I ordered Steven Koonin’s Unsettled? more out of perversity than honest curiosity. It was a vote for a skeptic, for a man labelled a “denier” and thus worthy of canceling. I was wrong on several counts: it is holding on Amazon with a fairly high rating, and, I was able to get something out of it. He clearly wants to reach people like me, bewildered by charts and graphs. The tables are there, but his style and analogies accessible. (Which means it is dumbed down, but I appreciate his desire for a larger audience.) He has some of the commonsense of Lomborg: practical, prioritizing what is certain, seldom emphasizing the “wrong” and more often the imprecise, the unknown. Some reviewers found him full of himself, but his voice is that of a close reader, looking at the body of reports, comparing assertions and data with the summaries and interpretations. I assume his readings are honest and he is a good physicist but what do I know.
What struck me were the assumptions of a method he promotes, one other disciplines use and he sees as appropriate. In Chapter 11, “Fixing the Broken Science,” he suggests major reports on climate would benefit from being “Red Teamed.” The “Red Team” critiques it, “trying to identify and evaluate its weak spots,” “a qualified adversarial group would be asked ‘What’s wrong with this argument?’” Then the authors, the “Blue Team” rebuts, seeking more information, firming up arguments, gaining precision. He looks at examples where a report’s data did not support the conclusions or summaries (sometimes leading to popular articles with further overstatements). Perhaps the authors had more data, perhaps the summaries were written by those holding too strong an opinion to let the results stand on their own. Perhaps. . . But, of course, if conclusions don’t match research, that’s important.
Traditionally, peer review even in the humanities is designed to note such problems, but these have been less and less rigorous as more subjective definitions of “truth” evolve (or perhaps of careerism). More importantly, “The Science” (climate consensus) is not limited to the ivory tower; it influences awards of positions, grants, research. And, it affects policy. Seeing “The Science” as “settled” tempts those doing “science.”
One institution has long used an adversarial structure. Trey Gowdy noted some district attorneys (his job before entering politics) see themselves as arguing the defense. Traditional roles were designed to produce an adversarial court room, focused on proof from both tables.
Juxtaposing these arguments – Koonin’s and Gowdy’s – clarifies what’s central to a thinking, rational community. And that they are making these arguments reminds us that the core belief that truth is real, even if difficult to know, is not simply assumed. It has its own battle to win.
Koonin speaks of “The Science” –arguments claiming to represent science, arguing a broad concurrence. Of course, the assumption is that the majority belief is the “truth” – assumed by “twitter” and the mob, but also when we ask for a vote. It’s complicated. But our founders had the sense to make us stop: creating a republic which listens to its citizens’ carefully considered, rational conclusions, not our emotional first impressions, not our fears. We need to be willing (and able) to listen to arguments from proponents and opponents. Koonin notes sometimes messy conclusions by “the science” work steadily to ascertain, to define, to quantify. (His complaint is less that “The Science” is wrong than partial, while the measures gain in precision the breadth of variables muddle.)
Both imply the pursuit of facts is important. Much relies on it. In Biden’s world, a budget of trillions and eventual effects on millions (if not billions) of people. In Gowdy’s world, the guilt or innocence of an individual – one who may be a danger to society – a thief, a murderer, a rapist – or an innocent wrongly accused. Those and many more institutions rely on our beliefs that facts are real and often ascertainable, that speaking “my truth” has limited value. Adversaries are more likely to find that truth.