Posted tagged ‘Don’t trust your friends’

Guest Post: Friends vs. Reason, or the Cost of Being Wrong

February 15, 2011

Please welcome my MIT colleague Jim Bales, who is the only teacher I know who has to weigh the pros and cons of handing his T. A. the rifle.  He writes here on a post over at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen that I meant to excoriate myself…only he got there faster and better.


Our host (and my colleague) Tom Levenson was kind enough to loan me his soap box, so let me introduce myself. I’m Dr. Jim Bales (Ph.D., Physics, MIT ’91), I teach Strobe Project Lab here at MIT.

Over at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen, Mark Thompson weighs in on the debate sparked by DougJ’s two questions over at Balloon Juice. (Namely, “Do you believe in Evolution?” and ” Do you believe that the average temperature on earth has increased over the past 30 years?”)

What struck me were Mr. Thompson’s words (in the context of the climate change debate):

Why would only an unreasonable person trust one’s ideological compatriots (whom you know to have expended far more effort into understanding a given issue than you have) more than one trusts a group of self-appointed experts whom one has never encountered and who you know to have a vastly different set of priorities than you?

Who, I asked myself, are these “self-appointed experts”? On climate change, the widely acknowledged “experts” are those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. I wondered when they appointed themselves as “experts” on Climate Change?

So, I turned to Wikipedia and found:

The panel was first established in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), two organizations of the United Nations—an action confirmed on 6 December 1988 by the United Nations General Assembly through Resolution 43/53. The IPCC shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President of the United States Al Gore.

OK, so they are not self-appointed. However, they must be a bunch of cranks right?

” The IPCC bases its assessment mainly on peer reviewed and published scientific literature.[5] … IPCC reports are widely cited in almost any debate related to climate change.  National and international responses to climate change generally regard the UN climate panel as authoritative.[8]”

Ok, they aren’t crackpots. But, I think, no doubt, I’ll find it’s a handful of ideologues banging out propaganda with no oversight or review. Digging into the IPCC web site I learned that the 4th Assessment Report (AR4) is the product of “more than 500 Lead Authors and 2000 Expert Reviewers, building on the work of a wide scientific community and submitted to the scrutiny of delegates from more than one hundred participating nations.”

In other words, Mr. Thompson created a strawman with the words “self-appointed experts” to avoid dealing the simple fact that the IPCC’s authority over its subject matter derives from the demonstrated accomplishments of its member scientists. These are not “self-appointed experts”, these are, by any objective standard, experts.

At which point, my answer to his question is:

The reason to trust the IPCC over one’s “ideological compatriots” is because the IPCC’s reports are the broad consensus of a body of bona fide experts, appointed to investigate climate change, and whose work is subject to extensive technical review prior to publication, with no ideological position outside of a) getting the science right, b) extracting the most accurate picture possible of the current state of the world’s climate and c) discerning the trends of climate change. Given the facts to date, one could only trust one’s “ideological compatriots” if they could present direct, unequivocal, empirical evidence that the IPCC has consistently and systematically made assertions or predictions that are demonstrably false.

Notice the very high bar I set here: “direct, unequivocal, empirical evidence that the IPCC has consistently and systematically made assertions or predictions that are demonstrably false.” It is not casting doubts on selected conclusions of the IPCC. It is not showing that, out of the massive amount of work published by the IPCC, some assertions or predictions are false. To cast valid doubt on the IPCC requires showing that the IPCC has a pattern of getting the science wrong. If Mr. Thompon’s unnamed “ideological compatriots” have such evidence, they have hidden it very well.

The bottom line is that reasonable people trust reason over ideology.

Finally, Mr. Thompson asks:

What if, as is the case with global warming, there are a handful of experts with facially similar qualifications to the main group of scientists who: 1. share your ideological or religious predispositions; and 2. dissent from that main group? Is it the mark of an inherently unreasonable person to trust the former over the latter?

Mr. Thompson’s unstated concern seems to be that some scientists may allow their ideology (or religion) to color their interpretation and understanding of the evidence, leading them to false conclusions. He has two, and only two choices. Either i) he will blindly trust his minority “ideological compatriots” because the stakes of being wrong are so low that it isn’t worth the effort to assess who is trustworthy, or ii) he will make the effort to figure out who is trustworthy because the cost of being wrong is too high.

For the issue of climate change I would hope he feels obligated to follow the second path, and engages in “the heavy lifting that is necessary for a political system to function” by digging in and establishing for himself the credibility (or lack) of the IPCC. It is what a reasonable person would do.

Image:  Jacques-Louis David, The Coronation of Napoleon, 1805-1808