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Scientific Authoritarians

The case for skepticism about climate scientists.

Climate Change Fairtalesby James Taranto

Florida’s Sen. Marco Rubio came under attack this week for refusing to submit to scientific authority. “I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it,” he said in an interview with Jonathan Karl.

Nonscientist Ruth Marcus, writing for the Washington Post, declared that Rubio’s words “undermine his other assertion,” namely “that he is prepared to be president.” Juliet Lapidos, also lacking in scientific expertise, went so far as to assert, in a New York Times blog post, that Rubio had “disqualified himself” from the presidency.

Of all the silly things written on the subject of global warming, Marcus’s and Lapidos’s offerings are surely among the most recent. Apart from that they’re entirely typical of the genre of global-warmist opinion journalism, in which ignorant journalists taunt politicians for their ignorance but have no argument beyond an appeal to authority. Lapidos: “Does Mr. Rubio think scientists are lying? Or that they don’t know what they’re talking about? Either way, what leads him to believe that the ‘portrait’ of climate change offered by scientists is inaccurate?”

Appeals to authority aren’t necessarily fallacious, except in the realm of formal deductive logic, where they entail adopting the unfounded premise that the authority is infallible. In informal logic–such as political debate at its best–an appeal to authority can be a sound argument if the authority is both relevant and trusted. And when dealing with complicated matters in which one lacks specialized expertise. As Michael Gerson puts it in the Washington Post: “Our intuitions are useless here. The only possible answers come from science. And for non-scientists, this requires a modicum of trust in the scientific enterprise.”

Do you see the subtle problem with Gerson’s formulation? The injunction have trust after tossing aside your intuition is at best a contradiction in terms, at worst a con.

This columnist is probably as unqualified as Marcus or Lapidos to evaluate the scientific merits of global warmism. But because we distrust climate scientists, we’re with Rubio in being inclined to think it’s a bill of goods. The trouble for global-warmist journalists like Marcus and Lapidos is that an appeal to the authority of a distrusted source undermines rather than strengthens one’s argument.

Here, from National Review’s Patrick Brennan, is the latest reason to distrust the authority of “consensus” climate scientists:

On May 8, Lennart Bengtsson, a Swedish climate scientist and meteorologist, joined the advisory council of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a group that questions the reliability of climate change and the costs of policies taken to address it. While Bengtsson maintains he’d always been a skeptic as any scientist ought to be, the foundation and climate-change skeptics proudly announced it as a defection from the scientific consensus.

Less than a week later, he says he’s been forced to resign from the group. The abuse he’s received from the climate-science community has made it impossible to carry on his academic work and made him fear for his own safety. A once-peaceful community, he says in his resignation letter, now reminds him of McCarthyism.

“I had not expect[ed] such an enormous world-wide pressure put at me from a community that I have been close to all my active life,” he wrote in his resignation. “Colleagues are withdrawing their support, other colleagues are withdrawing from joint authorship.”

London’s Daily Mail reports that Bengtsson “was also abused on science blogs, with one describing the people who condemned him as ‘respectable’ and that his actions amounted to ‘silliness.’ Another described him as a ‘crybaby.’ ”

Bengtsson tells the Mail: “Some people like my views, other people don’t, that is the way when it comes to science.” That’s precisely the point. Science is a methodical process of open inquiry. Those who enforce orthodoxies and engage in name-calling aren’t doing science, even if they’re scientists.

Gerson is correct in observing that a layman’s intuition is of little use in evaluating a scientific proposition. That requires intellect and expertise, and most laymen do not have the latter. But intuition is enough to distinguish an authoritarian from a real authority.

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James Taranto is a member of The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial board.