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Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Meltdown: The Predictable Distortion of Global Warming by Scientists, Politicians, and the Media

A Nontechnical and Readable Exposé

Climatologist Patrick Michaels gives us a nontechnical and readable exposé of the “myths and facts” surrounding global warming. For skeptics of the mainstream global-warming hypothesis, that is, that dramatic, human-induced warming is occurring and will have cataclysmic effects if not checked by lifestyle-altering public policies, this book is a great read and an indispensable reference.

In chapter after chapter Michaels dissects the myths surrounding this hypothesis. He examines the alarmist claims regarding melting icecaps, extreme weather, species extinction, and more that are familiar to anyone who reads newspapers or watches CNN. This is done after an opening chapter that makes intelligible to the lay reader the basic science behind climate change.

What might surprise some is that Michaels, probably the best-known global-warming skeptic, accepts both the seemingly undeniable fact that the earth is warming and the proposition that it is in part due to human use of fossil fuels. As he states,“[G]lobal warming is real, and human beings have something to do with it.” What separates him from the alarmists is his caveat: “we don’t have everything to do with it; but we can’t stop it, and we couldn’t even slow it down enough to measure our efforts if we tried.”

Yet Michaels denies that the warming will be either dramatic or will have catastrophic consequences. His position is thus more nuanced than his detractors are willing to acknowledge or many of his supporters realize.

Unfortunately, the most important chapter in the book is at the end. After dispelling all the myths about rising sea levels, melting icecaps, and the possible loss of penguins and butterflies, Michaels gets to the organizing theme of the book—namely, how government funding combined with university tenure leads to the distortion of science and bad public policy. Had this story been told at the beginning, the hyperbolizing of scientific claims, exposed throughout the book, would make more sense. Chapter 11 provides the lens through which the earlier chapters should be read. I suggest that readers start with this chapter and then go to the beginning.

By combining Public Choice theory with the ideas of Thomas Kuhn regarding how paradigms take hold in scientific research, Michaels explains why distortions in climate research should have been expected. (Note the subtitle of the book.) The dominant paradigm in the science of climate change includes the idea that “the major cause of recent climate change is the emission of carbon dioxide from the combustion of fossil fuel.” Furthermore, scientists and statisticians through “improved quantification . . . will give policy makers . . . guidance on what might be required to slow, stop, or reverse those changes.” Over time, a paradigm can be overthrown, but it must first be widely recognized as failing, and there needs to be a coherent replacement available.

Michaels states the alternative paradigm as follows: “We know, to a very small range of error, the amount of future climate change for the foreseeable future, and it is a modest value to which humans have adapted and will continue to adapt. There is no known, feasible policy that can stop or even slow these changes in a fashion that could be scientifically measured.” Unfortunately it is not until this point (on page 222) that the reader is informed that “this book is about the resistance to this new paradigm.”

Michaels explains how established paradigms, which are rarely challenged by the bulk of a profession, have “lives of their own.” For most academic scientists, receiving tenure requires publishing in accepted peer-reviewed journals.These journals have editors and referees who are steeped in the dominant paradigm. Therefore, publishable research must ask only those questions that are generally accepted within it. Hence,the paradigm is perpetuated.

Layered on top of this is the “federalization of science,” in this case the federal funding of climate-change research. Here is where Public Choice theory enters. It is not in the interest of NASA, DOE, the EPA, and other agencies to fund research that does not accept the dominant paradigm, which, by definition, will perpetuate a need for additional appropriations from Congress. This process stifles both research into and public awareness of the alternative paradigm. Government funding reduces the probability that the dominant paradigm, no matter how inconsistent with real-world data, will be overthrown.

Clearly, Michaels’s book is a must-read for anyone interested in getting the straight facts about global warming. But this book is just as important for those who want to better understand the relationship between scientific research and government funding that lies behind it. Professor Michaels makes it clear that government funding of science can be dangerous to both our liberty and to the advancement of science itself.

  • Roy Cordato is Vice President for Research and resident scholar at the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, NC. He is also a part time faculty member at NC State University where he teaches a primarily Austrian course called Political Economy of the Market Process and is faculty advisor for the Austrian Economics Forum made up of graduate and undergraduate students. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.