Merchants of Doubt: A Review

This immensely important and timely book demands attention from anyone determined to think critically and intelligently about the current interface of politics, economics, and science, which one might describe as the three gods of our time.  The book is not flawless, to be sure.  As a complete layman in such issues, I can detect certain ideological flaws, which I shall come to in due course, and it is hard not to think that the authors present a somewhat one-sided perspective on a highly contentious issue, and that their opponents would have rather more to say for themselves than Conway and Oreskes imply.  Indeed, in such matters, it is always essential to keep Proverbs 18:17 in mind: “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.”  Nonetheless, from what I know of the world, and from the compellingness of the narrative set forth in this book, I am for now provisionally convinced that their basic picture is accurate. 

This picture, it turns out, is considerably more complex and interesting than I had expected when I picked up the book.  The basic gist I thought I knew: climate change denial is largely funded by Big Oil and industries with a vested interest in staving off any policy shifts in a green direction.  The science is being corrupted by greed.  And, should you be skeptical of such cynicism, just look at how Big Tobacco did the same thing in the 60s—and the 70s and 80s and 90s, for that matter; doubt is a highly durable product, it seems.  

A sordid story, but alas, a somewhat believable one.  Yet, such a story has the troubling consequence of making scientists look like they’re for sale to the highest bidder.  If Big Tobacco and Big Oil could simply bribe scientists into distorting the facts, then why should the moral of this story be “Trust the scientists,” as it must be for climate change orthodoxy?  Thankfully, Conway and Oreskes’s story is, as I said, considerably more complex, and on reflection, more disturbing.  

 

The denial of climate change and the denial of the dangers of smoking do not merely share links to big business; they (and the denial of the ozone hole, of acid rain, of nuclear winter fears, of the dangers of DDT, etc., all covered in this book as well) share something more insidious—a blind faith in markets, technology, and progress.  In each of the doubt-sowing narratives that Conway and Oreskes survey, they find a very small cast of lead actors, chief among whom are a cadre of high-profile Cold War physicists, Frederick Seitz, Fred Singer, and Bill Nierenberg.  It was Frederick Seitz, at that time aged 84 and retired from active scientific work for 17 years, who penned the damning public slander of Ben Santer and his chapter of the first IPCC report on climate change in 1995, after having spent most of the 1980s supervising contrarian research on behalf of the tobacco industry. 

Of course, the very fact that the same few names keep cropping up again and again, in radically different contexts, is enough to raise a few eyebrows as to whether we are dealing with real scientific opposition or some kind of conspiracy.  (Admittedly, it may well be that the authors overemphasize somewhat these few main characters so as to make the contrarian community seem smaller than it really is; however, they do not seem to be incorrect in assigning a leading role to these figures.)  How many solid-state physicists, after all, can claim to be experts on oncology, the effect of acidity on ecosystems, and the distribution of heat in the earth’s atmosphere?  And indeed, part of the burden of the book is to show how just a few well-connected, sufficiently outspoken, and somewhat unscrupulous scientists can create the illusion of a whole community of scientific dissent.  They note how a credulous and naive media and public is often willing to credit the testimony of any leading scientist as a relevant expert, even if his expertise is in another field entirely, as if an expert plumber could settle a controversy on the best way to construct the roof, just because he’s involved in the homebuilding industry.   

Why is it that these physicists should be so determined to attack environmental concern wherever it should arise?  It is here that Conway and Oreskes are at their best, subtly and insightfully introducing us to the Cold War mindset that drove these men.  They were all formed within that black-and-white view of the world, capitalism vs. communism, freedom vs. statism.  And for them, as for so many hawks of that era, superior technological innovation was the means by which freedom would triumph.  Seitz and Nierenberg both got their start working on the Manhattan Project, and were heavily involved in subsequent weapons-development research in the early Cold War, as was Singer.  Not only did this early work help set their ideological trajectory in a hard-right direction, but it also catapulted them to positions of remarkable political influence, which they maintained.  (Oreskes and Conway wish to leave us in no doubt that when it comes to the charge that our politicians are being manipulated by influential insider climate change alarmists, the shoe is most definitely on the other foot.) 

Since most of the rising concerns about the harmful effects of certain industries on health and environment necessarily implied the need for government regulation of those industries, men like Seitz, Singer, and Nierenberg thought they spotted a Red agenda at the heart of the Green movement.  Dedicated as they were to the freedom of capitalist industry and to a confidence that technology was our savior, they bitterly resisted the implications that capitalist industrial technology might be harming the planet and might call for government intervention.  In the Reagan era, such convictions easily won the day on issues such as acid rain, whatever the vast majority of the scientific community might say, and those who held them gained established footholds of influence.  

 

Conway and Oreskes also draw close attention to the strategy behind all this anti-environmental science.  The objective, most of the time, has not been to directly deny the various claims of harm being advanced.  The tobacco industry spent little time trying to prove that smoking was fine for you, and Singer and Nierenberg did not try to claim that acid rain was harmless.  Rather, their product was doubt.  The point was always to persuade the public that, yes, there might be a problem, but there was so much we didn’t know that we couldn’t be quite sure what its origin was, how serious it was, and what the best solution might be.  The downsides of our current course, then, were uncertain.  Accompanying this was the argument that the upsides of our current course were obvious, or the downsides to changing our present course were quite clear and certain, and certain to be serious.  As a delaying tactic, this argument served the tobacco industry astonishingly well.  Would-be smokers could be reassured that, although they couldn’t be sure one way or another of the science surrounding the safety of cigarettes, at least they could be sure that they really enjoyed smoking them, and it was probably worth a little risk.  Juries could be persuaded, for more than forty years after the extremely carcinogenic effects of smoking had been scientifically demonstrated, that there was still enough uncertainty to render the tobacco companies legally immune.  

Again, Conway and Oreskes insightfully show how psychology can lead us astray here.  We tend to fall prey to short-term thinking, willing to face future risks for the sake of present enjoyment, and disposed to always prefer the known (what we are already doing) to the unknown (any proposed change), assessing the latter as riskier than the former, even when the evidence clearly suggests otherwise.  (Many of the contrarian scientists described in this book  were clearly driven by this kind of thinking, particularly those with a particular interest in economics.  The economic costs of environmental protection, they felt, were so high as to outweigh the evidence of future harms.)  These psychological tendencies are if anything even more true on the social level than the individual.  What this means is that anyone claiming that we must stop the enjoyable things we are doing in order to avert future or unseen calamities, and must start ordering our lives in different ways, has to meet a very high burden of proof indeed to be listened to.  Our political leaders, who are supposed to take the future into account and thus make these difficult decisions for us, are unfortunately just as much the slaves of short-term thinking.  Economic growth in the present, not environmental protection in the future, is what is likely to win them their next election.  The merchants of doubt, then, have a comparatively easy task.  All they have to show is that there is enough uncertainty in the science that perhaps we had better sit back and wait for more evidence before committing ourselves to a costly change of direction, or, heaven forbid, sacrificing our freedom to government bureaucrats.

Unfortunately, it is extraordinarily easy to prove uncertainty in the science, because all science is always uncertain.  Conway and Oreskes are refreshingly upfront about this, and criticize the outdated positivistic view of science that imagines that science “proves” facts with logical certainty.  Even when the basic facts are well-established (though never absolutely proven), there exist all sorts of details that still need to be worked out, and ongoing scientific work will of course be dedicated toward investigating these remaining areas of uncertainty.  Anyone with a dedicated agenda of skepticism, then, will have no difficulty in finding evidence of uncertainty and debate in the current scientific literature, even when there is a firmly established consensus about the key points.  Moreover, given that the front lines of scientific work are so far beyond the ken of the average citizen, it is easy for him to be duped into treating as equally authoritative the testimony of popularizers and think tanks with some kind of scientific credentials.  When we look at this cacophony of voices and see evidence of widespread disagreement, we shrug our shoulders and say, “Who are we to believe?”  

 

So what is to be done about this?  Conway and Oreskes suggest some answers in their epilogue, pointing out how many areas of our day-to-day in which we recognize the need to trust experts and act on their advice, despite the inevitable uncertainty.  They conclude

“So it comes to this: we must trust our scientific experts on matters of science, because there isn’t a workable alternative.  And because scientists are not (in most cases) licensed, we need to pay attention to who the experts actually are—by asking questions about their credentials, their past and current research, the venues in which they are subjecting their claims to scrutiny, and the sources of financial support they are receiving.  If the scientific community has been asked to judge a matter . . . then it makes sense to take the results of their investigations very seriously. . . . Sensible decision making involves acting on the information we have, even while accepting that it may well be imperfect and our decisions may need to be revisited and revised in light of new information.  For even if modern science does not give us certainty, it does have a robust track record . . . modern science gives us a pretty decent basis for action. . . .

“Don’t get us wrong.  Scientists have no special purchase on moral or ethical decisions; a climate scientist is no more qualified to comment on health care reform than a physicist is to judge the causes of bee colony collapse.  The very fathers that create expertise in a specialized domain lead to ignorance in many others. . . . So our trust needs to be circumscribed, and focused.  It needs to be very particular.  Blind trust will get us into at least as much trouble as no trust at all.  But without some degree of trust in our designated experts . . . we are paralyzed, in effect not knowing whether to make ready for the morning commute or not. . . . C.P. Snow once argued that foolish faith in authority is the enemy of truth.  But so is a foolish cynicism. . . . We close with the comments of S.J. Green, director of research for British American Tobacco, who decided, finally, that what his industry had done was wrong, not just morally, but also intellectually: ‘A demand for scientific proof is always a formula for inaction and delay, and usually the first reaction of the guilty.  The proper basis for such decisions is, of course, quite simply that which is reasonable in the circumstances.”

In other words, we need to accept that painful, costly public policy decisions will have to be taken on the basis of uncertainty.  In fact, they always are, for economic projections about the future (perhaps the most frequent basis for public policy) are at least as uncertain as scientific ones.  If the consequences of inaction appear sufficiently serious and probable, the prudent ruler (and the prudent society) will begin to undertake corrective action even while acknowledging the possibility that subsequent research will reveal such action unnecessary; better safe than sorry.  

 

My one major misgiving about the book: despite their attempts to demystify the scientific enterprise, and acknowledge that it is human, all too human, not blessed with some special gift of infallibility, it is hard not to feel that the authors continue to speak of “the halls of science” in somewhat reverential tones.  Scientists are repeatedly eulogized as pure uncorrupt seekers after truth, even while a few contrarian scientists are shown to be quite the opposite.  But of course, if Seitz, Singer, Nierenberg, and others could let their ideology and the interests of their benefactors get in the way of doing honest and objective science, who’s to say that most other scientists are immune to this.  Conway and Oreskes do enough to suggest, I think, that the accusations that climate alarmists are acting out of self-interest or political ideology are a case of the pot calling the kettle black; however, that doesn’t mean that the kettle may not be black as well.  I have no doubt that most climate scientists are conscientious researchers who do their utmost to be objective and avoid unnecessary alarmism.  But not all, and not always.  The authors always speak of “peer review” the same way that Catholics speak of “Our Holy Father,” and it irks me just the same way.  Peer review is certainly better than the lack thereof, but it’s no magic epistemological bullet.  Scientists, like anyone else, are subject to the herd instinct, to confirmation bias, and sometimes to something as prosaic as mere laziness.  After just a couple years in academia, I have seen enough of the failings of the peer review process in theological studies to be skeptical that it could work as perfectly in scientific studies as many seem to think.  

 

So pardon me for still being something of a skeptic about the reliability of mainstream scientific opinion at any given time.  That said, I concede the overall point Conway and Oreskes are trying to make—you can’t refuse to act just because there will always be grounds for skepticism.  Mainstream science may be riddled with errors, but when the stakes are high enough, you’ve got to make decisions based on the best resources available to you, and until God deigns to issue an oracle telling us the truth about climate change and the best solution to it, we’d best pay attention to the scientists.

8 thoughts on “Merchants of Doubt: A Review

  1. Thanks Brad. Great review and a very helpful summary of the argument.I generally think of peer review as something of a (more or less) necessary but certainly not sufficient condition of trust. It serves to weed out (most of) the blatant errors and simplistic misunderstandings that other experts would spot in an instant. It doesn't guarantee accuracy, but it gives whatever survives the process a much higher likelihood of being so.

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  2. PS Just as it is worth distinguishing between (a) climate dissenters* without relevant expertise who nonetheless repeat discredited memes for financial or ideological reasons (let us call them "climate inactivists") and (b) climate dissenters who are active and publishing climate scientists (NB there are no more than a handful of such individuals, and their publications), so it is also worth distinguishing between (c) climate activists without relevant scientific expertise who repeat exaggerated claims or only the most shocking claims published in the literature and (d) publishing climate scientists who have reached a professional opinion that the subject they are studying is alarming. Calling both (c) and (d) "alarmists" potentially obfuscates the discussion. I would call (c) alarmists and (d) those who are legitimately alarmed. Now it is possible that members of (d) have reached that conclusion due more to their own ideological biases than to the evidence, but the fact that members of (d) include a very diverse group of worldviews, while members of (b), as far as I am aware, basically all share a much more narrow set of worldview assumptions.I don't mean to imply that these four groups exhaust the possibilities. In particular, there are also genuine sceptics who are not trained climate experts but who are seeking truth and not wanting to accept it based simply on the say so of someone else. The mark of a true sceptic is willingness to pay close and intellectually honest attention to evidence.*By dissenters, I refer to those who reject the well-established basics that (i) the earth is in energy imbalance (i.e. the earth system is gaining heat), that (ii) anthropogenic emissions are the primary driver (amongst other factors, of course) and (iii) that the trend is likely to be very dangerous for human society and natural ecosystems on timescales relevant to ethical and political deliberation. I am not talking about those who dispute this or that detail within the science while accepting the overall picture.

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  3. Brad Littlejohn

    Thanks Byron.Regarding peer review, fair enough—it's a necessary, but not a sufficient condition of scientific reliability, you seem to be saying. I'm generally fine by that, but I don't want to be naive about the tendency for groupthink to take over, so that the peer review process might tend to consciously or unconsciously screen out anything that defies current orthodoxy. This has happened over and over in the history of science, and although I'm more or less convinced now that this *isn't* what's happening currently to climate change skeptics, it does happen.Regarding your distinction between alarmists and those who are legitimately alarmed—I think that's reasonable. I guess I would just say that even when there is a legitimate basis for alarm, it's important to be honest about the limitations of our ability to predict the future, so all predictions, whether alarmed or reassuring, need to come with a major caveat attached.

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  4. Steve Hayhow

    My reservations about the current climate orthodoxy are these:1. global/climate issues have taken on a quasi-religious status in the minds of our elites and general population;2. all criticism is frowned upon – if you imply you might be a sceptic, you are treated with strange glances :- ) It's a new form of higher righteousness;3. there is now a BIG business opportunity with the whole climate issue question – so many jobs, businesses, marketing strategies are bound up with it – how could they go back?4. I don't think it's a conspiracy so much as a cohesive "religion" that peoples and nations can gather round;5. It is linked to anti-population growth, anti-human elements – obviously not with everyone – we always want OTHER people in the Third World to take the hit and slow down on growth;6. the "cost" to "fix" the "problem" (let's assume there is big one), are so vast and all-encompassing they would call for massive state intervention;7. the whole thing is heavily politicised in BOTH directions, so I just don't think it is possible to untangle things that easily: there are now MASSIVE interests at stake on BOTH sides – i.e. how can Greenpeace ever say, "We are done, it's Ok now?"8. if the Big Business side is open the criticism (this book), what about the lies (Gore's film was utter alarmist rubbish! and the leaked emails form the Anglian research place?), the alarmism, the attacks (literal) on Lomberg, and common views, i.e. that we are headed for extinction, etc? It's all utter hype and panic. It's ridiculous.We need a healthy counter balance of views and MY fear is that we are losing that by treating the sceptical side as "beyond the pale". This is very dangerous place to be. This is becoming a New Secular Eschatology – an "end of the world crisis" that WE can fix – just re-cycle some more :- )If they (the environmentalists) have this wrong then it is the POOR who will suffer most, not Big Business. It's the poor who are stung by inflated prices and "green taxes", the rich can afford all that nonsense.

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  5. Bradley

    Hey Steve,My friendly response to your objections:1. Quasi-religious status: Can you blame them? Global warming is one of the very few problems where most of the world would need to work together to solve it. “Everybody working together in peace” is a pretty religious notion, when you think about it. It's only possible through Christ (either directly, or indirectly as His Church pervades the earth). 2. All criticism frowned upon: Yeah, I don't like that either. I would prefer it if global warming sceptics were answered with the science instead of frowns. (This is mainly a problem with people's attitudes and lack of information, not a problem with global warming per se)3. Too much invested in “green” to turn back: I'm not quite sure what you're referring to here. If you're talking about renewable energy, then why would anyone want to go back? Regardless of what one believes about global warming, renewable energy is a good idea because fossil fuels are being used up. If you're talking about using carbon frugally in general, well, that makes sense financially even if one doesn't care about the environment (fuel-efficient cars can save you money as oil prices go higher!). Recycling makes the least sense of all “green” activities, but even with recycling you have to admit it's clean and prevents a small mess we'll have to clean up later (landfills). Probably about 80% of the “green” business today makes sense even if one doesn't believe in global warming. 80% is just my random guess, of course. 🙂 4. Not a conspiracy, a religion: See point 1 above. 5. Linked to anti-population growth, and it's anti-Third World: You're right, this is often the case, but it shouldn't be. The reason folks are anti-population growth is because they don't understand farming properly. They assume industrial farming in their calculations, and when you make that assumption, they're right, the world is overpopulated and we're all doomed. But if they understood farming properly they would realize that there's plenty of potential food for everyone, and that farming is the single most effective way to reduce global warming. Oh, and it doesn't make sense for the Third World to shoulder the expenses of climate change, because the Third World only emits a tiny fraction of the carbon we rich countries do.6. Fixing it would cost too much and require massive state intervention. Well, that depends on the specific solution proposed. I advocate a two-step policy:

    I. Tax externalities. In this case, tax carbon production at the exact price required to sequester carbon and clean up the pollution. (We're talking mainly about carbon in this conversation, but I think it's also important to tax mercury emissions from coal burning. That's why seafood has so much mercury today; it's from massive worldwide mercury pollution due to coal burning). If we tax pollution at the exact price required to clean it up, then there's no injustice. It automatically holds people accountable for the pollution they create, and it holds them accountable financially for the precise damage they have wrought: you emitted 1 ton of mercury, and it costs $50 to clean up 1 ton, therefore we tax you at $50 and use it to clean up the mercury. That way the TRUE cost of a good/service is built into the price. It's the right thing to do. Sequestering carbon is very cheap, and therefore the carbon tax would be a small one. I realize there's some disagreement over whether carbon qualifies as pollution, but at this point I'm convinced it probably does, at least on the scale we're talking about with fossil fuel emissions. The “Is carbon dioxide pollution?” conversation needs to happen, and society needs to mostly agree on that before taxing it. But in the very least, we should start taxing mercury emissions and sulphur emissions ASAP and infuse a little justice into the system.II. Sequester carbon by building agricultural topsoil. I believe the revenues from the carbon externality tax (see above) should ALL be used to sequester carbon on farms. I can explain more how this works, but it's really simple. All you need is the basic education on how to do it, some simple equipment, and some cheap organic sprays (optional). BY itself, this wouldn't reverse global warming; this would only cover future carbon emissions (since the tax doesn't apply to past carbon emissions), which means it would effectively halt the rise in CO2. But preferably, we should do more than that. We should actually reverse this trend, not just stop it. To do that, I believe the government should give out subsidies for farmers to build topsoil and sequester carbon. I don't know how much they should give out. In general, it seems like a good idea to pay farmers a set price for every ton of carbon they sequester, and the set price should approximately cover the expense of sequestering the carbon (which is cheap). Farmers would be motivated to do this out of their own self-interest, partly because they might make a profit immediately if they figure out a slightly more efficient way to sequester the carbon, but mostly because it would be valuable to build free higher quality soil for greater agricultural yields. That's the great thing about this: It's really cheap to do this soil improving, and nobody can say “That's bad” or “That's a waste.” Even if one doesn't believe in global warming, one has to admit that adding 2 feet of topsoil to every farm in the country is a great idea, and there are much worse things we could spend tax dollars on. Enriching the nation's agricultural economy is a win-win: reverse global warming AND improve food production.

    So, I guess my two-step policy IS dependent on government intervention, but overall I believe it would shrink the size of government. Why? Because the flip side of this policy is that we should get rid of most of those other government policies and subsidies. There's absolutely no need to subsidize renewable energy if you tax carbon (i.e., if the market price of carbon has the cost of cleaning up that carbon built in). There's no need whatsoever to regulate fuel efficiency and carbon emissions. So long as you're taxing externalities and cleaning them up, it doesn't matter how much people emit, because the price of emission includes the price of cleaning up the pollution. It's only right for people to pay for cleaning up their own messes. Regarding step 1 of my plan, taxing externalities is simply a matter of justice. Regarding step 2, I concede that subsidizing farmers to build more fertile soil to reverse the CO2 trend isn't a matter of justice per se, but it is expedient, and I don't have a problem with society's tax dollars being used to clean up a societal problem (global warming). Plus, it would be nice if the nation had much deeper topsoil. It would give us better food security (it's the best defence against a drought!) and greater farming efficiency.7. the whole thing is heavily politicised in BOTH directions, so I just don't think it is possible to untangle things that easily. I admit it's difficult, but not impossible. 8. There's so much deceit and alarmism. So much hype and nonsense!Regarding Al Gore, sure, he got a few minor details wrong, but he's been given a worse rap than he deserves: Click here for more info.Regarding the leaked CRU emails, those were radically misinterpreted. If you read them in context, carefully, it's just scientists talking about everyday science. They're just honest scientists, doing their job, and suddenly they get hacked and accused of conspiracy and fraud. The whole situation really bugs me: Click here for more info.Nevertheless, point taken. I'm sure both sides have done crazy things. And I completely agree that Global Warming is becoming the New Secular Eschatology. But that's no reason to oppose the science. Just because they react to the science in a crazy secular way doesn't mean the science is any less sound. Any conversation about Global Warming also needs to discuss justice, stewardship, and compassion, and no atheist can talk about those subjects properly. It's no wonder they warp it into a pseudo-religion! Only Christians are in a position to talk about this issue properly.

    We need a healthy counter balance of views and MY fear is that we are losing that by treating the sceptical side as "beyond the pale". This is very dangerous place to be.

    I agree we need a balance. My personal take on Global Warming is that it's not the end of the world. Sure, coastal cities will flood (ocean levels would eventually rise 200 ft anyway regardless, as a long-term side effect of Noah's flood; global warming just speeds up the inevitable flooding). Sure, farming will become riskier and more difficult in big tropical regions. There will be consequences for human society, but human society will adapt. I'm not worried about humans in the slightest, especially if more people learn how to farm wisely. I AM worried about wild animals. People are smart enough to adapt without much trouble, but wild species aren't able to adapt quickly enough to this changing climate. Global warming has already caused dozens of extinctions, and it will cause many more. As a creationist, extinctions should be of particular concern to us, because we view them as basically irreparable. When I think about reversing global warming, my main motivation is to help wildlife. I think that's pretty balanced.Also, speaking of creationism: It's important that we know what we're doing when we oppose a “scientific consensus.” If we oppose global warming willy-nilly without even weighing up the scientific evidence carefully, then how will folks treat us when we start criticizing Evolution? Oh, there they go again—the idiot Christians who refuse to look at real science. I'm not talking about you here Steve. You didn't even mention science in your comment. I'm just ranting in general about a pet peeve. I would like for Christians have a reputation for rigorous science, which in my opinion would involve the realization that global warming is real and evolution isn't. 🙂 On the other hand, an individual Christian doesn't know enough about the science, then I think it's perfectly reasonable for him to be quiet about it and instead give his theological or philosophical reasons for disagreement. I would like to see Christians do that more often: whenever you disagree with Evolution/Global Warming/whatever, first take stock of what you REALLY know, and consider why you REALLY disagree, and then state your objection. You don't have to grasp at straws for some scientific reason to disagree. Just state what you really think. We would eliminate a lot of embarrassing Christian pseudo-science that way.

    If they (the environmentalists) have this wrong then it is the POOR who will suffer most, not Big Business. It's the poor who are stung by inflated prices and "green taxes", the rich can afford all that nonsense.

    On the other hand, if global warming is real, then the poor will suffer the climactic consequences the most. In fact, the poor will probably be the ONLY people to suffer any effects, in the short-term while they adapt (moving away from coastal cities, learning new farming techniques, etc.). Overall I don't see global warming as a big problem for humanity in the long-term, but in the short-term I think we can expect it to be pretty bumpy for Third-World countries. And for the record, I don't believe the two-step policy I proposed above would harm the poor at all. So I would turn the tables on this: the solution to global warming actually helps the poor more than anybody else.

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  6. Albert

    I wish people would stop talking about "science" and instead talk about particular sciences. "Science" is not a monolithic entity, and the various sciences are not created equal as to their methodology, reliability, and results. Lumping every science and all scientists together seems to me to be a misleading tactic that tends to communicate a sense of finality ("Thus saith the LORD/Science…") that creates conditions for distrust.

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  7. Brad Littlejohn

    Steve,Apologies for not weighing in sooner. Bradley's responses, I thought, were so excellent that replying dropped way down on my priority list. But I will say a few things, primarily by way of reiteration.1. Sure, environmentalism has become something of an alternative religion for many today. Indeed, we had some nutty scholar up here at Edinburgh a few weeks ago lecturing enthusiastically on the emergence of "Dark Green Religion." To some extent what we are seeing, especially in the reemergence of things like nature mysticism, is society's quest to fill the spiritual void created by its rejection of God. We've stopped caring about God, we no longer have a cause that's bigger than us to be committed to, and we find ourselves searching desperately for meaning. For many, an embrace of Nature, and a commitment to protect it, seems like the answer. This must be named for what it is, and as Christians, we must seek to keep holding out a vision of a world enchanted by and oriented toward God as a counter to that kind of thinking.But, as Bradley says, some of the quasi-religious overtones are understandable. Much of the science suggests that this really is a big deal, something we've never faced before in human history, and something that will require a level of cooperation and commitment from the human race that we haven't had before. Almost inevitably, the discussion will tend to take on eschatological and religious dimensions.But to me, this just signals how urgently intelligent Christian voices are needed in the discussion. We need Christians, with their account of the true relationship between God and the world, of the relationship between human beings and the rest of creation, of the shape of human history, to be active in shaping the discussion, so that we can keep things in their proper perspective and resist the tendency to sacralize the environment and to simultaneously debase and exalt mankind (as merely one animal among many, and as master of the fate of the world). For Christians to say, "To hell on this environmental religion! We just won't be bothered with any of those issues!" simply intensifies the problem by leaving a theological vacuum in the discussion (and making environmentalists hate Christianity).2. Yes, but this is just part of the deplorable state of public debate in our age. On almost any issue, our society falls prey to mindless polarization that indulges in name-calling and mocking opposition, instead of patient and intelligent debate. There is nothing unique to the environmental movement here. Again, though, it's worth pointing out that such a cynical response is understandable, given the character of much climate skepticism. When so many people have been critics in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons, it's hard for mature and intelligent criticism to get a fair hearing.3. This is true, and troubling. Again, though, this is a feature of the current political landscape on almost any issue. So all-consuming has the market become that not just political decision-making but the sciences have become bound to the exigencies of business, and are liable to be tugged this way and that due to financial interests. However, I would suggest that the weight of economic influence is still thoroughly on the anti-climate change side. A lot of people stand to make a lot of money from green industry if climate change is true, but even more people stand to lose a lot more money if it's true.5. Again, my point about why sensible Christian voices are so urgently needed in the discussion. We don't get anywhere by saying, "Hm, the response to this problem has taken an un-Christian direction, so let's just decide to pretend it's not a problem, and then hopefully the un-Christian response will go away."6. Probably so, unfortunately. But so what? That's like saying, "The cost of fixing this infection on my leg would be a leg amputation. So let's not operate. Indeed, let's decide to say there isn't any infection after all." The question of whether or not climate change is a reality should not be settled by how unpleasant it will be to deal with; it should be settled factually. That done, we will have to deal with it in the best way that presents itself, even if that should be economically or ideologically unpleasant. And, of course, it goes without saying that, if climate change is a reality, inaction now will simply require even more massive state intervention later, just as postponing the leg amputation might require even more dramatic medical intervention later.7. Granted. It's terribly difficult for the ordinary citizen, faced with a chaos of competing voices, each accusing the other of deception, corruption, being a slave to corporate or political influences, etc., to decide which is right. The authors of Merchants of Doubt very candidly recognize this. And I'm all for ideologues on both sides to step back and try to give the public a little breathing space to get a real handle on the issue, if the public is willing to do that. But again, if climate change is a reality, the situation is serious enough that continued agnosticism is not an option. We can't just throw our hands up and say, "Who knows? For now, I will just continue with business as usual." We have a responsibility to move ahead with the difficult business of untangling.8. Bradley made some really good points here. I would reiterate that some of what you dismiss as "hype and nonsense" demonstrably isn't. The climate change skeptics have done a very good job of imprinting in the public consciousness the idea that certain key figures or publications were ludicrously irresponsible in their claims, so that people can dismiss the whole movement in just these terms—hype and nonsense. But we need to look carefully at where the nonsense actually is. In the famous case of Ben Santer's IPCC report, the nonsense was all on the side of Fred Seitz and the skeptics.But in any case, I return to my central point. If the discussion is overly dominated by hype and alarmism, all the more need for responsible Christian voices to take the lead in reframing the discussion, rather than dismissing it.

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