I’m currently writing a review of Michael Crichton’s new book State of Fear (should be done and published next week, several months after anybody gives a damn). In it, smarty-pants characters who think global warming is a hoax argue against borderline-retarded characters who believe it’s a real phenomenon. The smarty-pants cite many scientific papers in support of their view; the borderline-retarded do not.

Setting aside the dubious literary merits of this arrangement, it raises an interesting question I think people ought to discuss more forthrightly: Why do non-scientists believe what they believe about global warming?

(Warning: extended ramble ahead. Click at your own risk.)I’m not a scientist. I know more about science generally and some fields in particular than the average American, which isn’t saying much. I know about as much science as the average over-educated liberal-arts-focused elite progressive coastal urban intellectual bluestate American (OELAFEPCUIBA) … which still isn’t saying very much. Why do I believe that anthropocentric global warming is a genuine phenomenon? Why do I believe in genes, or the big bang, or evolution, or electromagnetism, or hell, molecules, none of which I’ve ever seen? Because scientists say so.

I do not collect empirical evidence, run experiments, formulate conclusions, try to duplicate results, and develop theories on these matters. Even if I did, it would take me many thousands of lifetimes to catch up with what science has already done. So I take scientists’ word for it. I keep an open mind, yes, but overall I take it on their authority.

Now, some folks say, “that makes science a religion for you.  Your faith is no different from mine. I think God created us 6,000 years ago; you think we evolved. That’s where the debate ends.”

No. Taking scientists on authority means believing in the methods of science. I believe that the slow, incremental, self-correcting, empirical work of the scientific community is producing accurate information (let us dodge the larger metaphysical debate about capital-R Reality for now, hm?). This belief has paid overwhelming pragmatic dividends for humanity, particularly in this last century. Science works.

When it comes to the debate over global warming, it is all but irrelevant that Crichton can cite individual papers in support of his skepticism. You recall that “the current thinking of scientists on climate change is based on thousands of studies. Any new study will be one small grain of evidence that adds to this big pile, and it will shift the thinking of scientists slightly.” What matters are not the individual papers but the collective result — i.e., the consensus — which is robust and squarely behind the basic notion of anthropocentric climate change.

When it comes to the broad conclusions we should draw from the totality of research to date, I generally will trust the collective judgment of the scientists involved over the judgment of a dilettante with a political axe to grind. If Crichton wants to convince me that the consensus is wrong, he has to convince me either that a) there is a flaw in the scientific method itself, or if not, that in this particular case some social or political influence is either b) leading the scientific community to substantially overstate the strength of its results, or c) systematically biasing scientists’ work toward a particular result.

Few will stake their claim on A outright, but that is what it amounts to when you hear the contemptuous dismissal that “science isn’t based on consensus.” Yes, it is. Truth is not based on consensus. Truth is based on nothing but itself. It is possible for everyone to believe something that is incorrect, and no doubt that’s going on as we speak. But science is based on consensus. Despite the popular myth of the renegade scientist alone in his laboratory, or speaking up bravely before a hostile, conformist crowd, science is in fact a collaborative enterprise. Scientists attempt to replicate each other’s results, to test inconsistencies, to find the common ground that holds. There will be times when scientific conventional wisdom is incorrect, of course, but absent concrete reason to doubt this particular consensus, the smart money goes on the mainstream view. Revolutionary, paradigm-shifting scientific mavericks are justly famous, but they are also rare — history is riddled with many, many, many more mavericks who were just cranks.

Presumably Crichton has no problem with science itself, so what’s wrong with this particular consensus then? He says, as do many other skeptics, that climate scientists dramatically overstate their certainty — much of this criticism focuses on climate science’s use of models, misguidedly asserting that this sets it apart from other fields (it doesn’t). I will grant that environmentalists overstate the degree of scientific certainty about certain things — say, the link between climate change and recent severe weather events — but if anything I see the scientists themselves constantly trying to pull back the reins on this sort of thing. But regardless, the basic fact of anthropocentric climate change is virtually unchallenged in the peer-reviewed literature at this point. Any confident prediction of the exact course climate will take is a fool’s errand, but one can be fairly certain about the warming trend and the role CO2 plays in it.

So that leaves C: The idea that scientists are, wittingly or not, systematically biasing their results toward conclusions that support the current consensus. This is, in fact, Crichton’s contention, and the only real substance to his argument. To make the case, one has to propose some sort of plausible reason or mechanism by which this happens. Crichton’s is, put bluntly, this: that scientists are under constant, crushing pressure from the media, the environmental community, the academy, and fellow scientists to support the consensus. If they dare defy the pressure and publish contradictory results, they will lose funding, be scorned by their peers, and find themselves derided in the media. Such is the power of the environmental movement that it has these institutions in thrall and enforces conformity without mercy. The book even begins with the head of a powerful environmental organization flying to the Arctic to directly browbeat a scientist into changing his results.

I won’t embarrass Crichton by going through it in detail here, but this theory is fleshed out with a bunch of hooey about the military-industrial complex giving way to the politico-legal-media (PLM) complex. The PLM, you see, needs the citizenry to be frightened, and global warming is just another bogeyman to do the job. This is what his case rests on: that the new ruling class relies on fear, and climate change is a convenient source thereof.

We’re supposed to look around at the broad but utterly shallow public support of environmental issues, the apathy, the intransigence of the U.S. government, the utter political impotence of the environmental movement, and conclude nonetheless that there’s a massive conspiracy going on sufficient to cow scientists into, basically, lying. Not just some scientists — the vast majority of scientists in the field. They are scared to speak freely, you see, and that’s why we need heroic skeptics like Crichton to stand tall against the tide.  

This is, on its face, absurd.

I’ve gone on too long, but let me summarize: The central question about global warming for the average citizen is, who do you trust? Do you trust the consensus of scientists working in the field, or do you believe Crichton and his band of conservative ideologues that the consensus is systematically biased by sociopolitical pressure?

Don’t be impressed by footnotes and bibliographies. Don’t start thinking you can, as a layman, judge the scientific issues for yourself, anymore than you could adjudicate between conflicting geological theories of tectonic plate drift. Your only recourse is to suss out, as best you can, who’s on the up and up.

Me, I’m going with the scientists.