Climate Orthodoxy: The Limits of Professional Judgment

The climate orthodoxy that human activities are primarily responsible for warming since the mid-20th century rests mainly on a foundation of professional judgment, not scientific research involving falsifiable hypotheses.  That foundation is also the basis for the so-called consensus of scientists, which has been shown to be an “alternative fact.

There is nothing wrong with being guided professional judgment as long as it is recognized that professional judgment does not equate to factual certitude.  Michael Lewis in his most recent book, The Undoing Project writes about the work of two psychologists, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman (a Nobel Laureate in economics) whose research completely changed our understanding of human decision making and behavioral economics.  The bottom line is that humans—no matter what their calling and education—are not as rational as they think they are.

Tversky and Kahneman’s insights on professional judgment and the use of subjective probabilities justify a reasonable level of healthy skepticism about the role of professional judgment in shaping the narrative on climate change.

All of us give weight to professionals who advise us or who are considered experts in a particular field.  However, Tversky and Kahneman demonstrate that too much weight and too little skepticism is given to professional judgment, especially on subjects not rich with empirical data.  In a paper on how people make judgments, Subjective Probability: A Judgment of Representativeness, they wrote, “The decision we make, the conclusions we reach, and the explanations we offer are usually based on our judgments of the likelihood of uncertain events … .  In … many other uncertain situations, the mind did not naturally calculate the correct odds.”    Instead, “it replaced the laws of chance with rules of thumb”. When people make judgments they compare the specific topic with a mental model.

They also addressed when the rule of thumb—heuristic—approach leads to “serious miscalculation and concluded it was when the matter involved judgments under uncertainty.  “ People do not appear to follow the calculus of chance or statistical theory of prediction.  Instead, they rely on a limited number of heuristics which sometimes yield reasonable judgments and sometimes lead to severe and systematic error.”

Their work is relevant to climate change  because it is a relatively new field of knowledge and much about how it operates is not well understood. Distinguishing between what is reasonably well known about climate processes and what represents assumptions and best judgments should be more explicit, leading to a greater level of humility and less certitude.

The weakness in this perspective is the implication that scientists who believe that the science is settled and support the climate orthodoxy have the same failing. How could that be?

Many, perhaps most, of the scientists who represented the thinking in the 1980s when climate change was just emerging issue had been active in the environmental movement and advocates of the limits of growth narrative.  Maurice Strong, an environmental activist, and John Houghton, the first chair of the IPCC, were instrumental in recruiting scientists who would support climate alarmism.  Once that core was in place, billions of dollars in funding was directed to the IPCC process and research on the climate system and the threat of it posed.  Climate change became an industry that enriched those who embraced the notion that human activities, burning fossil fuels, was causing a climate catastrophe.

Professor Paul Romer of NYU made an insightful observation about the failure of a scientific field that relies on mathematical modeling.  Although he was referring to macroeconomics, his comments are equally as applicable to climate science. “Because guidance from authority can align the efforts of many researchers, conformity to the facts is no longer needed as a coordinating device. As a result, if facts disconfirm the officially sanctioned theoretical vision, they are subordinated. Eventually, evidence stops being relevant. Progress in the field is judged by the purity of its mathematical theories, as determined by the authorities.”

That represents the Group Think phenomenon, which holds that groups with common interests or purposes seek cohesion and collegiality as the expense of independent thinking and challenge.  Those who do not conform are sanctioned.  In the case of climate change they are labeled skeptics and deniers.



Founder and president of Solutions Consulting which focuses on public policy issues, strategic planning, and strategic communications.

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