Steve's Diabolical Challenge

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Like Senator Steve Fielding, I am a lapsed engineer. Like Steve, I have attempted to understand the science of climate change. Unlike Steve, I eventually understood that the task is beyond ordinary mortals. In fact it is even beyond the intellect of a single engineer. I realised that we should be leaving it to the experts with the broadest possible exposure to the issue.

For a while late last year, I spent many hours trying to draw my own conclusions about climate change. I grazed on books, chewed through reports and fed on the ever-expanding harvest of internet articles. I even snacked on the rants of blog commenters with names like "treeman" and "thingadonta" and "havequestions". I was careful to keep my diet balanced, ensuring that I was consuming equally from the tables of both the believers and the sceptics.

But it was all to no avail. I felt like I was trying to do brain surgery without having done the training. In the end the same arguments and counter-arguments tied me up like a rope from which I could not escape. I had to conclude that the intricacy of the science and the sheer volume of material were beyond me.

It was comforting to have Nobel laureate Peter Doherty‘s reassurance that climate change "is an enormously complex area and it’s difficult for people outside the area to understand the science" when he spoke at the recent University of Melbourne Festival of Ideas. Doherty includes himself as one of those challenged by this complexity.

I can sympathise when Steve Fielding says that he would "be letting down the Australian people if I didn’t properly research the issues". But he is misguided in thinking that he’ll be able to do so. Steve needs to stick to his job, which is contributing to policy, and leave the scientific debate to the scientists.

Our world is a complicated place. Most of us struggle to remember to pick up the kids, to keep the credit cards under control and to fit a modicum of exercise into our busy routines. For everything beyond the immediate sphere of our individual lives, we rely on experts for their guidance and help and ability to keep us safe. We rely on the expertise of medical professionals to keep us healthy. We count on engineers to design safe buildings and bridges. We count on economists — even after their fallibility is demonstrated — to maintain our standard of living.

We routinely accept the advice of experts as a matter of faith because we have to. We simply can’t expect to know everything they know. So when a medicine is prescribed we generally take it. Sometimes, particularly if things get more involved, we might seek a second opinion, and we might weigh that opinion against the first before acting. When cyclist Lance Armstrong was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1996, he consulted a number of oncologists before finding one whose proposed treatment he believed in. But when he finally settled on a course of action his choice was ultimately a matter of faith in his chosen expert — he didn’t have time to do his own oncology degree.

In complex scientific fields there will always be myriad alternative diagnoses, prognoses and treatments. It is a common mistake to think otherwise. As Professor James Shanteau, an "expert on experts" at Kansas State University  has argued, a single right answer — a "golden truth" as he calls it — is too much to expect in such areas: "In reality, problems rarely are simple enough to lead to single correct answers."

This is precisely the mistake Steve Fielding makes when he says, "I now need the science to be resolved." He will be waiting forever.

The mega-challenge of climate change, as I discovered in my own amateur research, is that each individual scientific contribution is hugely complex and the alternative arguments in each field are even more so. The temperature issue alone, which Fielding has settled upon as his way into the subject, can be analysed in the short-, medium- or long-term, and from the point of view of air, ocean or ice temperatures, and on the basis of both observation and computer modelling. Each combination provides a different perspective; the huge number of permutations provide at least one perspective to suit every argument.

No one — not Steve Fielding, nor any of his four new amigos, nor any other "expert panel of one" — can, on their own, expect to make full and proper sense of all this. Achieving the best possible result requires forums for the broadest, most comprehensive debate possible. It requires debate between scientific disciplines, and debate between individual scientists who work in the same field but who have collected different data or used differing approaches. And it requires debate between active scientists who disagree with each other but retain open minds.

Luckily for us, for Joe Public, such forums exist on an unprecedented scale. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a global collection of hundreds of expert scientists from a range of climate-related disciplines, was created to do just that. It has been, and remains, their role to look at all the science, to weigh the arguments and to reach an agreement as close to consensus as is realistically possible. In March this year the International Scientific Congress on Climate Change in Copenhagen brought together more than 2500 scientists from more than 80 countries to assess the science yet again. It is, rightly, the conclusions of these broad scientific churches that inform much of the climate change policy being instigated by governments around the planet.

None of these groups is perfect. They can’t provide a golden truth because, again, there isn’t one. As large organisations they can be hampered by bureaucracy. And their expert members, being human, are as prone to playing politics, protecting positions and pursuing praise as anyone else. But they do have plenty of debate, though they do much of it face-to-face with each other rather than via the comments sections of a million blogs.

Like it or not, they are the best chance we have of approaching this properly. They, collectively, are the doctor with the most expansive view.

Steve Fielding still says he thinks that climate change is real. He says he is "someone that [sic]actually wants to take a balanced view", which would be an approach consistent with his engineering roots. But he isn’t doing this. He is ignoring the complexity of the issue and has decided instead to let a relatively small amount of very limited personal research guide his decision-making on the subject and the action it requires. He is kidding himself and he is letting us down.

New Matilda

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