19 October 2004


Science is not kept going by answers. It is instead a process of answers inspiring more questions. This is something that is not well-understood (or accepted) by fundamentalists of any stripe, who want answers to be final. If nothing else, this explains the growing dissatisfaction with every presidential administration in the last quarter of a century, which has finally come to virtual open warfare. I think it no coincidence that the last President we had with even a modicum of academic grounding in science—that submariner from Georgia—is also the last one not roundly criticized not for policy conclusions drawn from science, but for ignoring science. Ironically, if anyone should have understood this well it was Pitt Bush the Elder… because the same attitude necessarily informs competent inquiry in the intelligence community.

In the end, we are back to the "OJ trial problem." There may, or may not, be sufficient evidence of American causation of global warming (again, though, the case for the "prosecution" has been mucked up by the prosecutors) at the "scientific certainty" level of proof. There is more than enough evidence of such, however, at the "policymaking" level of proof, because policymaking necessarily operates in the field of human behavior—a field in which mathematical certainty is impossible. Or, perhaps, that sly little change in definitions I threw in there is the real problem. Americans in particular, and Westerners in general, have become dazzled by "the numbers." Conclusions not supported by a slew of statistics—usually of dubious validity—and a slew of equations and nice, neat predictive formulae—usually no more valid than the statistics—simply are not as persuasive in the current climate. Pun intended. Instead, the global-warming debate is being held hostage to scientists' inability to quantify the exact contribution of each proposed cause of global warming. If this sounds familiar, it should: The same non sequitur is behind the tobacco companies' decades-long denial of the carcinogenic results of tobacco use.

Yes, that is an invidious comparison full of invalid logic itself. By rhetorically juxtaposing the current administration's stand on global warming with the tobacco companies' decades of knowing deception, it invites an implicit assumption that the administration is also involved in purposeful deception, without much in the way of proof. But that is rhetoric and argument from analogy for you; and it is an example of why different modes of reasoning are not always compatible for differing types of required outcomes. In this particular instance, the comparison I actually invite is that both misuses of reasoning (the global-warming policy debate and the tobacco-cancer debate) concern currently ill-understood and unquantified mechanisms in areas we are just beginning to understand… and that have absolutely catastrophic consequences if one accepts the unquantified general conclusions of the scientific consensus. Although this is not good enough to design a scientific model that will make quantifiable and verifiable predictions in a perfect laboratory, we're not in a perfect laboratory. The ill-equipped, dirty laboratory we're in is the only one we've got, though. And it seems to me that "lab safety" is an important criteria here.

This is not to say that Kerry's approach would necessarily be a great improvement on Bush's; or that candidates' approaches to science should be the determinative factor in voting behavior. In this instance, however, I'll choose the devil I don't know over the devil I do… at least on this issue. (Note: Kerry was a squid, and therefore can't help being a devil. A little interservice rivalry never hurt any blawg!)