Charlatans and Experts in The Wall Street Journal on Climate Change, Thoughts on This by Isaac Asimov and Me

The Wall Street Journal recently published two letters regarding global climate change.

The first letter, Sixteen Concerned Scientists: No Need to Panic About Global Warming, argues that the clarion call that human beings play a significant part in the warming of the Earth is a conspiracy fueled by money-grubbing alarmists. It is signed by sixteen engineers and scientists–none of whom are scientists who research Earth’s climate.

The second letter, Check With Climate Scientists for Views on Climate, challenges the first on three grounds: 1) listen to people who are experts (e.g., do you want your dentist working on your heart), 2) non-experts shouldn’t misquote experts (the first letter takes a quote out of context of the second letter’s primary author to support the first letter writers’ claims), and 3) “Research shows that more than 97% of scientists actively publishing in the field agree that climate change is real and human caused.”

I strongly side with Isaac Asimov’s position on this kind of debate–where non-specialists feel self-important enough to pontificate in an expert manner on something that they might know the generalities about but obviously do not know as well as the experts. Asimov writes in his essay, “The Literature of Ideas,” republished in Today and Tomorrow and . . . :

To be sure, when a scientist ventures outside his field and pontificates elsewhere, he is as likely to speak nonsense as anyone else. (309)

I am confident that the signers of the first letter, all sixteen of them, are likely very good at what they do. However, their expertise in their businesses or fields of study do not make them good climate experts. To rephrase Asimov: By going outside their field and pontificating elsewhere, they are as likely to speak nonsense as anyone else.

This is one of the running punch lines of the television show The Big Bang Theory–Dr. Sheldon Cooper is a theoretical physicist and he believes that he knows everything about everything else. Unfortunately for him, this is not the case. His character knows a lot about quantum mechanics and m-theory, but he doesn’t know Radiohead. Sheldon’s attempts at being a know-it-all often backfire and reveal how little he actually knows outside his own specific domains of knowledge.

Similarly, I am earning my PhD in 20th century American literature with specializations in science fiction, new media, and neuroscientific topics. With these fields, I am carving out a very small niche for myself where I am creating new knowledge based on my research in a very small space. When I am done, I will know more about my specific focus of study than anyone else. However, I will not know more about neuroscience than my outside reader, Dr. Eric Mintz. I will be good at talking about neuroscience and integrating neuroscientific findings into my writing, but I will not a neuroscientist and you would certainly not want me working on your brain.

Thus, the experts should be the ones doing the expert work and informing the rest of us about what their findings suggest. The rest of us should consider their findings and discuss how their findings should inform our social and political decisions. Those are things that we all take part in. However, experts in other fields should not muddy the waters of public discourse by acting the part of experts while attempting to undercut the importance of an entire field of study based on hard science by real experts. There is another word that comes to mind about the behavior of the so-concerned sixteen so-called experts in the first letter: charlatans.

Published by Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I direct the B.S. in Professional and Technical Writing Program and coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.