The Sonic Charmer takes a look at the notion of scientific consensus, and discovers that when we hear that some overwhelming number of scientists agree with concept x (e.g., Anthropogenic Climate Change), that doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story.
I believe I’ve pointed out that part of the problem with such claims is that they tend to be inflated/padded by the participation of scientists who are not climate scientists but (nevertheless) add their name to various Consensus Lists in a show of what, I guess, is a sort of misguided academic solidarity. To find an example for this post, I dug around for one of those Open Letters of The Scientists demonstrating Consensus we’re always hearing about, and I found this one. 255 scientists! Impressive!
Dudes. Are there even 255 working qualified climate modelers in the entire world?
Let’s take a closer look shall we? I clicked on the first 10 names to get a sense of what those guys actually research. In order: anthropology, biochemistry/plants, geology, biology, page not found, geography/urban planning, plants, paleoanthropology/geography, evolutionary genetics, and NMR. Not to take anything away from any of those fields, and not to deny that some/many of them may touch on and influence (and be influenced by) climate projections, but literally none of these people are climate modelers and (lacking further information about their qualifications/background) their a priori claim to any sort of expertise or credentials for opining on global warming is precisely zilch.
Now you may agree or disagree with Sonic Charmer’s perspective on the climate change business [Full disclosure: While I think there may be a connection between human activity and climate, I think the system involved is far too complex for accurate modeling, and further, that whatever impact we have does not necessitate the evisceration of technological/Western society — it’s worth remembering that subsistence cultures are too busy, well, subsisting to devote their attentions to environmental consequences. The best way to promote environmental niftyness is to promote material prosperity.]. But what the Charmer perceives is a rhetorical truth I point out to my Freshman Comp kids on a regular basis (indeed, it’ll be in my lecture tomorrow): Too many people confuse ethos and logos. In simpler terms, this is what folks in the logic business call the appeal to authority. There are several ways in which this fallacy can play out. First of all, even a genuine authority may be wrong — humans remain fallible, and at best, authority may grant the speaker benefit of the doubt. But in this particular instance (and many others), the rhetor may be attempting to confer unwarranted authority in the first place.
Those of us who are academics know how complex and fragmented our fields of inquiry have become. As might be the case with drilling for oil, a scholar’s expertise is often miles deep, but only inches wide. The reverse — dilettantism — is a problem as well: “Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.” But we need to remember expertise is like any other form of light — brightest at the source, diminishing as we move away, and fading into nonexistence at the fringes. In my own case, I’ll flatter myself into thinking I’m very solid on the Seven Deadly Sins in medieval English morality plays. I’m strong on post-Conquest British lit. I’m very capable in a discussion of British lit until WW II. I’m competent in discussions of American literature. But I’m a very poor choice if you want to discuss Japanese shogunates, and I’m a total loss at television repair.
But I still have a Ph.D. after my name, and it would far too easy to impress a naive audience by adding my name to a list of people with academic credentials, even if I don’t know anything about the subject at hand. Talent and skill in one area doesn’t necessarily imply talent and skill in every (or even any) other area.
To forget that can lead us to trust the wrong people for the wrong reasons. Why, it could even lead us to think that someone good at reading a prepared script is a great leader and problem solver. But we wouldn’t make that mistake, would we?