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Posted by on Jun 26, 2009 in Science & Technology | 13 comments

Global Warming For Amateurs

Amateurs like me. If you’re not a scientist, how much can really you know? Even if you are a scientist, how much can you really know?

This week, the New Yorker has a profile of James Hansen, the director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, written by Elizabeth Kolbert. When I saw, something rang a bell. Two weeks ago, the Weekly Standard ran a piece on Hansen called The Man Who Cried Doom, written by Michael Goldfarb.

Hansen has penchant for absurdity, so it isn’t too hard to argue he’s an extremist. For example, he wants the CEOs of ExxonMobil and other energy firms tried for “high crimes against humanity and nature.” (Ever the attorney, my wife was quite curious about what counts as a crime against nature.)

Hansen also testified on behalf of six Greenpeace activists who caused $60,000 of damage to a coal plant in England. Ever the pragmatist, Hansen wants to shut down ever coal-fired energy plant in the world in the next 20 years.

All right, so how is the New Yorker going to convince me that Hansen is actually a hero instead of crank? To the credit of Elizabeth Kolbert, she actually begins the article by compiling many of the same absurdities that Goldfarb catalogued. But she also devotes a lot of space to lavish praise of Hansen’s scientific work by many of his prominent colleagues. He may sound like Chicken Little, they say, but his warnings up until now have been prophetic.

Goldfarb covers some of the same terrain (although his word limit was much lower). His piece quotes two other NASA scientists, including one of Hansen’s former supervisors, saying that Hansen’s ideological commitments have warped his climate models.

So what’s a layman to do when confronted by dueling scientists? In some cases, the scientists with better credentials are all on one side of the debate. You certainly get that impression from Kolbert’s article, which does not include any substantive criticism of Hansen’s climate science.

Then I came across an interesting column in this morning’s WSJ. Kimberly Strassel writes that the number of top scientists critical of global warming predictions has grown significantly.

In spite of what you hoped, I’m not going to end this post with any sage advice about how a layman can have informed opinions about matters scientific. But as someone used to studying the radical uncertainty of foreign policymaking, it’s very interesting to watch a debate in which both sides believe they know something like objective truth.

UPDATE: I see Tyrone also has a post about the WSJ column mentioned above. One of the comments points to a post at TNR which says that Sen. Inhofe’s alleged list of 700 scientists skeptical of man-made warming, cited by the WSJ, is a farce.

Cross-posted at Conventional Folly