Tribune News Service
Science works through status quo challenges, through checking and rechecking, through producing evidence to counter other evidence and constantly arriving at reconsidered conclusions. Societies, in similar fashion, work best by being open and free, getting it that, in a contest between discourse and dictate, it's time and again discourse that provides the needed wisdom.
All of this and more is why it is so astonishing and dismaying -- but also revealing -- to see a group of 20 alarmed climatologists wanting to curtail debate on global warming by shutting up the opposition, and hardly by gentle means. They want to employ tactics fashioned to go after gangsters.
The tool would be the Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, allowing trials of those only indirectly involved in crimes. It was meant to heap massive damage on such groups as the Mafia, and it did. The climatologists want to use it against those connected to fossil fuel corporations who are arguing that global warming is not the terror it is often portrayed as being.
These climatologists say there's self-serving deception going on here and that the consequences could be inadequate action curtailing a wide variety of horrors. They have sent a letter asking President Barack Obama and others in his administration for an investigation, and what we will get if it comes is massive damage to free speech and something you would think an alarmist would fear: less discernment in coping with climate change.
Free speech, after all, has beneficial consequences. As the great English philosopher John Stuart Mill said in his 1859 book, "On Liberty," silencing an opinion robs everybody. It just may be true or at least partially true, and, if we do not hear it, we may never profit from the multiple dividends this truth provides.
If it is false, he said, its collision with truth can lead to a "clearer perception" of what the true statement has going for it as defenders more closely examine their reasoning. "Both teachers and learners go to sleep at their post as soon as there is no enemy in the field," Mill explains.
To argue that authority can squash opinion without fear of squashing truth is to assume human infallibility of a kind that Mill has never noticed, he says. He tells us, too, that discounting an argument because it's intemperate can be risky, seeing as how all sides in a dispute may be intemperate. Banishing opinions from people with ulterior motives? That's a mistake, he points out, because bad actors can have correct opinions.
Twenty years before the birth of Albert Einstein, who dramatically redid the theories of Isaac Newton, Mill said even Newton should be questioned. So should the views of warming alarmists. Throughout the history of science, consensus theories have evolved only to be sent to the shed, and the alarmist consensus is nowhere near what it is made out to be, as careful critics have shown. Most climatologists do believe in warming and human activity as a cause without always believing in certain catastrophe down the road or embracing political solutions that could do more harm than the warming itself.
Scientists and public officials will be holding a conference in Paris this December to fashion a global climate policy agreement, and the last thing we need is a quieting of those with important questions before it begins, while it's going on or after it's done. The more back-and-forth discussion there is on a topic, the better answers can get, as Mill also said, in contradiction to confused despotic urgings inspired by apocalyptic imaginings.
We've had as much from members of Congress instigating investigations of the funding of supposed warming skeptics, from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D.-R.I., who also called for the RICO action, and from these 20 scientists. Their proposals would make Mill blush and ought to make the American citizenry outraged.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Jay Ambrose is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service. Readers may email him at speaktojayaol.com.