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A while ago I stumbled across this piece. The line which most stuck with me was:

The rise of the environmental movement reflected the increasing independence of thought and judgment of a public that was becoming less and less impressed with credentials and degrees.  The public wanted to take power back from experts and appointed government agencies and put up new obstacles in the way of technocratic engineers with big projects in mind.

But when it comes to global warming, the shoe is on the other foot.  Now it is suddenly the environmentalists — who’ve often spent lifetimes raging against experts and scientists who debunk organic food and insist that GMOs and nuclear power plants are safe — who are the pious advocates of science and experts.  Suddenly, it’s a sin to question the wisdom of the Scientific Consensus.  Scientists are, after all, experts; their work is peer-reviewed and we uneducated rubes must sit back and shut up when the experts tell us what’s right.

More, environmentalists have found a big and simple fix for all that ails us: a global carbon cap.  One big problem, one big fix.  It is not just wrong to doubt that a fix is needed, it is wrong to doubt that the Chosen Fix will work.  Never mind that the leading green political strategy (to stop global warming by a treaty that gains unanimous consent among 190 plus countries and is then ratified by 67 votes in a Senate that rejected Kyoto 95-0) is and always has been so cluelessly unrealistic as to be clinically insane.  The experts decree; we rubes are not to think but to honor and obey.

It’s an excellent observation and speaks much to the idea of humility in the face of massive knowledge problems. But here is where I get queasy – am I, as an economist, also proclaiming expertise in the study of economics? And if so, by proclaiming that, as an expert, I urge that we must be humble in the face of massive knowledge problems (especially in a world where everyone has strong incentives to behave in a particular way), am I not falling prey to the idea I quoted above? Should I, as an expert, be listened to, or ignored? Should we convene a panel of experts on knowledge and information and listen to them? Are we in an infinite paradox here? Is it “turtles all the way down” as my old friend David Haddock likes to say?

If the answer is no, is it simply because the burden of proof ought to be on the party which seeks to abridge all manner of property rights and impose draconian solutions upon the world? Or is there a deeper methodological reason? What say you dear readers? Can we resolve this conundrum?

2 Responses to “I Was Against It Before I Was For It Before I Was Against It”

  1. Harry says:

    There is nothing wrong with convening a panel of experts to explore any subject. But there are many problems with the IPCC.

    First, the so-called experts are not disinterested observers. Is it any surprise that their action plan for carbon dominion includes money, lots of it, from the US to them?

    Second, scientific questions should not be decided by a vote, or even by a single judge. They get proven, or they do not. For that reason, complex scientific questions often stay undecided.

    Al Gore and the IPCC have hastened to proclaim settled science to take debate off the table, to get the project underway quickly. That way, if the world gets to the temperature they deem OK, by their measurements, they can claim success, and if temperatures go in a different direction that more draconian measures are needed.

    Unfortunately for them, their schedule as gotten derailed, and the predicted catastrophe has not materialized.

    Moreover, the science wasn’t settled then and it still isn’t.

    Michael Mann may be an expert in the study of tree rings and other data that might lead to an inference about ancient temperatures. His obligation as a scientist is to use proper methods, including noting the limitations on the precision of his analysis. When he says that a ring he measured was five milimeters plus or minus a half milimeter, well, he’s the expert we trust to make such an observation. When you present a graph on the price of tin over the last hundred years, nobody other than another tin economist is in a position to doubt it.

    By the same token, if you present a graph showing tin production flat for three centuries, and then a big spike coinciding with improved mining technology, and then overlay that on Mann’s hockey stick warming graph, and then argue that world government has to do something about tin, you are committing the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.

    Now, a PhD is a ticket to a life of scholarship, which can lead to yet more expertise, including studying even more experts. After doing your Hayek seminar you will be one of the experts on his thinking. People such as I rely on such expertise so we do not have the time to do all that reading and thinking, because we spend that time reading greens.

    But we do not have to be experts in climatology to question the conclusions and reasoning of climate scientists, especially since they are not unanimous on the effect of man-made CO2. As you say, the burden of proof is on them.
    I read an article by Jim Manzi in National Review where he wrote something like this: “Anybody who understands anything about particle physics knows” that [carbon dioxide let’s in photons, but traps photons of certain wavelength and therefore has a greenhouse effect.

    OK, my particle physics expertise extends only to what I learned in Physics 104 and what I have read in the Scientific American, the Journal, and NR. I will accept CO2 has a greenhouse effect.

    But he set up his argument by implying that unless the reader is a particle physisist (he isn’t either) one should accept the rest of the argument, which was the science was settled and the best thing to do was to cut a deal in congress to minimize the economic damage.

    We should respect the ideas of people who know more than we, but we should not be obeisant to them, nor should we let others select the experts who confirm their conclusions.

  2. BS says:

    It is definitely a conundrum. I personally believe that experts must be listened to if they arrive at a consenus. The problem lies when experts over step their expertise. For example, an environmentalist can claim that the earth is heating up, but without a proper understanding in economics, he cannot claim whether or not we should care, or at least whether or not we should allocate resources to “fixing” the problem.

    I’ll listen to any expert who recognizes his limits and area of expertise.

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