The overwhelming scientific consensus is that the Earth is getting warmer, and human activity is the best explanation for why. As the Earth continues to get warmer, we may see cataclysmic results as land near sea-level is covered with water, plant and animal life struggles to exist in a warmer environment, and climate refugees crowd moderate climes. There is no guarantee that we can slow the process of global warming, but there is good reason to think that doing nothing will exacerbate the phenomenon, making it more likely that we will feel more catastrophic results sooner. With the outlook this grim, it is easy to understand why some people are tempted to deny global warming, or at least, anthropogenic global warming (AGW). After all, if the Earth isn’t getting warmer, or if the Earth’s warming has nothing to do with us, then we don’t have to alter our way of life. The impulse to live in denial about AGW is, if not defensible, at least understandable, but this does not mean that AGW-denial is a legitimate scientific position.
Last week, Frank Furedi, a British sociologist and columnist for the web-magazine Spiked, published an essay arguing that, because of the high moral stakes of global warming, the process of peer review in scientific journals has been compromised. In other words, Furedi thinks that scientists are so worried about the cataclysmic consequences of ignoring global warming that they are no longer giving fair consideration to the arguments and research of legitimate climate-change skeptics. Instead, Furedi, thinks that scientists and other academics use the process of peer review to shut out controversial or unpopular theories so that they will never have the authoritative status of journal-published research.
The charge that contemporary scientists are complicit in what Furedi calls a "noble lie," willfully ignoring the research of climate skeptics in order to bolster the authority of the theory of AGW, is serious. I would be tempted to congratulate Furedi on his courage and insight were it not for a glaring oversight in his argument. Simply put, the best explanation for the scientific consensus about AGW, is that AGW is real. Moreover, the realness of AGW is not just the best explanation for the consensus but also the best explanation for why, if there were such a conspiracy or "noble lie" in place, scientists would be complicit in promoting it. But, of course, if AGW is real, then it’s hard to see how the scientific community is lying. More moderately, Furedi could just be making the point that the scientific community, while not dishonest, has become myopic to new climate research, ignoring data that does not fit in with the consensus view because they view climate skepticism not simply as incorrect but as dangerous. However, this charge, while less extreme, is no more reasonable.
For the sake of argument, let us grant that the publication of scientific research can have moral consequences. It is perfectly reasonable to assume that the editors of research journals may be wary of publishing controversial research that may exert disproportionate influence on public opinion. We all know about the disastrous consequences of the bogus vaccine research published in the British journal, Lancet, which charged that MMR vaccine causes autism, a dangerous myth that has survived despite the retraction of the article and the apology of its lead author. But, unlike vaccine skepticism, AGW skepticism doesn’t just have the potential to be dangerous, it also has the potential to be extremely profitable*.
Reducing emissions is costly. Telling people that they have to give up comforts or pay more for them is unpopular. So, if there were legitimate scientific research that challenged AGW, surely industrialized nations that have a vested interest in their carbon-burning economies would want to fund and publish that research. It is more than improbable that every major institution and individual in the scientific community, from the U.S. to Finland to China, is so worried about the possibility of being wrong that not one would take the risk of publishing promising data. After all, scientists make their careers by publishing research that challenges the established consensus. Moreover, because scientists and scientific institutions build their reputations by conducting novel research that challenges conventional understanding, it is absurd to suggest that all of these competing institutions are complicit in a global scientific conspiracy to ignore the very information that could set them apart and make them important. If there were any even remotely plausible rival to AGW, LOTS of scientists would be studying it, and it is very likely that the scientific community would significantly exaggerate its importance. Scientists like good news too, after all.
The best explanation for why peer-reviewed scientific research journals have not published legitimate theories to rival AGW is that there are no scientifically legitimate rival explanations. Global-warming deniers may consider themselves skeptics, but that term implies no shrewd deliberation or depth of consideration when applied to them. We don’t have a good reason to doubt AGW, and characterizing AGW skeptics as thoughtful rather than willfully ignorant is offensive.
*This is not to suggest that the Lancet vaccine research was unbiased by the potential for profit. It is now known that the lead author of the paper was under the employ of a rival vaccine manufacturer when published falsified data suggesting that the MMR vaccine might cause autism.