Monday, August 29, 2011

If Mitt Romney doesn't "know" global warming is mostly caused by humans, is he "against science"?

Paul Krugman's latest column is headlined:

Republicans Against Science
Krugman writes:
Jon Huntsman Jr., a former Utah governor and ambassador to China, isn’t a serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination. And that’s too bad, because Mr. Hunstman has been willing to say the unsayable about the G.O.P. — namely, that it is becoming the “anti-science party.” This is an enormously important development. And it should terrify us. . . .

In the past, Mr. Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, has strongly endorsed the notion that man-made climate change is a real concern. But, last week, he softened that to a statement that he thinks the world is getting hotter, but “I don’t know that” and “I don’t know if it’s mostly caused by humans.” Moral courage!
So, Mitt Romney says he doesn't know. Is this uncertainty "terrify[ing]"?

The full Romney quote is: "Do I think the world's getting hotter? Yeah, I don't know that but I think that it is." So his basic conclusion is: "I think that it is," but he qualifies this with "I don't know." Isn't this appropriate for a layperson who's deferring to scientific consensus?

I've been reading Richard Feynman's book The Meaning of it All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist. Here's what Feynman said about uncertainty:
It is necessary and true that all of the things we say in science, all of the conclusions, are uncertain, because they are only conclusions. They are guesses as to what is going to happen, and you cannot know what will happen, because you have not made the most complete experiments. . . .

Scientists, therefore, are used to dealing with doubt and uncertainty. All scientific knowledge is uncertain. This experience with doubt and uncertainty is important. I believe that it is of very great value, and one that extends beyond the sciences. I believe that to solve any problem that has never been solved before, you have to leave the door to the unknown ajar. You have to permit the possibility that you do not have it exactly right. Otherwise, if you have made up your mind already, you might not solve it.

So what we call scientific knowledge today is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty. Some of them are most unsure; some of them are nearly sure; but none is absolutely certain. Scientists are used to this. We know that it is consistent to be able to live and not know. Some people say, "How can you live without knowing?" I do not know what they mean. I always live without knowing.
Remember, Feynman said this about all scientific conclusions, including ones about much simpler questions than how much the billions of people in the world are contributing to climate change. And he was describing the level of doubt that even scientists should have about their own fields of expertise, let alone the appropriate attitude of a layperson. Feynman said this isn't some weird defect in science, but it's essential to science. If Krugman is terrified at the idea of not "knowing," maybe he's the one who's against science.

11 comments:

Kito said...

"Isn't this appropriate for a layperson who's deferring to scientific consensus?"

Romney doesn't say he is deferring to scientific consensus--he just says he doesn't know. It would be politically hazardous for him to say he is deferring to scientific consensus on this issue. This I think is Krugman's point.

Of course, I'm leaving out the fact that many don't believe there is a scientific consensus on this issue. These are the people that Romney doesn't want to piss off.

XWL said...

The Obama Administration's overreaction to the BP spill (and the subsequent illegal and overlong shutdown of all gulf drilling), their antipathy towards fracking and clean coal, their continued push for 'green jobs' when that sector has failed to produce even modest results despite massive support with public monies, have been much more damaging economically, and in the long run more harmful to the environment, than anything Gov. Romney has said or done.

Energy companies lead innovation, the more profit they make now, the more they're allowed to exploit resources locally, the better for the global environment as a whole both in terms of how the resources are gathered, and reducing the amount of resources consumed in moving these goods vast distances.

If you believe that climate change is an existential threat on a global scale, then getting as much energy from every domestically available source ought to be your goal.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Romney doesn't say he is deferring to scientific consensus--he just says he doesn't know.

He didn't used the words "deferring to scientific consensus," but that seems to be the clear thrust of most of his comments on the issue. Krugman seized on his "I don't know" language as if it represented Romney turning his back on "science."

chickenlittle said...

Well before Richard Feymann wrote about uncertainty, Sigmund Freud wrote to a friend:

Mediocre spirits demand of science the kind of certainty which it cannot give, a sort of religious satisfaction. Only the real, rare, true scientific minds can endure doubt, which is attached to all our knowledge.

chickenlittle said...

Ooops! Feynman not "Feymann" (lol!)

jimspice said...

Got to have. My. O-range juice!

Anonymous said...

John, you need more explicit ellipses in your quote. It looks contiguous, but it's not. I almost pasted it in as is, at another blog, and I would have been embarrassed.

Ann Althouse said...

@chickenlittle I'll see your Freud and raise you a Keats.

Ann Althouse said...

"more explicit ellipses"

You mean like the asterisks they use instead of dot-dot-dot in law school casebooks?

John Althouse Cohen said...

John, you need more explicit ellipses in your quote.

Where?

KBK said...

Romney should just say, "Sure, it's getting warmer. We are, after all, still coming out of both the last glaciation and the Little Ice Age which dates back to the Middle Ages."