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Salvo 01.06.2023 9 minutes

Settled Science and the Politics of Knowledge

Man in suit holds hands over glowing crystal ball

Climate catastrophe keeps getting delayed, yet our doom remains imminent.

Over the last decade, “The Science is Settled” has been a major refrain of American life. As so many critics have noted, this phrase is not an empirical statement. People who challenge the “settled” state of science explain that science is a process of discovery and not a conclusion. They aren’t wrong, but they unfortunately assume that “the science is settled” is meant in good faith. It’s not. The slogan is a form of rhetorical bullying. Its singular purpose is to create an illusion of certitude in order to preempt any meaningful debate about the natural world, public policy, and the role of scientific knowledge in democratic deliberation.

“The Science,” we are told, is “settled” about many topics, but global climate change is the one where the science is most settled. The Earth is getting dangerously hot (and cold), and if we don’t take decisive action immediately, civilization as we know it may end. But as the years pass with no “comprehensive” action taken to fight climate change, the moment of civilizational collapse is quietly moved down the line, in increments of a few years at a time. The climate apocalypse is always just close enough that we should all be terrified, and just far enough away that we still have time to get serious and implement the sweeping (leftist) reforms that could save us. Convenient, isn’t it?

Nevertheless just because the logic is ludicrous doesn’t mean that the science isn’t settled. There is, in fact, a broad consensus of scientific experts on climate change. A popularly-cited statistic is that 97 percent of experts believe global climate change is manmade and that it presents a considerable threat. The unstated premise of “The Science is Settled” is that if there is a large consensus, then the consensus view must be right. Fortunately, though, there are ways to measure experts’ degree of certitude when it comes to the consensus on climate change. This is because the scientists can’t resist the urge to prophesy. The implementation of the Left’s broad climate policies depends on conveying the urgency of the problem, which requires that “the Science” depict the hell that awaits us if we opt for inaction.

Scientists would be horrified at my use of the term “prophesy.” They call their predictions “projections.” It’s true that there is a small difference: prophets have more skin in the game. After all, a prophet is discredited when his predictions don’t come to pass. By calling their prophecies “projections,” scientists get to be wrong without undermining their credibility. When they (wrongly) prophesied that there would no longer be glaciers in Glacier National Park by 2020, they were simply extrapolating from the best data available at the time, which was fed into models. Strange though that when it comes to climate change, the “best data available at the time” always leads to projections that we realize (after the fact) overestimated the effects (rather than underestimating them). This tendency toward hyperbole begs the question: just how much certitude is required for the science to be “settled”?

The Prophecy of “NCA4”

By law, the U.S. Global Change Research Program must provide a “National Climate Assessment” report to Congress “no less than every four years.” As empirical documents, these reports naturally quantify the level of confidence that the experts have in the accuracy of their prophecies. The last report (referred to as “NCA4”) was submitted in early 2019, which means that we are due for NCA5 later this year. Indubitably, NCA5 will receive significant media attention since its covert purpose is to draw attention to (and therefore advance) the climate agenda. Thus climate reports are decidedly rhetorical documents despite experts’ insistence that science has no interest in rhetoric.

NCA5 will allow us to assess the accuracy of the prophecies foretold in NCA4, and we’ll also learn whether the apocalypse is unfolding on schedule. But in preparation for the new report, we not only have a duty to revisit the “projections” of NCA4, we must refresh our memories on just how much confidence experts had in those projections to begin with. The answer, it seems, is “not much.”

NCA4 was full of dire predictions. For example, the report warned, “Many millions of Americans live in coastal areas threatened by sea level rise; in all but the very lowest sea level rise projections, retreat will become an unavoidable option in some areas” (emphasis added). Note the certainty of the phrasing: “will become.” Although the quote explicitly acknowledges that some “projections” don’t foresee the U.S. coast being inundated, the writers make sure to emphasize that these (allegedly flawed) projections don’t undermine the “scientific consensus.” But then what of the curious assertion that “retreat will become an unavoidable option”? Here we see the rhetorical sleight of hand: by definition something that is “unavoidable” is not an “option.” And if retreat will be an “option,” then the hypothetical flooding would necessarily be negligible.

Elsewhere, though, the report stresses that there is no uncertainty about these matters at all: “Across the United States, many regions and sectors are already experiencing the direct effects of climate change. For these communities, climate impacts—from extreme storms made worse by sea-level rise, to longer-lasting and more extreme heat waves, to increased numbers of wildfires and floods—are an immediate threat, not a far-off possibility.”

Oddly, the bold prophecy quoted above comes after an admission: “The world we live in is a web of natural, built, and social systems—from global climate and regional climate; to the electric grid; to water management systems […]; to managed and unmanaged forests; and to financial and economic systems. Climate effects many of these systems individually, but they also affect one another, and often in ways that are hard to predict. […] A key factor in assessing risk […] is that it is hard to quantify and predict all the ways in which climate-related stressors might lead to severe or widespread consequences.”

Even the oft-repeated platitude that climate change causes more severe storms (an idea routinely touted as “settled science”) is cast in doubt: “Some storm types such as hurricanes, tornadoes, and winter storms are also exhibiting changes that have been linked to climate change, although the current state of the science does not yet permit detailed understanding.”

“Projection” and the Confidence Game

What, then, are we to think? How reliable are these (often contradictory) prophecies? Fortunately, the report gives some guidance. The writers say that the reliability of each “projection” is determined by two metrics: “confidence” and “likelihood.” The former is a qualitative measure of how confident researchers are in a given conclusion; the latter is a quantitative assessment of the statistical probability that the prophecy will come to pass.

When it comes to “confidence,” the report classifies its predictions with one of four descriptors: low, medium, high, or very high confidence. When you hear someone say that they have “high confidence” in a particular outcome, you probably think that means “almost certain.” But when readers peruse the fine print that explains how the report defines these terms, they find that only “moderate evidence” and “some consistency” in research findings is required in order to designate a “high confidence” prediction. Not only that, but “high confidence” projections are ones where “methods vary” in the supporting research “and/or documentation [is] limited.” Finally, the report says that its “high confidence” conclusions are drawn from a “medium consensus.”

In short, then, the definitional threshold for “high confidence” only seems to require a modicum of evidence. By design, readers of the report would miss this little trick unless they read the fine print in the preliminary materials of the report. And on the off-chance that a journalist was aware of the shockingly-low level of certitude required for such “high confidence,” most reporters wouldn’t mention it. After all, that would undermine the entire rhetorical purpose of the document. So much for the measure of “confidence.”

How do we fare on the scale of “likelihood”? Here the report offers five descriptors: “very likely” (defined as “≥ 9 in 10” chance), “likely” (defined as “≥ 2 in 3” chance), “as likely as not” (“1 in 2”), “unlikely” (“≤ 1 in 3”), and “very unlikely” (“≤ 1 in 10”). Of course, this scale is completely useless as the deliberative weight of these measures wholly depends on the case in question.

If a bag held nine red slips of paper and one green one and you told me that if I draw the green one wearing a blindfold that I will win a million dollars, I would see “1 in 10” as surprisingly good odds. I wouldn’t call winning the million a “very unlikely” outcome (as the report’s metric would). In the same vein, if you told me that a horse had a 66 percent chance of winning the race, I wouldn’t necessarily call this a “likely” outcome (as the report would), and I certainly wouldn’t place a large bet on it. After all, “experts” often make “very likely” predictions with a 99 percent chance of happening—only to get it wrong. Let’s assume, though, that scientists’ estimates of likelihood are accurate when it comes to climate change. Is a 70 percent chance of catastrophe a high enough likelihood to justify costly, sweeping reforms that would fundamentally change the nation’s way of life?

With all its inconsistencies and misdirection, the authors of the report still find ways to congratulate themselves: “climate models have proven remarkably accurate in simulating the climate change we have experienced to date, particularly within the past 60 years or so when we have greater confidence in observations.” Older readers might find this praise strange given that the expert narrative as recently as the late 1970s was that we were entering a new ice age. Has the reliability of their prophecies improved since then? It doesn’t look like it. Some who are inclined to climate alarmism will be tempted to think that I am cherry-picking. Maybe I’ve just chosen isolated, egregious passages from NCA4? Maybe other climate reports don’t play these rhetorical tricks? Readers who harbor these doubts can read my much longer analysis that demonstrates the same tendencies in reports from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Resisting Scientific Clerisy

The NCA5 will be just as thick with prophecies, masquerading as “projections” that never seem to come true. It will surely warn us that the global threat is even more dire than it was when NCA4 was published, but it will also silently move doomsday a few more years down the road to give us time to pass the preferred legislation. Who knows? Perhaps the climate apocalypse really isthe day after tomorrow.” But the deep, dark secret of climate science is that it will always be the day after tomorrow. That’s because when it does arrive, there will be no more research funding to be had for climate research. Worse, all hope for passing a “Green New Deal” would be extinguished. Those things can’t happen, so the charade rolls on.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

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