Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Am I just another Fred Hutchison? What would Richard Lindzen say?

Fred Hutchison is an idiot (no, that's not enough to answer the first question posed above) who thinks he's smarter than Darwin AND Einstein, and also thinks he's disproven the scientific consensus on global warming. But when I read his incredibly smarmy replay of how he supposedly out-debated scientists defending Einstein and global warming, I thought I saw a little of myself in his style. (I didn't bother reading the Einstein stuff; the global warming stuff was beyond ridiculous, and Belette refutes him here.)

The overlap between me and my man Fred comes in the form of Richard Lindzen, one of a very small number of respected climatologists that disagree with the consensus position on global warming. I have to concede from the outset that Lindzen knows more than I do about climate, and can even understand better than I can whatever comes out in the form of new research. Who am I to say that Lindzen is wrong? This is a relevant question to more people than just me - how is a high school graduate supposed to judge a Creationist lecturer who has a Master's degree in Biology?

This might not be too relevant to the science bloggers on my blogroll - they ARE the experts in their field. The rest of us need to consider it though.

I think there are several ways to judge someone with superior knowledge without being another Fred:

  • Judge the debate, not the analysis. While I can't refute Lindzen, Real Climate can. Even with just amateur knowledge of the issues, I think RC has nailed Lindzen to a post. While a little knowledge may be dangerous, a little more on top of that could be helpful. With that much, you can figure out who won the argument. For what it's worth, this is how the adversarial legal model works - judges aren't expected to become experts in the trial issues, but rather to know enough to judge which of the two expert lawyers at trial is correct.

  • A strong consensus means something - if 4 out 5 dentists recommend sugarless gum, do you go and stuff sugar into your mouth or not? Maybe that one single dentist or one climatologist is right, but the odds aren't looking good, and meanwhile we have to make a decision. This may not be a purely scientific response, but the real question is about what policy recommendations to make - do we teach Creationism in schools this year? Do we increase the gas tax? An expert consensus suggests which way to lean on these questions, and Lindzen is far outside of the mainstream.

  • Examine the experts for sincerity. Some years ago I attended a lecture by Steve Schneider where he showed a graph depicting top climatogists' "uncertainty range" for projected temperature changes. All of them had large uncertainty ranges, except for Lindzen. That unwarranted confidence completely undermined him in my eyes. The RC post linked above also showed arguments that Lindzen must have known and ignored in his presentations. If someone is hiding something, it's because his argument is weak.

All the above requires some knowledge of the field, but I think it's enough to allow an amateur to judge between experts. And, Dr. Lindzen, if you think I'm still just another Fred, please feel free to bet me over it.

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