A while ago, a friend sent me a link to an article by Richard Lindzen as an example of a respectable scientist who sits on the “skeptical” side of the fence in the global warming debate. At the time, I noted that Lindzen was also known as a skeptic of the link between smoking and lung cancer, but aside from thinking it was an interesting coincidence that he fell twice into the skeptical camp on such emotional topics, didn’t ponder it much more.
However, recently I listened to a lecture by Naomi Oreskes (presumably connected with her recent book) where she provided a possible explanation of the link between the two views that also can explain why a respectable scientist is willing to diverge so far from the mainstream position.
We don’t hear debates about whether the sun-goes-around-the-earth or the earth-goes-around-the-sun any more. There isn’t disagreement on whether driving a car is dangerous, or whether excessive sun-baking increases the chance of skin cancer.
But when it comes to climate science, there is a very visible debate. If there was a clear split in the climate science community, that would be one explanation. Although, all major national science academies fall in the climate change believer camp, and in an essay in Science, Oreskes found that of 928 randomly selected abstracts on climate change, exactly none argued against the idea of human-influenced global warming. (Other similar studies can be found listed here.)
I’m not interested in discussing here who is right or wrong, but noting that the respectable scientists who are arguing a skeptical position regarding climate change are a small group indeed. It’s not a bad thing for science that they exist, as educated debate improves our body of knowledge, and such a debate needs people on both sides. However, it must be a tough job for the individuals involved. It’s natural to wonder why they would do it.
Due to the politicisation of the field, and the implications for certain industries depending on resulting policies, I’m not surprised that scientists who argue against climate change are effectively given a megaphone. On the other hand, I would be surprised if this was a sufficient reason for respectable scientists to adopt positions that they didn’t believe.
Oreskes proposes that the reason is: many scientists in the skeptical camp are fierce believers of capitalism and the free market. Hence they will naturally assume that any argument leading to a conclusion of greater industry regulation must be wrong, and will look very hard for the flaws in it.
An example of such a scientist, according to Oreskes, is Fred Singer. Not only is he a climate change skeptic today, but in the past has been skeptical of the link between (second hand) cigarette smoke and cancer. In the case of second hand smoking, he was arguing against the US EPA‘s desire to regulate smoking.
So, perhaps this applies to Lindzen as well. In that case, his skeptical views on both the dangers of smoking and climate change are not co-incidental at all.
Of course, if scientists all agreed on everything, then we wouldn’t need scientists. But I find it interesting to understand what might motivate scientists to disagree when it must seem like the whole scientific community is in agreement against them.