Climate Change Skepticism Is A Noble Calling

 David Wojick (
March 2, 2001

The role of climate change skepticism in society is not well understood. In particular, skeptics are often criticized for not publishing their views in peer reviewed scientific journals. Some do, of course, but they are the exception.

Skeptics are also criticized for being in the pay of fossil fuel and related interests, many aren't but I am. I believe there is a simple, yet profound explanation for both of these facts, such that the criticism is unwarranted.

The role of skepticism begins with the following basic principle, let us call it the principle of assessment.

1. Principle of Assessment -- 
When a body of science comes to have public policy
implications it must undergo a higher level of scrutiny.

"Higher" here means more rigorous that is the norm in the scientific community. The rationality of this principle is obvious. In pure science a big mistake is seldom harmful, but in public policy it can be disastrous. Pure science encourages speculation, and following promising but untried lines of exploration. Public policy, because it mobilizes vast forces, necessarily operates under a far stricter standard of certitude.

The role of the skeptic is to implement the principle of assessment. One does this by testing the claims, probing the foundations, cataloging the uncertainties, seeking out disagreement, etc. In short the skeptic is an investigator, not of climate but of climate science. Needless to say, this scrutiny annoys the scientists no end, which leads to a second big point --

2. The scrutiny is not part of the science.

This is the fact that confuses most people, because science does include a degree of internal scrutiny, including peer review. But skepticism is a different business, because it is implementing a much higher standard of scrutiny -- the public policy standard.

(Off topic example: People working in one problem solving community are often unaware of the very different standards in a neighboring community. When these communities intersect there can be significant fiction. I was once retained to sort out the animosity between the engineers who operated a naval base and the engineers who assembled ICBMs on that base. The problem turned out to be a
huge difference in quality control standards -- jeeps versus missiles -- plus the fact that the base engineers maintained the cranes that handled the rockets, so were part of the assembly process.)

It is for this reason that the skeptic's findings do not belong in peer reviewed climate science journals, and do not appear there. The skeptic is not doing climate science. Research yes, but research into the climate science per se, the logic of the science if you like, not research into the climate. In fact what I write here is a research paper, but it is research into the nature of climate change skepticism. As such it is not suitable for the Journal of Geophysical Research. Neither is most skeptical research.

In logic, this distinction between studying climate and studying, or assessing, climate science is called an object level, meta level distinction. A simple example is the difference between the object level statement that "the earth is warming" (climate science) and the meta level statement that "some scientists do not believe that the earth is warming" (assessment of climate science). Assessment is not a science, or if it is, it is not a physical science. Skeptics are doing assessment.

Moreover, the skeptics' principal audience is not the scientific community, it is the public policy community. The policy community wants to know if the science meets its standard of certitude. This fact gets confused because some of the most prominent scientists defend the science, while others are skeptics. In addition, many of the statements that the skeptics are questioning are made in the peer reviewed scientific literature, which often mixes object and meta level statements indiscriminately. Likewise, in the press, adding meta level interpretation of science, often by scientists, creates "spin".

Finally, regarding sponsorship, the following is a principle of American public policy practice. It may well be a fundamental principle of democracy --

3. The people likely to be hurt by a proposed policy pay for the scrutiny.

It is by this principle that self-interest brings about carefully reasoned public action, along the lines of free market economics. The principle is most apparent in civil litigation, where the defendant is expected to pay for the defense. But the public policy area is equally adversarial, despite misplaced rhetoric about "objectivity", whatever that might mean.

Climate change skeptics are expert witnesses for the defense in an adversarial policy process. Their job is to scrutinize the science for weakness, not to do the science or rectify the weakness. The process is the best we know of, its name being democracy, it's product being reason. And within it the skeptic's calling is a noble one.

Dr. David E. Wojick

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