“But what if I’m wrong?”
A novel question, don’t you think?
This seems to be a preposterous question to many experts and people of authority. Their degrees and titles are accumulated like armor to shield them from such questioning by others, and our narcissistic society of recent decades does much to program high levels of ‘self-esteem’ and ’empowerment’ to fill in any gaps in credentials. Can you picture Larry Summers or John Boehner or Larry Ellison or Marissa Mayer asking this?
As an auditor and consultant who has spent much of my time questioning the wisdom of others, I am exposed to the occupational hazard of turning those weapons of critical inquiry on one’s self. Fortunately, it is rarely suicidal, and it can sometimes have the benefit of alerting one to one’s own foolishness before it is brought to one’s attention by others, ….generally not gently.
I engage this question most often, which is generally daily, with the subjects of climate change and energy transition. A recent article on the protracted drought in the western US brought the question to the fore. At issue is whether the western US is undergoing a cyclical drought that has happened before in various cycles and various levels of severity for various extended periods of time, or whether this is the systemic effect of climate change that will not manifest as a cycle, but a trend. If we wait for a definitive answer, the consequences could be dire for those directly affected. If we rush to act on either assumption, we stand a risk of wasting precious resources or precious time. In the moment, one bears a significant risk of error, with consequences, one way or another.
The specific manifestation may be drought, but the contextual question of cause is by no means unique to this piece of geography or this particular natural phenomenon. Climate skeptics and climate change adherents can each marshal arcane data to support their position, or alternatively poke holes in the credibility of the other side’s argument. Often, neither side can prove or disprove their argument, because neither side has sufficient bullet-proof information. Much of what climate change advocates rely on for climate history is inferential evidence drawn from proxies: tree rings, ice cores, soil cores, etc. And the more direct and current evidence is either insufficient in time span or insufficient in breadth and depth of accumulation (e.g. ocean temperatures, atmospheric readings at higher altitudes over the entire globe for completeness and uniformity) to be able to have a lock on an argument. The skeptics’ preferred route is divide an conquer: cherry-pick the data that supports the premise, and narrow in on a particular arcane facet to the exclusion of everything else that’s happening. A recent article on divergent approaches to storm surge and sea level rise further illustrates the dilemma.
The scientific community, which we are told is 97% supportive of the premise that Climate Change is a) real, and b) subject to human influence, is somewhat schizophrenic as a group on the subject of climate change. On the one hand, some significant chorus of the community is warning us in breathless tones of the impending point of no return in climate system dynamics that will seal our fate. On the other hand, with each new report on ice sheets, or tornadoes or ocean acidification, or monsoonal rains, or new high temperatures, or whatever, they demure to make a direct connection to climate change because “we don’t yet have enough data to state the case conclusively”. That may be valid from a perspective of scientific methodology, but it does not sustain the thesis that we “must do something NOW”, even though the apparent trend of events that we all can observe suggests that we probably should. And, it does not sustain the proposition of exactly what we should do now to what attainable effect.
There are four reasons why I can sustain commitment to the hypothesis of climate change in spite of science’s struggle to bring coherence to seemingly disparate facts or conundrums in modeling:
1) Something’s going on, across a broad range of phenomena with some level of consistency and apparent escalation that it cannot be responsibly dismissed as just another day in paradise, even if we can’t explain it definitively now. (multiple data points)
2) Even if the science remains somewhat muddled and inconclusive within the straight-jacket of its empirical methodology, the anecdotal evidence from that unruly place we call The Real World is sufficiently diverse in nature, and congruent in basic direction to give comfort that a trend of some kind is developing to which we must pay attention, because the consequences could be such that we cannot afford to ignore. (Multiple perspectives)
3) While the scientific community is by no means immune to herd mentality, the breadth of professional specialties and institutions and vested interests who have come to consensus defies credible belief that the consensus is merely herd mentality orchestrated by some world-dominating cabal. (Checks and balances)
4) So many of the arguments hurled at consensus science by the outliers and their camp followers are predicated on such apparently flimsy logical and factual constructs that they beg dismissal from serious consideration. (Logical fallacy)
But still one must allow that even the minute minority may be right for the wrong reasons. Scientific progress has often been built on destruction by renegades of conventional wisdom of the moment. They cannot be summarily dismissed.
Is the sun a factor in global warming? Quite likely, although current scientific methodology has given it modest influence. Are greenhouse gases the major cause? Quite probably because we know the chemistry of burning carbon fuels beyond question, and we know the physics of their effect. Unfortunately those physics are not the only physics to be considered in understanding climatic evolution.
So, an open mind is essential, and the question: “But what if I’m wrong”, is a vital tool of self-assessment and intellectual integrity for all players. But too few seem to use it.
The Question (BWIIAW) becomes particularly important when one’s responsibility for decision-making impacts the well-being of others; their lives and livelihood, their health, their wealth. People who are clueless about climate change are keenly aware of their personal circumstances, and understandably distrustful of those who pronounce with obvious disregard for personal consequences. The manifestation of arrogance and indifference on both sides of the climate debate is troubling, and explains in large measure why humankind has not progressed sufficiently on this issue.
Nor is The Question exclusive to climate change. It might be nice for both sides of the fracking issue to try it out. And genetic engineering. And nano-technology. And technological displacement. And Big Data Analytics. And economic policy. And foreign policy. And medical efficacy. And data privacy. And right to life. And death with dignity. And interventions of all kinds for all the best of intentions. And the list goes on. In a time when Big Data has yet to vanquish great uncertainties, and when judgments in a nanosecond can yield regrets that ‘keep on giving’, we can all afford a moment to ask ourselves ‘The Question’.
Asking The Question doesn’t necessarily give me answers, but it does inject a minimum daily requirement of humility. And as long as a voice in my head does not whisper ‘Sid, you’re probably wrong, or at least on really thin ice’, I can inch forward for another day, and ask again tomorrow.