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GARDINER: Confidence in climate change

Climate-change deniers do not add to scientific discourse and therefore should not speak at the University

I was greatly surprised to see the backlash Thomas Forman has received for his piece against climate change denier Phil Valentine speaking on Grounds last weekend. I too firmly believe that skepticism over anthropogenic climate change is an opinion that should not receive the privilege of a university forum, and I’m concerned that the complaints about Mr. Forman’s piece reflects the damage global warming skeptics have already caused to the national discourse on this subject.

Whether we like it or not, providing a forum for the discussion of an idea inherently lends legitimacy to what is being talked about. Perhaps it is unfortunate that this is the case, but it’s true. Each of us has a myriad of issues to absorb and evaluate on a daily basis, so we look for context clues to understand how we should appraise an opinion. High on that list of context clues (and rightfully so) is the deference to authority. It’s impossible to expend effort researching the veracity of every claim made by every person, so we place trust in organizations, institutions and people that do it for us. Is that system perfect? Absolutely not, but most of the time there is a real benefit to doing so. Of trusted institutions, it is fair to say that universities have one of the strongest abilities to provide this sense of legitimacy.

Furthermore, climate change is a particularly difficult issue to discuss because it requires scientific literacy, and because it is so incredibly complicated and detailed. Simply put, humans aren’t naturally great at assessing long-term problems or intuitively comprehending complex analyses (myself included). That is again why we defer to people who are specifically trained in doing so. But the downside of this is that when faux-experts like Valentine come along and start spewing random science-y sounding terms (e.g. albedo change or solar flares) they come off as smart and reasonable, when in reality they are saying things that are untrue or sometimes even illogical. But as non-scientists, we lack the skill set to genuinely understand who is speaking the truth. It’s as if we all took a semester of Japanese and then heard a rapid conversation between someone speaking it fluently and someone speaking random words of it strung together in a convincing manner. Would you really know the expert from the charlatan? This is why there is near-universal consensus on the cause of climate change amongst scientists, but a weak majority of support amongst the general population.

Finally, countering the many conspiracies of denialists is really, really exhausting. I spent a summer as a lowly intern on Capitol Hill, and a few times a week somebody would call in with a new claim that “disproved” global warming, and then I’d spend my entire lunch break researching counters to their claim. Almost invariably the argument had come from that morning’s talk radio, and it’s basically a full-time job to keep up with every new one that comes out of the denialist movement. And so what ended up happening was that even if I had provided good and proper retorts on the first five issues that are brought up, on the sixth one I might get stumped and I’d be back to square one.

And so here’s the reality. Phil Valentine came to the University Saturday and presented a bunch of verifiably falsifiable facts about how global warming is not caused by man. But because he did so at the University, and because most people don’t have the background to understand his falsehoods and because nobody has the encyclopedic knowledge to rapidly fact check every claim he made, somebody will take climate change skepticism a little more seriously, and that is a huge problem.

If the College Republicans were hosting someone arguing that the world is flat, he’d be laughed out of the room. If the College Republicans were hosting someone arguing that smoking doesn’t cause cancer, people would be shocked and appalled that he had a stage from which to speak. But somehow it is okay to provide the legitimacy of a university forum to a man arguing against the nearly unanimous consensus of experts about climate change. What Phil Valentine provides is not skepticism for the sake of scientific query, but anti-intellectualism in its most debasing and manipulative form. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

Kyle Gardiner is a student in the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy.