Archive for February 14th, 2010


Fallibility and Reason

February 14, 2010

Looks like there’s one more tail to pin on the IPCC donkey, and you can bet that the usual suspects will make a great to-do about this — that is, when they’re not busy seeding other storm clouds.

The IPCC has said in response that “errors in the 2007 report of about 3,000 pages do not affect the core conclusions that human activities, led by burning fossil fuels, are warming the globe.” (That’s a quote from the article, not directly from the IPCC.)

Their response, of course, is probably correct. That there are flaws in the document should come as no surprise. The conclusions of the report don’t hang on any single premise; but rather on the abundance of evidence and the strength of inferences between those bodies of evidence.

The evidence, I am told, is substantial, despite a few flaws here and there.

Oh, spare me the “but, but, buts…” Sure, I can even accept that the flaws weren’t just here and there, but that there have been multiple flaws, and some on the IPCC have taken political steps to downplay the importance of correcting those flaws. That’s a non-insignificant political matter, and maybe one to sort out with Roger. Addressing these concerns deftly and appropriately will help to support the body of research in the mind of those who don’t have much of the information.

No. One flaw will not undo the IPCC report. Why not? Because just as weather ain’t climate, so too is data or evidence not science.

What holds the abundance of existing evidence together is the strength of theĀ reasoning. And, as it happens, the conclusions of the IPCC currently offer the best explanation of the body of evidence. We’re not looking here for mere alternative explanations of the evidence. Such theories would be useless. Plus, there are an infinite number of plausible explanations that can explain the evidence. Maybe the Great Hippo of Sydney is tinkering with our instruments, for instance. No, we’re looking for the best explanation of the evidence; and that is what the IPCC offers.

If the skeptical community truly wants to take down the IPCC bear, they’re going to have to do a lot more than tackle the evidence. They’re going to have tackle the reasoning, and they haven’t done that yet. They may be chinking the armor in the scientific community, but if they’re winning any battles they are winning only public and political battles; battles in the minds of the lumpen proles who, when aggregated around a voting booth, determine how we respond to the science.

Don’t get me wrong, that’s a big friggin’ deal. If we hope to make any progress with the policy, we’re going to have to handle those political issues as well. As a little note to the folks at RealClimate and elsewhere, I’m not at all persuaded that leaning into the science alone will do the trick. It’s only one part of a very big job.

Setting the right policy is a monumentally pluralistic undertaking. I think that’s gotta come through a very wide public discourse about not just the science, but also the nature of the science, the uncertainty associated with the science, and the reasoning behind the policy responses.

As a good little Habermasian, I’m a fallibilist at heart. I don’t mind a few lumps in my oatmeal. I just want to make sure that what I eat is nourishing. Acknowledging fallibilism, I’d think, would help the IPCC maintain the high ground.

Happy Valentine’s Day everyone.