For a sixth grader

by Russ Roberts on February 17, 2010

in Environment, Stimulus

Thomas Friedman writes in the New York Times:

Of the festivals of nonsense that periodically overtake American politics, surely the silliest is the argument that because Washington is having a particularly snowy winter it proves that climate change is a hoax and, therefore, we need not bother with all this girly-man stuff like renewable energy, solar panels and carbon taxes. Just drill, baby, drill.

He’s right in principle. One observation doesn’t make a trend. Of course Phil Jones has said recently that there’s no trend for the last 15 years. But never mind. Then, after making fun of DeMint and Inhofe for being climate change skeptics, and pointing out that some climate change skepticism has been funded by self-interested sources, Friedman writes:

Although there remains a mountain of research from multiple institutions about the reality of climate change, the public has grown uneasy. What’s real? In my view, the climate-science community should convene its top experts — from places like NASA, America’s national laboratories, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, the California Institute of Technology and the U.K. Met Office Hadley Centre — and produce a simple 50-page report. They could call it “What We Know,” summarizing everything we already know about climate change in language that a sixth grader could understand, with unimpeachable peer-reviewed footnotes.

What we know.

For me that seemingly innocuous phrase sums it up perfectly.  What do we know? Very little. Scientists, mostly self-interested by the way, like most human beings and mostly with a financial stake in the game,  have estimated various effects. They may be right. They may be wrong. There are at least hills of research that suggest skepticism about global warming. Would those finding be in the 50 page report? And of course there would be bigger hills and maybe mountains if the peer-review process were more honest.

A report that could communicate to a sixth grader what we know would be a very thin report. Most of what Thomas Friedman thinks we know is based on multiple regression analysis trying to hold other factors constant other than human carbon emissions and making a variety of assumptions about the interactions between those factors along with the factors we cannot measure. That is hard to explain to a sixth grader. It can be done But it’s not knowledge. It’s an attempt to gain knowledge.

It is very similar to writing a report for a sixth grader on how the stimulus turned out. We have fewer jobs than we had before. That’s what we know. But even I, a skeptic, wouldn’t call that knowledge about whether the “stimulus” package worked or not. But I wouldn’t use the CBO estimate either. The CBO estimate is a repeat of the forecast it made before the legislation passed. We don’t know how many jobs were created or destroyed by the legislation.

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