Monday, July 24, 2006

Getting the right answer

The 'Thumb takes Peggy Noonan to task for writing:
how sad and frustrating it is that the world’s greatest scientists cannot gather, discuss the question of global warming, pore over all the data from every angle, study meteorological patterns and temperature histories, and come to a believable conclusion on these questions: Is global warming real or not?
And fails to point out in a prominent way that this is precisely what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change exists to do. Scientists come together with the explicit goal of summarizing the science of climate change without advocating for policy positions. They publish regular reports describing what is and isn't known. And they draw conclusions based on the best available research.

And that research shows that most of the warming of the last 50 years is caused by humans, and that the factors driving that change would continue to put upward pressure on temperatures if left unchanged.

The problem is not that scientists haven't done it. They got the answer, and as far as anyone can show, they got the correct answer. The problem is that the conclusion the science has reached is not what Nooners considers the "right answer." So she's still holding out for the conference of People who Agree with Peggy to get together and ratify her political preferences. And that simply will not happen. Not how science is done.

In science, the right answer is the one that best matches the data. And prudent non-scientists or non-specialists are wise to follow that practice as well, letting their policy proposals follow from the data.

Peggy's problem, like so many we've faced in recent years, is that she reached her conclusion before examining the data, and now must flail wildly in search of justifications.

We saw the same thing before 9/11. The incoming Bush administration cast its eyes across the globe, searching for its foreign policy focus. The settled on China well before they started getting their briefings from outgoing officials, and chose not to refocus on al Qaeda and transnational terrorism. They heard warnings through the year of 2001, and heard them get louder. But faced with a choice of shifting focus as events changed or sticking to the plan, they pushed ahead on their China agenda.

Don Rumsfeld came into office with a theory about how a new, light American army could work. And in Afghanistan it seemed to work (though the leaders of al Qaeda and the Taliban did slip away, and the Taliban is taking back towns here and there). So when his generals told him to send 300-400,000 troops to Iraq for the conquest and subsequent occupation, he blew them off. The force of half the recommended size did fine at invading (and no one doubted they would), but was unable to squelch the resistance during the occupation, and now the military cannot take and hold cities, so we get the debacle that is modern Iraq, along with thousands of dead American soldiers and tens of thousands of dead Iraqi civilians.

For this administration and its closest supporters, the right answer is what they thought beforehand. For the real world, the right answer is what matches the evidence. It's deeply unfortunate that the latter is ruled by the former.