With the introduction of Australia’s carbon tax a week ago, the debate in Australia over the actuality of the phenomena known as “climate change” has begun anew. Sky News’s David Speers has hosted a debate, ABC’s Q&A has hosted a mini debate, and videos and articles by the likes of John Hewson have been making the rounds of Twitter and the Blogosphere. Now, I don’t know enough about the science and evidence behind the “Climate Change” debate to comment on its veracity or lack thereof (science is simply not my forte), however, I do take issue with how this debate is playing out.
The simple truth is that many people are like me; they do not have sufficient interest or time to keep abreast of developments in the field, or are otherwise ill equipped with the necessary knowledge and capabilities to understand the findings and evidence. It is science after all. This has had the unfortunate impact of lowering the dynamic of the debate. When climate scientists or similarly knowledgeable people are not participants in the discourse (as is often the case), the debates are largely abstract ones. Participants do not cite specific findings or research, instead they question the impact that changes will have on the economy and business, they bring up scandals like “climategate” and scientific biases, and, most of all, they cite and question the opinion of the “majority” of climate scientists. The first two of these arguments are clearly irrelevant to the veracity of climate change, but the third is most troubling, as it is an obviously logical fallacy. Now, as science does involve consensus (hypotheses become theories once sufficient evidence has been amassed to convince and obtain consensus among peers) this is a complicated issue, however, there is still a problem when this consensus (or lack thereof) is used as the sole argument in favour of an opinion.
The problem lies in our ready acceptance of the majority’s opinion. You see, simply because a majority of people/experts subscribe to a particular idea does not make it necessarily correct at the time, or even mean that it will be validated by history. I will give you some recent examples: a Washington Post poll conducted in 2003 showed that 7 out of 10 Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was “involved” with the World Trade Centre bombings on September the eleventh, and a Harris poll conducted in 2006 (three years after the invasion of Iraq) showed that more than 50% of Americans believed that Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction (up 16% from the previous year). Despite the backing of a majority of those polled, neither have been proven to be correct at the time or have been validated by history. Now, how about scientific examples? Well, the history of the “majority” in science is hardly stellar either. For example, for significant periods of history the consensus among scientists and learned men was that the world was flat, that the world was the centre of the universe, that witches existed, and that alchemy and astrology were legitimate scientific fields of study. Furthermore, only recently was it discovered that the rate of expansion of the universe is actually speeding up rather than slowing down, contradicting yet another widespread and long held view by experts. None of these theories were correct at the time, and none of them have been validated by history. All of these examples show that the majority is at least as fallible as the individual. Even a majority of experts. We simply cannot take an “appeal to majority” in itself as a sufficient argument for anything. After all, even when an “appeal to majority” is wrapped up in an “appeal to authority” it is still a logical fallacy.
It is my view that debates on the veracity of climate change should be conducted by climate scientists, or, at the very least, by people knowledgeable of the evidence and developments in the field. Debates should be based on evidence, scientific developments and first hand knowledge, rather than second hand information and appeals to majority. We can even look at my argument in other contexts. For example, the U.S. Congress was recently lampooned for excluding Women and speaking strictly to celibate (male) religious leaders in a debate over contraception. Not enough? Well, how about another example? If there were a debate over the problems women faced in the workforce, I for one would not be in a position to argue one way or the other, while the opinion of women would be especially sought after. Why? Because I am neither a Woman nor in a position to impact Women in the workforce. My opinion would be informed by second hand information (anecdotes from friends and family, and media accounts) and appeals to the majority (polling data) rather than knowledge or experience. On the other hand, Women are in the exact position to provide commentary and information on such an issue because they have experience and knowledge. There is no difference between these scenarios and the debate over climate change. Debates should be left to those who can speak from first hand experience rather than those who must resort to fighting armed with only the opinion and experience of others. Our debates should be over the implications of evidence, not over the implications of the consensus of the fallible majority.
As a parting note, I would like to point out how Richard Dawkins argues with people who push the teaching of “Intelligent Design”. Anyone who has watched him do so will have noticed he does not open the conversation by proclaiming how many of his “sciency” friends agree with him. No, Dawkins begins his argument by citing fossil records, DNA evidence, and the observations made over many of years (among many other examples). It is a question of science and Dawkins uses science in his argument. Sure, he may resort to pointing out the overwhelming consensus when his opponent claims there is a “debate” within the scientific community, but Dawkins does not use consensus as his main point. This is how we must debate climate change. It is a scientific contention. The debate should be moved from the plane of the majority, to the plane of science and experts.
Originally posted @ Sakalabujan Magazine