The Emmy, Oscar, and Nobel Peace Prize committees all seem to agree: global warming exists, humans cause it, and without Al Gore, we'd all be doomed.
Dissenters from the commonly-accepted view are met with scorn and derision, and the views of Gore and friends are accepted without question by the public, the media, and most politicians. But the global warming question demands open debate—unsettled issues are contested even among the Gore-ites.
Political consensus is a precursor to public action. Righteous climate-saving politicians and their supportive industries know this, and know that they cannot afford to tolerate dissent. Dissent weakens and dilutes the message of doom without which the public consciousness cannot be raised. Global warming theology, like other theories cloaked in science's garb, aims to give people cold (or, as it were, wet) feet about the future. Exaggeration is the essential weapon of the global warming camp. That may be good politics, but it's bad science-and therein lies the danger.
There is justified skepticism about the science behind global warming, including scientists' over-reliance on complex computer modeling that reacts wildly to incremental change in assumptions. Mainstream scientific beliefs, vigorously defended, have been proven wrong before. The geocentric model of the universe and flat earth theory are classic examples. Stanley Prusiner's explanation for mad-cow disease is an even better one: after years of ridicule for his theory, he was vindicated—briefly—when he won the Nobel Prize in 1997, and today serious scientists are wondering if he was wrong all along.
We seem to have forgotten the danger that scientific inquiry will be led by the presumptions of the researcher—or the availability of funding. This used to be well-known. Nature editor John Maddox has pointed out that the "excitement of the chase leaves little room for reflection" and that "there are grants for producing data, but hardly any for standing back in contemplation."
Mass hysteria provoked by theories that masquerade as science poses a greater threat than a level-headed, cautious reaction to global warming theory would. Badly-applied science has had political consequences in the past: evolutionary theory laid the groundwork for genocide of "inferior" persons and the acceptance of euthanasia. Peptic ulcers, long treated by lifestyle adjustments, were found to be bacterial in origin: too late for many. Is there any doubt that we should be extremely cautious in managing the effect science has on politics?
Thomas Huxley said that science commits suicide the second it adopts creed. This, and Karl Popper's principle of falsification—that any theory must be falsifiable to have a chance of validity or advancing our knowledge—must be our guiding stars. In the search for truth, scientists and non-scientists alike have only the ability to think and question. In matters of science, it's dangerous to claim certainty about anything. A truly scientific approach to these questions would recognize the value of constant questioning and adopt humility rather than dogmatism as its principle.
Some scientists have this humility. The German newspaper Die Welt conducted a telling study: among German climatologists, 85% stated that the processes of climate change are not sufficiently understood to support predictions about the climate with any certainty, 81% said that the necessary empirical data has not yet been collected, 79% said that our climate-models are not yet precise enough, and 61% didn't think computers have adequate processing power to run the extraordinarily complex models that climate science requires.
Of course it's not merely a good cause for many of the self-styled prophets of global warming. Their adoption of Gore's position also provides a convenient means. Inclined to grow global bureaucracies at the drop of a hat, they seize upon climate change as a pretext for massive new central-planning structures and policy changes they could not otherwise have gained majorities. Germany is even considering placing a speed limit on the Autobahn—not because it would save lives, but because it would help fight climate change!
On the topic of climate change, we have no authoritative cautionary voice. Dissenters don't speak loudly enough and aren't listened to when they do. Instead of debate, we have "consensus." However informed the critical voices are, those who question the Gore camp's analysis are met with disdain. An honest approach to the question would seek truth before consensus, but in Gore's documentary facts are distorted and scenarios manufactured. It's all for a good cause, Gore says. But is not scientific truth a greater one?
Climate change has been occurring for 4.5 billion years. It will continue. This is significant because climate has a direct effect on our comfort and convenience. The evidence suggests that human activity has something to do with climate change, but beyond that, we cannot pretend to be sure of much. Climate science is far from simple, and that every action is bound to have unintended consequences.
Along with recovering the honesty and humility that is essential to science, we need confidence in civilization—enough to know that if warming starts occurring at a precipitous rate, we can deal with it and adapt. Rather than subordinating economic freedom to a state-run War on Carbon, maximizing human wealth will equip us to manage if that crisis occurs. In the meantime, we might be better advised to engage in a serious debate rather than return scientific inquiry to the Dark Ages.