Global climate change is probably my favorite current illustration for the role authority plays in epistemology, and this EconTalk discussion with Matt Ridley explores this very interplay in an interesting and accessible way. Ridley is a “lukewarmer,” not a full skeptic of global climate change. His argument against the mainstream view is evidentialist and presuppositionalist. His Ph.D. in zoology helps him, for sure, to dig into climate change literature in a way that I couldn’t (and certainly won’t; I’ve got other things to do). And yet his discussion with Russ Roberts of EconTalk centers mostly on something I do know a thing or two about: the sociology of knowledge—the taboos and groupthink and ad hominems which populate the contemporary discussion of climatology. Ridley’s stories of personal attacks are sadly illuminating.
Every educated person in the West ought to have a very clear understanding of one thing about climate change, and that is that very few people in the world have a true right to an opinion about it; the rest of us must do our best to pick the right authorities. It is perfectly acceptable to hold a particular view of climate change (whether or not it has occurred because of human activity, what if anything we can or should do about it), but we should all admit that we’ve taken our respective views for reasons other than the simple facts.
I couldn’t help thinking of creationism and evolution as I listened. Presuppositionalism doesn’t absolve Christianity of the responsibility to answer the charges of scientific naturalism—but I think it absolves most individual Christians. It simply isn’t my calling to dig deep into the details of DNA, fossils, geology, etc. It’s sufficient that I listen to those Christians who have such a calling, just as most believers in evolution are not scientists.
On another note, even a biblical one, Russ Roberts asks Ridley, the “lukewarmer,” a fantastic question at the end:
Now, I’m going to put you in an uncomfortable position. You resent—as do I—when your opponents presume that you are not a nice person, that you must be the pawn of special interests. And yet, we also should judge our intellectual opponents the way we’d like to be judged [Matt. 7:12 —mlwj]. So, given how you are in a minority viewpoint, can you give us an interpretation of the people on the other side that is more charitable? You’ve suggested they are at the trough; they are making a lot of money off of this through research grants and government spending. Surely some of them are well-intentioned people genuinely worried about the state of the world. Can you give them their due? And what would they say—what would some of those folks say listening to your lack of concern?
I close with a link to the best thing I ever read (outside the Bible) on the role authority plays in our knowledge. Take it away, Clive.