Blogging over at The Huffington Post, my SciBling Chris Mooney has an excellent post up on the subject of global warming. He is responding to this op-ed from Emily Yoffe, a writer for Slate. Yoffe was trying to present herself as the calm, clear-thinking purveryor of common -sense against the blinkered alarmism of people like Al Gore. Mooney does an excellent job of showing she has little idea what she is talking about.
For example, Yoffe writes:
Thanks to all the heat-mongering, it’s supposed to be a sign I’m in denial because I refuse to trust a weather prediction for August 2080, when no one can offer me one for August 2008 (or 2007 for that matter).
There is so much hubris in the certainty about the models of the future that I’m oddly reassured. We’ve seen how hubristic predictions about complicated, unpredictable events have a way of bringing the predictors low.
Regrettably, journalists lecturing others on subjects about which they know nothing all too rarely enjoy a similar fate. Mooney points out the obvious fallacy in this argument:
Sadly, though, Yoffe makes this point by messing up the science in much worse ways than alleged global warming “alarmists” do. In fact, she garbles the basic distinction between climate and weather–climate science 101, essentially.
After presenting Yoffe’s quote, Mooney continues:
The precise weather in any given place and time is not predictable more than a week or perhaps two weeks in advance — we know this. Chaos, butterflies, yada yada.
The climate, however, is the sum total of weather, and much of this is very predictable. Yoffe’s example unintentionally shows this: We can in fact say a great deal about August of 2007 or 2008. We can’t predict precise local temperatures, but we know the month on average is going to be hotter than December of 2007 or 2008 (in the Northern hemisphere, anyway). The seasons are predictable, as are many other things about the climate — including the influence of the greenhouse effect upon it. Because of human enhancement of that effect, we know that the global average temperature is going to be hotter in the future.
After pointing out some further problems with Yoffe’s piese, Mooney concludes with:
If I’m being a bit hard on Emily Yoffe, it’s because there’s a larger point here. Yoffe’s piece strikes me as indicative of how some aspects of the Washington journalism culture treat scientific information. A lot of the time, what’s prized in that world is the ability to make a clever argument — to turn conventional wisdom on its head.
When you apply this approach to science, however, there’s an utter mismatch. In science, “conventional wisdom” is a consensus perspective that has withstood repeated expert attempts to unseat it. In this context, being “counterintuitive” — especially when one is doing so well outside of the traditional channels of scientific discourse — usually amounts to little more than being just plain wrong.
Well said! I would suggest that two other unsavory tendencies of journalistic culture are at work here.
First, many liberal columnists suffer from a curious pathology in which they feel they must frequently bash their own side to gain intellectual credibility. Right-wing columnists suffer from no such pathology. Yoffe is saying, in effect, “I’m not one of those shrill, threatening liberals witth no sense of persepctive and a craving for attention. I’m one of those sensible liberals, the ones who are perfectly happy to concede some points to the other side and just want to bring a little common sense and light humor to difficult issues.”
Second, Yoffe was confronting the standard problem faced by columnists writing about scientific issues. If she simply writes a column agreeing that global warming is a real problem and that some lifestyle changes may be needed to address it, she will be open to the charge that she is just parroting the views of scientists. But by poking a thumb in the eye of scientists, by taking the faux-balanced view that global warming is a concern but maybe those smarty-pants scientists need a dose of horse sense, Yoffe makes herself look sensible and reasonable without having to actually know anything about the subject.
It’s reminiscent of columnists who argue for teaching ID on the grounds of fairness and balance. That’s an argument you can make without needing to know any science, and no one ever came off looking foolish arguing for basic fairness. When critics angrily point out that there’s simply no comparison between the scientific merits of evolution on the one hand and ID on the other, the columnist can ignore the specifics and merely whine about how all he wanted was a little fairness, but the crazy dogmatists just won’t give him a break. It’s a common script.