We have been hearing quite a bit lately about the state attorneys generals’ attempts to require information from corporations, non-profit think tanks, university research centers and even individuals regarding so-called “climate denial.” The AGs have alleged that these entities have withheld information that acknowledges the reality and danger of climate change and thus have committed fraud. Their favorite analogy is the tobacco companies whose memos contained explicit recognition of dangers but did not release it to the public. In that case, the companies reached a settlement with states for a very large sum.
Now this harassment of those who are skeptical of various assertions of climate change is not new. It has arisen before, as when one politician in Great Britain called for “climate change deniers” to be imprisoned. Democrats in Congress are also approving of the AGs’ move and have called on the Justice Department to do likewise. Let’s sort through some of this.
First, the analogy used by the AGs is not valid. In that case, there was a danger actually known and acknowledged by the tobacco companies, but hidden from the public. The evidence was there. In this case, the entire question is whether (1) climate change exists on a global basis; (2) if it does exist it is man-made (or primarily man-made); (3) whether it is in fact at a level harmful to human life. This is a matter for debate and is still being hotly debated. And, contrary to many climate change advocates, there is no consensus in the scientific community to support man-made global climate change.
That being the case, the demands made by the state AGs amount to a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech by any entity, individual or corporate, to express an opinion or to publish research that challenges someone else’s views. To chill free speech is in this case to squash a robust debate that will hopefully eventually clarify the problem, if one exists. Exxon Mobil and the Competitive Enterprise Institute have both sued the AGs to quash their efforts—invoking their rights of free speech.
Second, as long as a debate continues, no one can call man-made climate change “settled science.” At least not with any integrity. In fact, it is difficult to say there is any such thing as “settled science” in many, many instances. One only has to think about the current food debates—is sugar really bad or just neutral, is fat bad or good for you, is meat good or bad for you, is more protein better or more carbohydrates, will chocolate kill you or can it actually be good for you in some degree, and on and on it goes. The Federal government issues guidelines and then scientists overturn the “received wisdom.” And then other scientists come along and challenge that “wisdom.” And so it continues. For a couple of decades the so-called wisdom was that man produced climate change which would, if not dealt with severely, kill us all. And it was at first global warming, this after in the 1970s it had been global cooling. Yet the evidence has been sorely lacking, even contradictory.
Science is a discipline that is just not as secure in its epistemology as we have been led to believe since the Enlightenment. It is true that God created humans with the capacity to reason and so our use of our intellect is not crime. It is even good. And the particular kind of reason we call empiricism, which depends on observation, measurement, experiment, is also good. But it is also limited in a very important sense. Theologians recognize that the human mind itself is fallen and therefore subject not only to error due to limitations on knowledge but even deceitful (both with others and with oneself). Economists, political scientists, sociologists, and physical scientists have all also recognized that one’s values play a very large role in prior assumptions, conclusions and even measurement and observation in the “scientific method.” When someone says, “I am unbiased because I just look at facts,” we still have to ask how that person “sees” those “facts.” So what does all this mean for climate change debates? It means that when the climate change advocates invoke science, they really mean that they believe their particular scientific assumptions, interpretations and conclusions are correct. But if they come to their project with bias, they may not be correct, as climate change skeptics would argue. The climate change advocates begin with assumptions that presuppose that man must be causing massive climate change, they believe, without evidence, that this change is all bad for us, and the way they measure it leaves one with many questions. Moreover, when they are shown measurements that contradict their “science” they reinterpret the facts to fit their theory, but they do not reverse their position on man-caused climate change. Now this is not only bad science, but it also denies some fundamental propositions of good scientific method, one of which is that one may have to change one’s theory if the evidence begins to disfavor yours consistently.
The bottom line is that these AGs are trying to stifle debate that is actually an unsettled theory about climate change. To try to argue that it is settled and that the companies and think tanks are hiding that “fact” is disingenuous and calls for a court to slap them down hard for suppressing free speech. But once that has (hopefully) occurred, it must still be stressed that truth from empiricism cannot emerge without the kind of vigorous and sustained debate and research needed to minimize bias. The stifling of free inquiry will not do. And it does not matter that the research might be biased when it comes from a pro-market source—just as it might (?) be biased if it comes from an anti-market radical environmentalist source. We need as much of all research as we can get, the more the better, conducted by strict standards of scientific endeavor. That will not guarantee that any one source will provide the truth, but all together will begin to converge on a conclusion that is more likely to be at least mostly correct.
So if the climate change advocates want to put skeptics in jail, perhaps the advocates themselves should also go to jail. Maybe they could reach a conclusion there.