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Why Are Older Scientists More Likely to Doubt Climate Alarmism?

Cornwall Alliance · Jul. 20, 2017

By E. Calvin Beisner

Back in 1984, Richard Lamm, then-Democratic Governor of Colorado, gained infamy for having said the terminally ill elderly have “a duty to die and get out of the way.”

Such disrespect for age persists among progressives. Bill Nye “The Science Guy,” a major proponent of global warming alarmism, blames climate skepticism on age.

“Climate change deniers, by way of example, are older. It’s generational,” Nye told the Los Angeles Times, adding, "We’re just going to have to wait for those people to ‘age out,’ as they say.“

Nye might be acting more scientifically if he were to ask himself, "Why are older scientists more likely to doubt climate alarmism?” It is, after all, not quite a rule of thumb that the older you get, the dumber you get. Age has a tendency to bring with it an accumulation of experiences and lessons that enhance rather than diminish discernment.

Had he asked that question, he might conceivably have contemplated the effect of a major change in the process of scientific education that happened in the 1970s and 1980s.

Before that time, computers were huge, fantastically expensive, and, though faster than humans with calculators or slide rules, incredibly slow by today’s standards. The vast majority of a scientist’s education, particularly for advanced degrees, took place working with physical objects, whether in the natural world or in laboratories. Scientists understood that hypotheses must be tested by comparing predictions with real-world observations.

But as computers got smaller, cheaper, and faster in the 1970s through 1980s, science students, especially as they worked on their graduate degrees, spent more and more of their time modeling what they understood about natural phenomena on computers and less and less time working with physical objects in laboratories or natural settings. The result was a high risk of neglecting the need to test hypotheses against observations.

Not having studied other fields of science at equally great depth, I can’t speak with confidence about them, but I can certainly speak with confidence about climate scientists when I say that those who earned their advanced degrees in the 1970s or later are highly prone to that lapse of scientific practice. Indeed, as Myanna Lahsen observed in her seminal paper “Seductive Simulations? Uncertainty Distribution around Climate Models,” climate modelers have a difficult time remembering that their modeled oceans and atmosphere aren’t the real oceans and atmosphere. Like kids (and all too many adults) trapped in the virtual realities of their computer games, these scientists, too, inhabit a virtual reality that must not be mistaken for the real thing.

The older scientists are the ones who keep pointing out that the models cannot retrodict global temperature without a large number of ad hoc adjustments, that their predictions of future temperature call, typically, for two to three times more warming than actually occurs, and that none predicted the complete absence of statistically significant warming from early 1997 through late 2015 (a stasis that, though interrupted by the warming caused by the unusually strong 2015–2016 El Niño, appears to have resumed from late 2016 to now, stretching it to over 20 years). The inability to accurately predict future temperatures, these scientists point out, reveals a lack of understanding of how the climate system really works.

One more point: Nye’s quip has the characteristics of two logical fallacies. First, his apparent eagerness for older climate scientists to “age out” so they won’t be around to question younger climate scientists’ alarmism smacks of argumentum ad bacculam, appeal to force, for of course the intent of punching one’s opponent in the nose is to shut him up, and what shuts someone up better than death? Second, it is an instance of argumentum ad futuram, an appeal to the future — “You just wait, in another 20 years when all these old guys have aged out, climate alarmism will have won the day!” But of course we cannot know that alarmism will have won the day. Some of those young alarmists might, with age, gain enough humility (something from which Nye might benefit) to dig deeply into their elders’ critiques and discover their own errors, becoming climate skeptics in the process.

Nye’s contempt for the insight of the older climate scientists and his referring to them pejoratively as “climate change deniers” (with the implicit allusion to Holocaust deniers) are evidence not of his brilliance but of his lack of understanding of how real science works — or should.

Republished from the Cornwall Alliance.

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