When the right misunderstands science (again)

In the Wall Street Journal this week, the Manhattan Institute’s Robert Bryce offers the latest conservative case against climate science, much of which is pretty familiar. There was one part of his argument, though, that’s gotten some attention, and for good reason.

The science is not settled, not by a long shot. Last month, scientists at CERN, the prestigious high-energy physics lab in Switzerland, reported that neutrinos might — repeat, might — travel faster than the speed of light. If serious scientists can question Einstein’s theory of relativity, then there must be room for debate about the workings and complexities of the Earth’s atmosphere.

This line of argument comes up from time to time, and it’s worth appreciating how deeply misguided it is.

Bryce wants readers to reject evidence on climate science, but in the process, he’s actually making the case against all science. Jon Chait had a good item on this yesterday.

The argument goes like this: We can’t be completely sure about any scientific conclusion, not even the theory of relativity, so we might as well listen to the best scientific conclusions available. Bryce starts down that path, but veers off: Since we can’t be sure of any science, let’s ignore climate science. He doesn’t seem to realize he’s made the case for ignoring all science.

I have an idea — why don’t you jump out your window? We can’t be completely sure about the theory of gravity!

But the problems go further. When the folks at CERN saw neutrinos moving faster than they should have, they published the data, invited scrutiny, and encouraged their peers to check their work. If it stands up, old assumptions will be questioned anew. If the scientists made a mistake, canon will remain intact. It’s a little process popularly known as science.

Bryce uses the CERN example, dubious though it is, a way to ask for open-mindedness — and who’s in favor of being closed minded, right?

This might have been more compelling a few decades ago. Now, however, we have years of heavily-scrutinized data and models, and they all say the same thing: we have a climate crisis that requires immediate action.

Bryce wants there to be “room for debate”? There already is — those with evidence that contradicts what we know are welcome to do what the CERN scientists did (publish finding, invite scrutiny, etc.). But simply saying that someone, somewhere, might at some time be able to find some evidence that challenges the scientific consensus on climate change isn’t much of an argument.