March 9, 2010. talk abstract:
An impasse of credibility currently prevails in the US around the issues of climate change that threatens to paralyze citizens and experts alike. Much of the internet, radio talk shows, and popular television is flooded with challenges to the credibility and trustworthiness of climate scientists, and even the prestige press (e.g., NY Times and NYRB) has, in an effort to adhere to their traditional ethic of “balance,” has contributed to the widespread misimpression that climate scientists are deeply divided about both the extent of the dangers we face and the relevance of human activity. Not knowing who or what to believe, not knowing how to assess the costs of inaction, the natural response for most people is to do nothing. Meanwhile, the evidence of the seriousness of the problem continues to mount. Most climate scientists, even though extremely concerned, have been reluctant to weigh in on these (often acrimonious) public debates, instead seeking recourse in the particular authority granted them by “peer review,” and fearing that going outside, beyond the reach of peer review, might undermine their credibility. The effect is that the debate that rages in the public domain remains unchecked for intellectual or scientific reliability. The situation is dire, for, given that we live in a democratic state, the possibility of any effective action depends absolutely on the consent of a properly informed public. The questions I want to pose are therefore of two kinds: The first concerns the role of expertise in a democratic society, the ways in which lay citizens can responsibly participate in policy decisions, and the question of how a lay reader is to decide who and what to believe. The second concerns the nature and limits of the climate scientist’s particular responsibility in this political and social situation.