A Philosopher's Blog

Global Warming Denial

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Science by Michael LaBossiere on May 3, 2007

No, I’m not denying global warming. Ecomaniacs can put away their rage and the oil folks can put away their checkbooks. ­čÖé

I happened to see a segment on CNN about scientists who dispute the received view about global warming. In the segment claims were made that people who do this are persecuted in various ways, such as being fired.

While there is strong inductive evidence that human activity is a causal factor in global warming, there are still some grounds for doubt. After all, scientific reasoning of this sort is inductive causal reasoning and a hallmark of inductive reasoning is that the evidence gives the conclusion only a probability of being true. In short, in inductive reasoning you can always be wrong despite the best evidence and most careful reasoning. This occurs because inductive reasoning involves making that inductive leap beyond the evidence.

In the case of caual reasoning, as David Hume pointed out, we make an inference based on past connections and infer that X causes Y because of a proper correlation between X and Y. But, we can always turn out to be wrong because (as Hume argued) we never actually see a necessary connection or causal power.

So, from a logical standpoint, it is not irrational to be suspicious of the claims about global warming. All the claims put forth as evidence could be true, yet the conclusion about humanity’s role could be false.

Of course, the mere possibility of such a result does not provide good grounds for rejecting a claim-after all, if we accepted this approach we would have to doubt everything (such as whether hot stoves burn fingers or whether drinking a glass of Draino would be a bad idea) and that would be, to say the least, a bit crazy. More rationally, we should accept or reject this claim based on the quality of the evidence and the reasoning. So far, both seem quite good.

However, dissenting view points should be given consideration if they are well reasoned and supported by evidence. After all, even a well-established claim or theory can be shown to be flawed (history is full of such examples). Further, scientists who dissent against the majority opinion should not be persecuted. Science and philosophy are well served by those who dissent and doubt. At the very least, they force the majority to defend the accepted views and help keep the majority from becoming intellectually lazy or sloppy. This is not to say that any opinion is as good as any other-this is most definitely not the case. Some opinions are quite wrong.

My own view is that humans have contributed to recent environmental changes. The evidence seems quite clear-we produce large scale environmental effects that intuitively seem capable of impacting the climate. Of course, I’m a philosopher and not a climatologist-so all I can do is assess the quality of the reasoning as an expert and the evidence as an informed amateur.