Anyone who has studied the philosophy of science should find it strange to hear scientists and science-adjacent commentators express confident opinions about what the future holds. Science, as a method of understanding the natural world, is geared toward explaining phenomena already occurring and observable around us. It is clear to see that we do not float here on Earth; theories of gravity explain why. Airplanes, it is widely acknowledged, travel thousands of miles nonetheless; theories of aerodynamic lift explain why. Those explanations help us predict how the contained systems we have theorized will behave in the future, though small changes or unaccounted-for variables can disrupt what we thought was certain. And even when outcomes are more or less determinate, consensus is still hard to come by: As Scientific American reported in its 2020 article “No One Can Explain Why Planes Stay in the Air,” there remain “two competing theories that illuminate the forces and factors of lift. Both are incomplete explanations. Aerodynamicists have recently tried to close the gaps in understanding,” but “no consensus exists.”
Ponder that for a moment: A century after the first commercial flight, no one can fully explain how airplanes stay in the air. Yet the capital-S Science of global climate catastrophe, we are often told, is settled. Our future is bound to be calamitous, says the Science, drowned in rising sea levels if it isn’t scorched by increasing wildfires first. We can say so with 97 percent certainty, because that is the extent of the oft-cited consensus that gives Science its authority.
It does not take a scientist to recognize that these claims are unscientific. They may not be wrong, but they are not true in the same way that scientific facts are. They are surely based on remarkably advanced models, projection, and technology, and interpreted by individuals trained in the natural sciences. But they are something epistemologically distinct from the knowledge we can derive through use of the scientific method. They are forecasts, projections, predictions. They take us from the realm of 50-50 to a world of probably A, probably not B. They are useful, but not dispositive.
Steven E. Koonin might not be so charitable. In Unsettled, the former Obama-administration under secretary for science argues that nearly everything now billed as “climate science” more closely resembles educated guesses—or worse, deliberate attempts to mislead. Koonin is an expert in quantitative and natural studies, trained as a computational physicist, nuclear astrophysicist, and environmental scientist, but his point is at its root philosophical: Climate is far too complex a system (really a set of systems) to warrant confident predictions.
That hasn’t stopped activists and media from going full Chicken Little. Most Americans are surely inured by now to the shrill chorus of journalists and enfants terribles warning that doom is imminent if we do not change our ways, demanding greater government intervention and economic redistribution as penance (funny that!). Koonin overwhelms his readers with examples of doomsday scenarios often presented as most-likely cases that fizzle on closer inspection. With an array of terminology, symbols, and graphic representation liable to leave the lay reader with Category 5 head-spin, Koonin shows that even our understanding of the measurable past leaves much to be desired—low confidence, in quant parlance—to say nothing of an infinitely complex future.
Take the classic climate catastrophe bugbear of rising sea levels. Our understanding of the ocean is staggering, considering just how vast oceans are (they contain 97 percent of all water on Earth) and how impenetrable their depths remain. Through “geological proxies” used by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, we can estimate global sea levels reaching back for 400,000 years. With the help of satellites and tide gauges placed around the world, we can track with fairly high certainty global mean sea level over the last century. We can therefore estimate the rate of rising sea levels accurately. But things get precarious when we try to figure out why, for instance, the rate of sea-level rise between 1925 and 1940 was about the same as the rise between 1994 and 2011, even if it’s often attributed to human influences. “It’s hard to know,” Koonin concludes, “what’s human-caused and what’s natural.” There are too many factors that we know influence climate-adjacent phenomena to say that any one is causing particular outcomes at a given time.
How about extreme weather events, including tornadoes and hurricanes? We frequently hear that these cataclysms will become more frequent and more intense because of anthropogenic climate change. And we understand extreme weather better than we ever have. We can estimate storm seasons’ overall strength by measuring accumulated cyclone energy and using a power-dissipation index. Scientists can even use sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic to construct an index of water-temperature changes dating back to the 19th century, showing that ocean temperatures rise and fall in multi-decade cycles.
But that is not to say that we understand extreme weather events well. Koonin points out that “as human influences have grown since the middle of the twentieth century, the number of significant tornadoes hasn’t changed much at all, but the strongest [tornado-spawning] storms have become less frequent.” Why that should be “remains a mystery.” We live in the most scientifically advanced era of human history, as Koonin shows throughout his book, trotting out measurements of the unmeasurable and deduction about the distant past, yet we can only enjoy “low confidence in projections of small-scale phenomena such as tornadoes.” Those aren’t Koonin’s words—they come from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Special Report on Extreme Events.
At the heart of this uncertainty is the underappreciated problem Koonin calls “Many Muddled Models.” Climate projections depend on computer models that contain myriad assumptions, simplifications, and omissions. These shortcomings are nothing to be ashamed of; they are what turn complete guesses into educated ones. They make projection feasible. But “a host of vexing practical problems,” Koonin warns, “means that climate model results require at least a pinch, if not a pound, of salt.”
To give just one example, clouds confound even the most advanced climate models, “since ordinary fluctuations in the height and coverage of clouds” affect “flows of sunlight and heat as much as do human influences.” So long as clouds remain difficult to model, predictions about heat in our environment will suffer from an inherent source of uncertainty. Koonin goes into great detail explaining similar sources of uncertainty in models and their interpretation, but that alone is not what makes Unsettled a must-read. The book is bound to be both controversial and enlightening because it provides, most of all, authority—Koonin developed CalTech’s computational physics curriculum—to back up the common-sense aphorism that “predictions are hard, especially about the future.”
To their credit, scientists observing climatological evidence and modeling future developments are generally humble about their findings. They pepper their papers with caveats and reminders of “low confidence” that laymen perusing a paper’s abstract may not see. Koonin does readers, especially those skeptical of his skepticism, a valuable service in Unsettled, doing what media and activists won’t: digging through actual published findings to uncover where authors frequently acknowledge the assumptions and uncertainties baked into their analyses.
Yet Koonin still finds some compromised scientists who obscure the uncertainty in their findings and parrot the “consensus” line. He tries to explain some factors leading them to confirmation bias: Scientists are susceptible to institutional pressures from government, universities, and NGOs to “adhere to” a particular message; despite their institutional commitment to objective truth, they are prone to succumb to peer pressure just like the rest of us. Orthodoxy is a powerful force within every field. One takeaway from Koonin’s indictment of his profession is that all of us, not just renegade scientists, have an obligation to fight forces of intellectual conformity wherever we encounter them. Enjoying a functioning society without some consensus on the facts is impossible, but every consensus is suspect when freethinkers are forced to conform. The fight against a censorious culture is not merely about cancelled individuals but about legitimizing the basic truths on which political choices are made.
But this only raises a bigger question, one that reappears each time Koonin stresses that many in the scientific community have become attached to anti-CO2-emissions dogma: Why have scientific institutions—from funders to scientists to public voices of scientific findings—become so prone to obfuscation? Koonin distinguishes between using scientific inquiry to persuade and using it to inform, and he condemns those who are meant to do the latter but choose the former, substituting politics for dispassionate examination of objective phenomena. We know why an activist media is invested in “if it bleeds, it leads”–type reporting. But why are so many other participants in the knowledge-production industry so invested in convincing the public that a doomsday scenario is the most likely one? What’s the prime mover catalyzing the chain reaction of institutional corruption?
A few possibilities come to mind. For one, scientists educated at elite institutions are likely to internalize left-wing views on politics and economics, and they might therefore try to use their authority to present a state of affairs crying out for radical changes. Indeed, environmental hysteria has often been tied up in economic redistribution, government intervention, and Green New Deal–style upheaval. Relatedly, it is possible that residual hatred of George W. Bush and soreness over his defeat of environmentalist darling Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election plays a role. (Revisit Gore’s global-warming documentary/philippic An Inconvenient Truth and you will see how large President Bush looms in the movement’s collective imagination.)
Another explanation is that climate hysteria has become a religion of its own, helping supplant traditional faith by scratching secular man’s worshipful itch. It provides a sense of purpose, a tangible set of commandments—“Thou shalt not emit,” and “Honor thy Mother Gaia”—and an eschaton just beyond the horizon. And like all faith systems, evidence to the contrary must be incorporated as further proof of the religion’s truth or, as Koonin has experienced, derided as heresy and silenced. Scientists now persuade rather than inform because their religious obligations supersede any professional ones.
These have all been posited as explanations for the one-sidedness of climate discourse and the shocking treatment Koonin and his fellow dissidents receive from the media, the academy, and fellow scientists. They are all plausible. But Koonin’s marshaled evidence, covering what we know and what we still do not, points to another possibility. Perhaps fanaticism about the certainty of climate horrors stems from widespread unwillingness to accept that even in our most advanced phase of human existence, there is still so much we do not know. There is something simultaneously shocking and frustrating about being able to reach back millennia into the past to know how high the tide crested when Rome ruled the Western world yet being unable to predict the weather a week in the future, much less the climate a decade hence. We know so much about the world that was, as Koonin’s work displays, yet so little about the world that will be. How humbling this must be to those who bill themselves as seers capable of using the tools of natural science to achieve the power of supernatural prophecy. One can see why our knowledge producers would use the mantle of Science to paper over distinctions between what is known and what remains indeterminate.
This is logically related to the modern secularist project to explain all things without reference to a higher power. As the centerpiece of the Enlightenment project to understand our world on its own terms, the notion that man is the measure of all things has been embraced wholesale by empiricists. What we can measure becomes most salient. That which we cannot measure, at least not with confidence, must take a back seat, so that we may rest comfortably in our assertion that there is nothing beyond human comprehension or, ultimately, control. If God taught the world to walk humbly, a world with no use for God has surely embraced the opposite attitude. Rather than embrace the humility of uncertainty and tradeoffs, Scientific Man overstates his findings’ determinacy and fends off challenges by emphasizing that the risk of inaction is too great to bear. We have no time to waste examining whether catastrophe is really imminent; call it Settled Science and get to fixing it.
Whether any of these possibilities is driving institutional rot is beyond Koonin’s ambit, as he would surely be first to admit. But they are cultural and political questions that his book quietly demands we investigate. Koonin has provided politicos, economists, and cultural critics with a foundation on which to build, in a book that is part inside look at the enormous uncertainty creaking beneath the façade of Settled Science, part exposé of the corruption besetting the institutional study of the natural world. Koonin, most of all, is an authority, in the best academic sense of the word. With his credentials and his appointments, no one can deny that he has had an up-close look at the centers of knowledge production and dissemination. No one can deny that he has observed his surroundings with impartial judgment for a long time and deserves credence when he sounds the alarm. He has done so here, calling on nonscientists to put climate predictions in their place. Unsettled will be a mainstay of reference sections in heterodox critiques of the climate-catastrophe-industrial complex for years to come.
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