Rick Perry, Science And Empiricism

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JONATHAN CHAIT AUGUST 24, 2011

Rick Perry, Science And Empiricism

National Review's Kevin Williamson has a post, responding to me, entitled, "What Does Jonathan Chait Know about Science?":

Scientific disputes are highly specialized, and meaningful participation in them requires a great deal of non-generalist knowledge. I’m generally skeptical of argument from credential, but there’s a time for it. For instance, a great number of scientists have a particular view of global warming. Richard Lindzen has reservations about that view. Professor Lindzen is an atmospheric physicist a full-on professor at MIT. Your average politician is not packing the gear to get in the middle of that fight. I’m not. Chait isn’t, either. Is Lindzen not a real scientist? Is he a kook? Is Jonathan Chait going to make that case? Given two scientists with different opinions about climate forecasting, why exactly ought I to consult Jonathan Chait, or Jon Huntsman? Chait ought to think about seizing one of the many occasions for humility that come his way.

I don't know a ton about science, but I obviously know more than Rick Perry does. This, however, is not the point.

If you read my original post, you'll recall that I argued that Perry's climate science denial and skepticism toward evolution suggested a non-empiricist style of thought that I find uncongenial. Williamson ignores both my broader point and the specific question about evolution. Instead he pretends we're only debating climate science, and he clings to his contention that experts disagree and laymen have no way to know who's right.

If Williamson is right that climate change is an open question among climate scientists, then he would be correct that I have no basis other than my ideology to believe climate change exists. But Williamson is, in fact, completely wrong about this. Brad Plumer sums up the point:

In 2010, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a survey of 1,372 climate researchers, finding that 97 to 98 percent of those publishing in the field said they believe humans are causing global warming. Dissenters did exist, the study found, but “the relative climate expertise and scientific prominence of the researchers unconvinced … are substantially below that of the convinced researchers.”

What's more, the disturbing thing here is not just the fact of Perry's opposition to climate science, it's the basis for it. He subscribes to the paranoid notion that "there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects." This is pure tinfoil hat thinking. Granted, it's a kind of tinfoil hat thinking that holds enormous sway within the Republican Party, but it is tinfoil hat thinking nonetheless.

If a Democratic presidential front runner started insisted that the sun orbits the Earth, or even began spouting anti-vaccine conspiracies, I would be disturbed.

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posted in: jonathan chait, jonathan chait, jonathan chait know, kevin williamson, richard lindzen, rick perry, mit

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