Friday, November 27, 2009

What Climate Emails Prove

What can the SWNIDish person learn from the recently unearthed emails exchanged among climate scientists?

Not that all global-warming predictions are fraudulent. Only that some climate scientists were.

But perhaps not much more fraudulent than other scientists, scholars and "experts."

First, the important distinction regarding global warming. There's nothing in these emails to suggest that all data point unambiguously away from the possibility of global warming. Nothing at this stage appears to have disproved the fundamental observation that CO2, methane and other "greenhouse gases" can act to raise temperatures over time. That's true even with the well-known problem that recently temperatures haven't risen. They still could be rising over the long term, and they are demonstrably higher than they were a century ago.

But all the blather about the debate being over and consensus being reached, demanding radical political action yesterday, is now exposed for what it is: the attempt to inflate the certainty of conclusions by suppressing dissent in the scientific community and presenting a self-consciously one-sided view of the evidence.

This, of course, happens all the time in scholarship. Scholars are no less inclined to narcissistic self-promotion and tribal acts of exclusion than are entertainers, politicians, religious-cult leaders or middle-school girls. Donning lab coats or tweed jackets does not make experts less perniciously human.

We offer a case in point from another academic discipline, namely, our own.

The classic puzzle of New Testament studies is the "synoptic problem," the matter of explaining the complex pattern of similarities and differences among the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). For nearly the entire 20th century and continuing into the 21st, the "consensus" solution to this problem is "Markan Priority," the hypothesis that the authors of Matthew and Luke used as their sources the Gospel of Mark, by the hypothesis dubbed the earliest Gospel, and a second, no-longer-extant source, labeled with the algebraic symbol "Q."

Now the problems with this hypothesis have been acknowledged for ages. Briefly, and without sufficient explanation, we would enumerate the verbal agreements of Matthew and Luke against Mark (numbering over 1000 if one counts Matthew's and Luke's coincident omissions from Mark), Luke's "Great Omission" of a chunk of material from the middle of Mark, and the absence of external evidence for the existence of Q.

These problems should at least have made Markan Priority one explanation among many for a problem that remained for scholars unsolved, perhaps intractably so. But such has never been the case. Since the turn of the 19th century to the 20th, if one wanted a smooth path into the scholarly club in New Testament studies (a PhD, publication, tenure in an established institution), the obvious first step was to affirm that Markan Priority was settled.

In the 20th century, every major development in the study of the Gospels has been predicated on Markan Priority. For every article or monograph examining the foundations of the theory, there were probably twenty expounding some hypothesis based on the assumption of it.

Throughout there were skeptics. Some were rank outsiders, like some of the very few evangelical/fundamentalist scholars prior to the entry of evangelical scholarship into the mainstream in the 1970s and beyond. Some were boutique skeptics proffering an alternative hypothesis in small seminars with no discernible impact beyond their little circle.

Two anecdotes will illustrate the situation.

We are well acquainted with a PhD whose thesis on a Synoptic Gospel explicitly took an "agnostic" position on the exact pattern of synoptic relationships. While completely successful in gaining his degree and publication for the work, he was challenged in his oral defense of the thesis by an examiner who asked him why he didn't do the obvious and easy thing, not least because dissent on the hypothesis was to be found only "among a few, fringe people in America." The examiner let stand the skeptic's response that no solid conclusions could be drawn based solely on a hypothesis as difficult to deem certain as Markan Priority.

We are also well acquainted with a PhD whose thesis actually brought fresh evidence to bear on questions of synoptic origins, challenging the certainty of Markan Priority. In the middle stages of that work, presenting his preliminary findings to a seminar in his department, fellow students were not so much impressed with the impact of his new line of inquiry as befuddled by his even thinking to pursue it. "Why do you want to challenge Markan Priority when it has been such a productive hypothesis?" they asked. "Productive" here means, By assuming this, we've all been able to write a lot of stuff that has furthered our discipline and so furthered our careers.

And so it goes. The tribes of academe apply social pressure all the time to get their members to adhere to tribal codes. Degrees, jobs, publication, tenure and grants go to those who adhere to orthodoxies. Experts reinforce one another's positions of expertise by affirming the orthodoxies to one another.

Thereby, experts make themselves rare and valuable while at the same time living in interior and exterior denial about the things that they simply don't know. To admit that certain key conclusions are "underdetermined," inadequately proved by available evidence and perhaps beyond the ability of humanity ever to resolve with real certainty, is to admit limits of expertise that lower the public's esteem for the experts, and perhaps worst of all, their consequent funding. Who wants to invest money in the investigation of a problem for which a clear answer may never be found?

Over time, however, some of these shams come to light. In the last twenty years in New Testament studies, as some big players have expressed skepticism, it has become more possible to question the settledness of the synoptic problem, not coincidentally as methods for studying the Gospels have moved beyond those dependent on a conclusion about synoptic relationships. And last week, some intrepid hackers provided the fly-on-the-wall perspective to demand a do-over on the assessment of climate science.

Where is this likely to go? We expect the global-warmism hard core to proclaim that there's so much at stake in delay, we simply can't wait for certitude to act. Of course, what's certain to be at stake in non-delay--the retardation of economic growth and so the perpetuation of poverty for millions--is entirely more knowable and more certain.

In such a case, the cautionary fable of Chicken Little is timely. Running in a panic induced by over-interpreted evidence is not prudent, even if the lead barnyard animal has tenure.


steve-o said...

Thanks for articulating succinctly how I've feel about this climate issue.

carlsweatman said...

And thank you for tracing astutely the climate of the issue . . . well, both issues really.

Statler said...

New revelations from the emails and the relationships involved between the principals occur daily. So I can't hold against you your reservations or complacency from Nov 27.

But Climategate is no synoptic problem. This is big. The people involved have political motivations and their actions are political. And I don't mean internicene politics (scientist vs. scientist).

We are talking about "scientists" who control MOST of the climate data. They have destroyed (after freedom of information requests) most of the raw data. They control the UN climate panel. They are activists at the highest level with the possibility of costing the world tens of trillions of dollars (and creating all of the poverty that will go with it).

Don't get caught up with the way CO2 behaves in the laboratory (in isolation). There are so many known variables and who knows how many unknown variables in the world. What could be true and can happen are irrelevant to policy.

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

Friend Statler, also do not confuse our (uncharacteristically?) modulated level of rhetoric with being "caught up." Just because we are trying to be sportsmanlike in victory doesn't mean we think the loser actually won.

By the same token, those who eschew the tactics of the climate-science manipulators ought to remain aware that in their reaction they can behave in the same way. We prefer not to be alarmist about alarmists, and we invite you to join us in that posture.

We suspect that you haven't read the full SWNIDish compendium on global warming. Treat yourself to a blog search and realize that you object to something that we aren't saying, for which we graciously forgive you.

Fun Duh Mental said...

Doesn't this indicate that similar scientific conspiracies could be occurring, say around evolution? I wouldn't be surprised to find out a much larger project of evidence suppression and demonizing of dissenters there. Score another one for Young Earth creationism.

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

Duh: no, it doesn't, and not least because Young Earth Creationism doesn't even handle the Bible well, which is supposed to be its starting point. There may be hostility to faith in the life sciences community, but that doesn't amount to suppression of evidence.

Note the extreme fallacy of reasoning that because X has a conspiracy and is superficially like Y, then Y also has a conspiracy.

Statler and Duh, we urge you to consider this not just a blog but a seminar. Read up on subjects from past posts. You've missed the fun and the SWNIDish wisdom.

Duh, we must allow the possibility that you're being subtly sarcastic. If so, accept our applause.