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Where is Truth?
Volume 2, Number 9: 1 May 1999

"Truth in scientific matters is frequently, as in the case of climate change, a matter of judgment and interpretation of a complex body of data and the theory that binds the various skeins of evidence into a rational whole."  So wrote Robert M. White, president emeritus of the National Academy of Engineering, in a perceptive Policy Forum article in the February 1999 issue of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.  He followed this definition with the equally astute observation that differences of interpretation within the scientific community often lead to different assertions of "truth," noting that "various 'truths' are marshaled to support political assertions by contending constituencies," and that "to capture political support, political leaders portray the scientific knowledge in ways more positive or negative than the science warrants."

So, indeed, it has ever been; as the Preacher observed long ago, "there is no new thing under the sun."  And thus, in our day, we are bombarded with opposing claims of truth in the ongoing debate over CO2-induced global warming.  On the one side, it is professed that (1) human activities - especially the burning of fossil fuels - are increasing the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere, which will (2) lead to catastrophic global warming, which will (3) produce all sorts of undesirable consequences, and (4) have no positive effects.  Aligned against this constituency are the forces that, although grudgingly willing to concede the first point, contend heartily against the other three.

In the words of Mr. White, "whose truth is to be believed?"  Clearly, an answer to this question that is compelling enough to convert the world to its thesis has not been proffered, or the issue would have been resolved long ago.  The "complex body of data" that is partially marshaled (and partially ignored) to support the claim of CO2-induced catastrophic global warming does not readily mesh with a theory that "binds the various skeins of evidence into a rational whole."  If it did, all rational beings, if truthful, would be obliged to accept it.  And they clearly do not, including many on both sides of the issue.  So where do we turn in the face of uncertainty?

Mr. White points us to the precautionary principle, which suggests that if there is a chance of an undesirable event occurring, it is wise to take steps to prevent its occurrence or ameliorate its adverse consequences.  Yet even this approach has its problems.  As White puts it, "the dilemma lies in judging at what level of probability to invoke the principle and at what cost it is reasonable to take action."  And after discussing several related matters at some length, he bemoans the fact that "an almost impossible dilemma results from all these considerations."

Ah, decisions, decisions.  It makes one almost want to role the dice and take one's chances.  And that's about how Mr. White concludes his essay.  "We can roll the climate dice now," he says, "taking costly actions without knowing the full climatic and economic consequences as insurance against an unknown future."  Or, he suggests, "the course of wisdom may be to take those actions that contribute to emission reductions at low economic cost now - a 'no regrets' policy - and make the investments in research and advanced greenhouse gas reduction technologies that can achieve the CO2 emission and concentration objectives."

Ever notice how people who want to guide the development of policy always seem to come up with two-sided dice?  It's either one way or the other.  And since one of the two alternatives -- White's "course of wisdom" -- nearly always seems better than the other, the winner may actually be but the lesser of two evils, a policy we would never have embraced by itself but which we accept, as it were, by default.  And the fault is truly ours if we take such an easy way out.

Which reminds us, what ever happened to the search for truth?  If you think it is found in the roll of the dice, you had better think again.

Dr. Craig D. Idso
Dr. Keith E. Idso
Vice President