It seems like this question has come up again and again in recent years. I see an article somewhere or someone suggests I read an editorial or an election comes up. The two sides are diametrically opposed and they both have arguments for their position and against their opponents. Who do I believe? How do I figure out who’s got facts on their side and who’s blowing lots of smoke?
Here’s a recent example. A friend passed on an editorial from the Wall Street Journal, “The Weekend Interview with Bjorn Lomborg” and asked what I thought of it. (It takes a subscription at wsj.com but it can be seen here) Lomborg’s basic premise is that among the large list of problems in the world today, global warming is low on the list of those that require immediate action. He contends there are many more serious issues, such as AIDS. And he gathered a group of UN delegates who performed a ranking exercise on the problems and agreed with him.
So how do I know what to think of this article. I’m not a climate scientist. I’m not a policy expert. How do I decide?
Well, I’ve come up with certain techniques over the years that work for me. Many have come from my research into the debate between scientists writing about evolution and the creationists who oppose them. I’ve done a lot of research into this one question and I’m absolutely convinced that the scientists have the facts straight and the creationists are completely out-to-lunch. It’s like looking in the back of the book for the answer. Science is right, creationism is wrong. Now what can that teach us about evaluating the rightness or wrongness of ideas?
1) Where does the idea appear? The Lomborg story is an editorial in the Wall Street Journal. I think the WSJ editorial page has a definite bias, shared by the Republican administration, to misrepresent some of the findings of science in order to bend the facts to match the results the administration wishes for. Human caused global warming is one of those ideas which both the WSJ and the administration have opposed. The WSJ had another editorial a week after this one, I couldn’t link directly to the editorial but here is a link to a commentary about it by Joe Barton. So seeing this article in the WSJ doesn’t mean it’s wrong, but it does mean I would look at it very carefully because they have a definite point-of-view.
2) Whose name appears in the article? A person prominently identified in the article is John Bolton, which makes me doubt the other information in the article. From what I learned about John Bolton at his confirmation hearings, he sounds like a very unpleasant person. I wouldn’t trust the policy decisions he made that are spoken of so highly in the article. The administration he represents does not have a good track record with respect to scientific findings. I’ve read of too many occasions where they’ve altered the findings of scientists. And they certainly have a strong bias against the problem of global warming. So of course they would mark it at the bottom of a list of issues to be solved.
3) Outside the article, who supports or opposes the idea? In the case of global warming, there are many prominent climate scientists supporting the idea of global warming. And there are prominent science organizations supporting it as well. It’s true there are organizations that oppose this idea. But I’ve learned from the evolution/creation debate that it’s easy to create a fancy sounding institute to pour out the worst kind of misinformation. The key is to look at what the working scientists in the field are saying and doing.
4) What do I know personally about the idea? Concerning global warming, I may not be a climate expert but I do keep abreast of scientific and general news. And I’ve become more and more convinced that big climate changes are coming fast. The news about worldwide glacial melting was the tipping point for me. Combining that with articles about plants and animals changing their geographic ranges because of climate changes is very compelling. It would take some pretty significant evidence going the other way to convince me that human caused global warming is not a serious concern for the future of human life on this planet.