A Dose Of Skepticism Is Healthy: I’m perfectly willing to trust the climate experts. But isn’t doubt an integral part of serious research?

Worth A Look, Environment, Frontier Centre

Do I believe that human activity is the major cause of global warming? How can I judge? I’m like 99.9 per cent of the people, incapable of forming my own opinion on such a complicated issue, and thus forced to rely on the opinions of experts.

The only sign of global warming I’ve seen is the sorry state of the Rockies’ glaciers, which have indeed diminished compared with pictures taken a few decades ago. But if a panel of world famous geologists discovered that the melting of the glaciers has another cause, I would have no choice but to believe them.

So I’m perfectly willing to trust the experts – up to a certain point. There’s a nagging doubt that creeps into my mind, especially when I’m told that, on the issue of global warming, there is no discussion possible, that the proof is overwhelming, and that the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has settled the question once and for all.

As a journalist who worked for many years reporting the news, I’ve been trained to realize that there are always two versions – and often more than two – to every story. I don’t think “unanimity” of thought can exist outside of totalitarian states. And I certainly wouldn’t trust even the best specialist in the world if he told me I had a terrible disease that required, say, amputation. I would ask for a second opinion before letting the surgeon touch me.

Today, though, in the highly charged atmosphere surrounding the Copenhagen climate-change summit, skepticism – a healthy mental disposition – has become a negative word. The “skeptics” are those who dare question, even in a nuanced fashion, the ecologists’ dogmas. There’s another infamous epithet that’s used by the true believers in order to silence and intimidate their critics: They call them “negationists,” a term that had been reserved for Holocaust deniers. But why be surprised at this despicable analogy?

James Hansen, the scientist who has been Al Gore’s mentor on climate change, compares the trains that ferry coal to power plants to the “death trains” that transported Jews to the Nazi death camps. Even Libération, the leftist French daily that strongly backs the ecology movement, was scandalized by the comparison.

In any case, aren’t doubt and skepticism an integral part of serious research? Science evolves by trial and error, and there’s always a new discovery that challenges accepted theories. Genomics, a science that didn’t exist in the 19th century, will add new findings to Darwin’s theory on the origin of species. Even on human language – an issue that’s been studied for centuries – linguists still don’t agree about whether its basis is innate or acquired through experience.

Why would climatology, a relatively new science that focuses on an extremely complex field, be a more exact science than, say, medicine or nuclear physics? Even in nutrition, a more accessible field, new theories keep arising, all based on research, whether it’s about tap water, red wine or genetically modified food. And how many apocalyptic predictions, many of which came from renowned scientists, were fulfilled? Wasn’t worldwide famine caused by overpopulation predicted for the 1970s?

Look at Climategate, where it’s alleged (based on leaked e-mails) that a key climate-change research unit at the University of East Anglia fudged data on global warming and manoeuvred to exclude dissident voices from the scholarly journals. If this is true, one can certainly question the so-called unanimity of the climatologists’ community.

Again, I’m not saying global warming isn’t a danger. Whether or not the gloom-and-doom scenarios are probable, it would certainly be good for humanity and for Mother Earth to find alternative ways to provide cleaner energy. But the findings of the UN panel would be more convincing if they had rested on an open scientific debate.