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Grant McDermott

Assistant Professor
Dept. of Economics
University of Oregon

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Consider this a follow-up, of sorts, to my Facts vs Beliefs post...

Going over what I had written there and then partaking in the comments section, I was reminded of a review of Mark Levin's best-selling book, Liberty and Tyranny, by Jim Manzi[*]. It's a great piece of literary criticism in which Manzi - focusing specifically on the the issue of climate change - doesn't pull in punches about Levin's intellectual laziness. I really urge everyone to read the entire article, but here is a sample:
Liberty and Tyranny and Epistemic Closure 
[W]hen I waded into the first couple of chapters, I found that – while I had a lot of sympathy for many of its basic points – it seemed to all but ignore the most obvious counter-arguments that could be raised to any of its assertions. This sounds to me like a pretty good plain English meaning of epistemic closure. The problem with this, of course, is that unwillingness to confront the strongest evidence or arguments contrary to our own beliefs normally means we fail to learn quickly, and therefore persist in correctable error.  
I’m not expert on many topics the book addresses, so I flipped to its treatment of a subject that I’ve spent some time studying – global warming – in order to see how it treated a controversy for which I’m at least familiar with the various viewpoints and some of the technical detail. 

It was awful. It was so bad that it was like the proverbial clock that chimes 13 times – not only is it obviously wrong, but it is so wrong that it leads you to question every other piece of information it has ever provided. 
Levin argues that human-caused global warming is nothing to worry about, and merely an excuse for the Enviro-Statist (capitalization in the original) to seize more power. It reads like a bunch of pasted-together quotes and stories based on some quick Google searches by somebody who knows very little about the topic, and can’t be bothered to learn.
After mentioning the fact the Levin fails to mention a single one of the host of scientific organisations that have endorsed the notion of man-made global warming, Manzi goes on to list a good number of them. He then writes:
Of course, this roll call [of scientific bodies] could be arbitrarily long and illustrious, and that does not make them right. Groupthink or corruption is always possible, and maybe the entire global scientific establishment is wrong. Does he think that these various scientists are somehow unaware that Newsweek had an article on global cooling in the 1970s? Or are they aware of the evidence in his book, but are too trapped by their assumptions to be able to incorporate this data rationally? Or does he believe that the whole thing is a con in which thousands of scientists have colluded across decades and continents to fool such gullible naifs as the U.S. Congressional Budget Office, numerous White House science advisors, Margaret Thatcher and so on? Are the Queen of England and the Trilateral Commission in on it too?
But what evidence does Levin present for any of this amazing incompetence or conspiracy beyond that already cited? None. He simply moves on to criticisms of proposed solutions. This is wingnuttery.
===

By chance, I then scrolled through some of Manzi's more recent posts and came across one that is directly relevant to the topics that Becks, Mars and I have been discussing in the comments section of the Facts vs Beliefs post. Essentially, Manzi is grappling with the question of how we should proceed when public opinion conflicts with that of the relevant experts. He cites some interesting articles that offer food for thought on a number of opposing views. Again, I urge you to read the full article, but here is a snippet:
Our So-called Experts 
Ezra Klein[...] was admirably willing to call a spade a spade:
This isn’t a very popular statement, but there is a role for elites in public life. Just like I want knowledgeable CEOs running companies and knowledgeable doctors performing surgeries, I want knowledgeable legislators crafting public policy. That’s why we have a representative democracy, rather than some form of government-by-referendum. But of late, the elites in the Republican Party are abdicating their roles, preferring to pander to the desire for free tax cuts and the hostility to Al Gore than make tough and potentially unpopular decisions to safeguard our future.
[snip]
I think this raises the crucial question in this debate: What is the valid scope of expertise?
In the case of climate change, there is actual scientific knowledge about the properties of CO2, but advocates of emissions mitigation schemes constantly attempt to drape the mantle of science, or more broadly expert knowledge, around public policy positions that, as I have argued many times, do not follow even from the core technical reports produced by the asserted experts.
[snip]
The essential Progressive belief that Klein expresses in undiluted form is that crafting public policy through legislation is a topic for which, in simplified terms, the benefits of expertise outweigh the benefits of popular contention. Stated more cautiously, this would be the belief that the institutional rules of the game should be more heavily tilted toward expert opinion on many important topics than they are in the U.S. today.
This would be a lot more compelling if the elites didn’t have such a terrible track record of producing social interventions that work.
While social interventions certainly don't always work, this of course does not mean we should abdicate our responsibility in thinking seriously about how we might solve the problem at hand. Further, the crucial point with "relevant expertise" in the context of this discussion, is the juncture where we move from science to the spheres of policy and economics. As I've pointed out a number of times before on this blog, these need to be separated. I want scientists to tell what they expect the likely impacts of climate change to be, but they shouldn't be the ones to decide how (or if) we react. Speaking of which...

I deplore misinformation and alarmism on both sides of this argument. I can think of a number of people - Manzi among them - who believe that man-made global warming is occurring, but provide reasonable arguments as to why it makes more (economic) sense to focus on, say, adaptation rather than mitigation measures. For various reasons - uncertainty, the imperfect substitutability of of natural and man-made goods, etc - I respectively disagree with these assertions.

Nevertheless, whatever your stance, the fundamental problem remains that carbon does not carry a price to correct for the negative externality that it entails... People are simply not able to make an economic valuation of how best to respond to climate change if they are missing the cost component. There are many good reasons to oppose regulations and micromanagement of our lives by the state. However, I have yet to hear a single convincing argument of how society would resolve the climate issue without significant government intervention. That, unfortunately, is the very problem at the heart of public goods.


[*] For those of you that haven't heard of Manzi before, I don't think he would object to me summarising his political position as somewhere between a modern-day conservative and libertarian (though closer to the latter). He has provided reasoned criticisms of reactionary emissions-reductions policy while writing for the Cato Institute among others, yet remains strongly critical of those opposing the mainstream scientific view on (i.e. anthropogenic) climate change. He currently contributes regular opinion pieces for The American Scene.