When people face complex issues, we often consult specialists–experts in the field who can help us make wiser choices. It isn’t that we’re too stupid to bring ourselves up to speed. We just don’t have the time! It takes years of schooling and experience to become a competent doctor, lawyer, scientist, or even a mechanic, so most people don’t bother trying to become experts in every area that affects our lives. We know that experts aren’t infallible, and sometimes they disagree with one another, so if we are trying to go with the odds we tend to follow the advice of the majority of experts in a field. Certainly it isn’t irrational to go against the grain once in a while, but we probably ought to have some pretty compelling reasons for doing so.
An extremist doesn’t trust experts, though–especially not whole panels of experts–because real experts usually know enough to avoid “black-and-white” claims. There are always multiple possible ways to interpret any set of facts. But extremists want the response to their pet issues to be more clear-cut, so when people start asking for some expert testimony to support their claims, extremists will often settle for anyone who can be made to look like an expert to the untrained eye.
When the hubbub about climate change at the Utah State Capitol really got going last year, this was exactly the tactic used by Rep. Mike Noel (R-Kanab) and his allies in the legislature. In August 2009 Rep. Noel invited a number of people to testify before the Interim Public Utilities and Technology Committee about climate change. The person he invited to speak about the state of climate science was none other than Tom Tripp, a metallurgist who works for U.S. Magnesium. (Click here for access to an audio recording of the hearing.) Why a metallurgist? Tripp was actually a “lead author” on a chapter in the 2007 IPCC report, and the entire panel shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore. Isn’t it impressive that a Nobel Prize winning scientist who actually worked on the IPCC report would testify that scientific evidence doesn’t support the idea that humans have been causing climate change?
Not really. Tom Tripp helped prepare section 4.5 of the Working Group 3 volume of the IPCC report, which is about how to estimate the greenhouse gas emissions from magnesium production operations. Since he is a metallurgist working for a magnesium producer, he is presumably well qualified to write about the chemistry of magnesium production. But how does this make him into an expert on climate? It doesn’t.
To be fair, I should mention that Tom Tripp at least downplayed his Nobel Peace Prize in the hearing, mentioning that half of the prize went to Al Gore, and the other half went to the entire IPCC (about 2000 people). But why even mention Tripp’s 0.025% of a Nobel Peace Prize and his connection with the IPCC if not to bolster his image as someone qualified to testify about climate science? In fact, this is exactly what Tripp testified about, even though it is far outside his area of expertise. But the mere fact that he could be linked to the IPCC was good enough for Mike Noel, who only needed to produce someone with the appearance of expertise.
Luckily, the Salt Lake Tribune called Noel’s bluff, pointing out that his committee hadn’t actually heard from any real climate scientists, a number of whom work at major universities in the state. (Click here to see the Tribune article.) In my next post, I’ll recount how Rep. Noel responded to this criticism.