists for some hubris if he will pause for a moment to examine the complaints made by the AGW deniers. These arguments generally boil down to something like those of Dan and Mark. Many are steeped in a gross misunderstanding of basic science plus ignorance (or denial) of available data.

Stephens attempts to avoid this trap with qualifying language:

Well, not entirely. As Andrew Revkin wrote last year about his storied career as an environmental reporter at The Times, “I saw a widening gap between what scientists had been learning about global warming and what advocates were claiming as they pushed ever harder to pass climate legislation.” The science was generally scrupulous. The boosters who claimed its authority weren’t.

He’s not disputing the data. The problem is what are advocates for remedy postulating. On this point Stephens and I are in agreement. A sweltering summer day in Chicago (people dying). A devastating tornado rips through a Mississippi town. It’s the doom of global warming! There is no doubt boosters for remedy are overstating the case.

Let them. Put them in their place. The science still stands. Human activity is producing increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (CO2 concentration currently exceeds 400 ppm). Global temperature averages are increasing in correspondence with increasing concentrations of  CO2. Polar ice is melting. The mean sea level is rising. Coastal areas are being affected. All else is bull shit. The need for human intervention is manifest on this issue alone.

The cadre of politicians and vocal citizens may like to take heart from Stephens’ analysis, but they need to appreciate that he is only showcasing their own agenda. Attacks on the science may not be successful, but the political ploy of gaming the statements by AGW fanatics is a quiver full of ammunition for the deniers. In the end it will not matter.

Stephens quoted a (mythical?) old Jew of Galicia. Another quote from way back goes, “Man proposes. Allah disposes.” Think what you want, Nature will have its way.

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One thought on “The Age Of Embarrassment

  1. Pingback: The Age Of Embarrassment | Skeptical Analysis

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