An Open Letter to Thomas Friedman

February 22, 2010 at 5:33 pm (Guest Post)

A Guest Post by Callimachus

answering Friedman’s 2/17 column “Global Weirding is Here.”

Quick credentials: I generally agree with you. I’m a historian/journalist, internationalist, lifelong secularist and apologist for the scientific method; I’ve gone to the mat nationally and locally in public in the ugly fights against creationism and bogus “Christian America” history texts. References supplied upon request.

And this misguided crusade over global warming compromises scientists as a class. Memories of this debate will be an obstacle to anyone who wishes to promote scientific methods. Science will seem to be no better than, no different than, ideology, theology, or political mania.

Look at the language. Skim the AP articles and see how often scientists defending the catastrophic global warming scenario cast their opponents as “the skeptics.” When scientists define themselves against “skeptics,” we’re no longer talking about science as I recognize it.

The “skeptics” may not have tenure, but they have something respectable the other side wants: Horse sense.

You lament the term “global warming” as a bad one — it’s been lamented as a bad one from the beginning by the sober heads who really understood the research. Why did it prevail anyhow, and what does that say about the movement?

You want to change it. It’s too late to change it, just as it’s too late to change “evolution,” a term Darwin lamented (and used only once), but which was thumbtacked to the public mind by Spencer and the social darwinists and eugenicists — the scientific enthusiasts who took it all too far in the name of a better tomorrow.

So if — as in your own recent column — widespread cooling is touted as evidence of “global warming” — you can’t be surprised that the common people increasingly are skeptics. To your credit, you make that point.

Yet the fault is deeper than a mischosen word. For years there had been evidence of a lack of warming in Antarctica. The “skeptics” sometimes noted that inconvenient fact. And the global warming enthusiasts found a way to claim that lack-of-warming in Antarctica was entirely consistent with — even predictable in — their global warming doomsday model. Then some zealous scientists found, in fact, evidence of warming in Antarctica. And that was brazenly welcomed as evidence of global warming.

When “X” and “not X” both prove theory Y, we are no longer talking about science as I recognize it. I go with the horse sense crowd. I’m with the skeptics.

The skeptics see a group of powerful and vocal people trying to ram through an agenda of massive societal and economic change (up to and including capping capitalism and redistributing wealth from rich nations to poor ones) on the plea that to do anything otherwise than exactly that is to deliberately let the planet burn.

And they remember that the same people were pushing the same agenda long before anyone coined the phrase “global warming.” They also remember the number of scientific certainties that have been upended in their lifetimes. Perhaps they even remember that a century ago the scientific consensus was that human races are biologically definable, rankable, would never be equal in their capabilities, and their birth rates ought to be controlled for the good of the species.

No corporate chicanery paid for those racist conclusions. They came out of the minds of scientists, who were products of their cultures and societies. Some of the best scientists of our times, Stephen Jay Gould, for example, devoted much of their work to warning us that scientists are as susceptible to self-delusion and groupthink as any other humans.

If you’re a scientist today researching this topic, what’s your incentive to publish honest results that fail to show evidence of imminent global warming catastrophe? What’s your likely penalty for doing so? You don’t have to be a scientist to ask that question and guess the answer.

The horse sense skeptics are mocked and humiliated for it by the eggheads. They not only insist on crying wolf, they will slap you if you don’t listen. Which is an awful mistake for eggheads to make, but they seem to have been carried away in this by their veteran leftish politician allies. The horse sense people are not dupes of the oil companies: They’re deeply suspicious of and hostile to them, too. Instead, they are approaching the global warming catastrophists with a skepticism I wish scientists used in choosing their allies.

Global warming scientists and their allies often equate global warming skeptics with creationists. Evolution is a statement about what happened in the past, based on millions of fossils and millions of living species, with a full set of subsidiary sciences (genetics, etc.) that can be tested daily in a middle school lab.

When people predict what species and ecosystems will look like in the future, that’s not evolutionary science, even if biologists do it (and generally they are smart enough not to). It’s whimsy, it’s science fiction.

Catastrophic global warming is a prediction about the future, based on computer models.

The scientific study of climate and how it changes didn’t even exist before about 1960. Those who study it still have no consensus about why it changed in the past.

The Earth’s climate changes over time. The change can be catastrophic. We still don’t know what makes it change. What we know for sure is the Earth has been much warmer in its recent past, and much cooler. There’s no guarantee on the climate you see around you.

Why were there Ice Ages after tens of millions of years without them? Why were there dramatic warm spikes in the middle of them? Why has world climate been relatively stable for the past 4,000 years? Nobody knows. No good scientific model of world climate change yet has been constructed.

One of the old books I like to take down and look at sometimes is a school geography text from 1876. I like to see the world as it looked to people then, the world that people learned about in school.

The book opens with the bland statement that the Earth is a sphere. But then it goes on to acknowledge that it doesn’t look this way to us who walk on it, and then the authors tell why geographers know it’s a sphere.

It only takes about two short paragraphs, but it’s something that dropped out of our way of learning. It acknowledges that even a child’s objection that “it doesn’t look that way to me” is worth answering, and that in fact this is a wise question, not a stupid one, and that any authority that makes a bald statement owes it to his students to produce evidence for it.

Nowadays, it’s supposed to be sufficient that an expert says something. Anyone who doesn’t accept the word of the expert, who even dares to ask “How do you think you know that,” is dismissed as a rube or worse. Ross Gelbspan decries “greenhouse skeptics” as “criminals against humanity.”

I wish the people who expect me to join this religion would take the time to make it palatable to common sense and to admit that intelligent people of good will might not be convinced by doomsday movies.


  1. PatHMV said,

    Excellent post, Cal. Thanks for providing it.

  2. El Pollo Real said,

    Many thanks for the thoughtful and inspiring post Callimachus.

  3. LincolnTf said,

    Great post. Slowly but surely, the world is hearing people like you and getting it.

  4. Becky said,

    Speak up more often, Cal! We need to hear from you.

  5. Dave Schuler said,

    My goodness! I’d been wondering how you were and what you were up to. Good post, as always (and you can guest post at my digs any time you care to).

  6. Michael Reynolds said,

    It’s about time you poked your head up.

  7. karen said,

    Heh- One once silent speaks up, and two more answer!!!

    I listen to so much NPR for a conservative person–it’s ’cause my cows really like the English accents of the BBC(:0)). I say ~a$$holes~ and ~freaking liars~ out loud way too much, but i enjoy the news and the opinions.

    For instance,I cannot believe the hubris of humans… supposedly INTELLIGENT- for rocketing the moon. I mean- who does that???? What are the long-term ramifications, hmmmmm? How could we know what awful adverse effects that will eventually have on our world?

    Now, there’s talk of doing something to the clouds to make them ~whiter~ so they reflect the suns rays, or something to combat the heating of the earth due to- what- CO2… true story. It may kill millions of people in India, but that’s ok, so they say because it’s a minute negative reaction to a scientific solution that will benefit the majority- or some such shit.

    Lord, where have all the sane people gone to… besides Cal?

  8. callimachus said,

    Nice to see you all here. I have no intention of getting back into this gig. All I do now is parenting and dictionary. At least I can squeeze some money out of the latter. And try to figure out what I’m going to do when newspapers go away. Global warming just happens to be the enduring bee in my bonnet. Like Karen, I want to grab some people by the lapels and say, “who convinced you to switch off your baloney detector?” I really did look for Friedman’s e-mail before I gave up. Then when I was about to scrap the letter, I happened to see Amba had teed off on the same column, so I figured this had a home here, even if it’s redundant.

  9. realpc said,

    Of course they don’t know for certain that human industry affects the climate. But it’s very obvious that our species is overwhelming the planet in many ways. So maybe we aren’t causing global warming — but maybe we are. We should use more restraint. We can’t just let the human population explode indefinitely without causing catastrophes.

    I don’t know who you think recommended taking from rich nations and giving to poor nations to solve global warming. That doesn’t make sense. But maybe capitalism shouldn’t continue running free and trashing the earth.

    And I am a capitalist, and very far from being a progressive or socialist. But let’s not ignore common sense completely. Our species is too successful. I don’t know what if anything can be done about that. Any clever idea we have about how to fix things seems to backfire in some way.

    And yes academics tend to be arrogant know-it-alls. And of course scientists are just as vulnerable to group-think as anyone.

    But we can’t just keep killing off every other species and throwing garbage and poison everywhere and expect it to magically work out somehow.

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