My post on the crisis for libertarianism has generated a lot of discussion and a response from Cato’s Jerry Taylor. Before answering Taylor, let me first say that I recognize that the views of libertarians on climate change are not monolithic. Just last week I heard Tyler Cowen describe climate change as one of the principle challenges facing the world. On the other hand, Cato didn’t take out a newspaper ad proclaiming that libertarians have diverse views on the state of climate science and policy. Surely some meaning can be read into the choice to advertise that particular message.
Now, to Taylor’s response. The heart of the post is this:
The claims emanating from the world of ecological science have not stood up well in the past on any number of fronts. Of course, failures on old fronts do not necessarily mean failures on new fronts. But it does mean that skepticism has proven quite useful in the past and that majorities in the academic community are not infallible. To suggest that a movement is intellectually bankrupt if it is not persuaded to grow the state by a show of scientific hands is to suggest that one hasnâ€™t been paid attention to events over the past half-century or so.But thatâ€™s a digression. I fully agree with Avent when he says â€œA belief system that cannot grapple with the fundamental reality of a situation is, quite simply, not a belief system worth having.â€ The unfortunate fact, however, is that fundamental reality regarding the real future impact of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions is anything but clear . . . as even IPCC reports are happy to tell us. Moreover, scientists canâ€™t tell us what to about that reality even if climate scientists could agree about what the future holds in store for us. Answering the â€œwhat to doâ€ question requires and examination of costs and benefits, a consideration of the distributional effects from the various strategies that we could implement, and, yes, a judgment about the costs associated with surrendering various degrees of economic and social liberty.
I fully agree with Taylor that skepticism of scientific findings is justified; indeed, the process of scientific inquiry itself is basically orderly skepticism. I also agree that science cannot definitively tell us what the future will look like and what we ought to do about it. The conclusions of science are probabilistic, and policy recommendations based on those probabilities are formed based on models of economics and other social sciences that are subject to a great deal of uncertainty. I strongly disagree with Jim Manzi’s views on climate policy, but I recognize that they’re based on plausible readings of the available data. The burden is on those prescribing action to grapple with his arguments and explain convincingly why they’re wrong, which is something I have endeavored to do.
I wonder what part of healthy skepticism or of an “examination of costs and benefits, etc.” involves the misrepresentation of scientific research? (And I challenge Taylor to read the Swanson and Tsonis paper cited in the ad and declare that it has not been misrepresented, even if he now wishes to “leave that scientific debate to others.”) I wonder which part of healthy skepticism involves accepting with the utmost credulity the findings of every paper with which one agrees, and dismissing out of hand every paper with which one disagrees?
In fact, it’s very difficult to skeptically review the scientific literature and conclude that the consensus is wrong. That’s why folks like Jim Manzi (and Ronald Bailey, who has revised his views somewhat since writing the book Taylor cites) are reluctant to confidently endorse the views in that Cato ad. But rather than accept, as an institution, that the science is probably correct and go about its business arguing that no state action is required (or whatever policy it might decide upon) Cato chose to betray the principles of honest skepticism that no doubt attracted many of libertarianism’s better minds. They’re sure to notice this choice. Hence, crisis.