‘Reliable Knowledge’ Should Drive Climate Change Policy
It was good to see the letter on climate change from the president of the American Society of Civil Engineers in the September Prism, the more so following the editorial decision to leave a big white space below the denialist entry from James H. Scott in the Summer issue (Email From Readers, “Climate: More Evidence Needed,” May 2020 Prism). One might have hoped that in the absence of other responses to Grasso’s Last Word (“Engineers’ Deafening Silence on Climate Change,” March/April 2020 Prism), Prism would’ve solicited a few sentences from the ASEE membership list to fill the rest of the page.
Scott’s letter itself reads as scripted, the sort of thing we’ve all seen before. The mentions of Einstein, Feynman, and Dyson, none of them around to comment on climate change, come across as standard warnings: beware of inappropriate assumptions, ill-founded theories, analyses misapplied. I issued such cautions for years, in appropriate context, to engineering students—and later to graduate students of international relations (IR), where the context concerned overreliance on economic models and the ahistorical theories of those IR scholars who picture nation-states as responding only to one another, not to domestic politics.
Everyone knows that theories, models, and quantitative analysis can and have been misused. To generalize as Scott did says nothing about climate science. To be sure, climate models are imperfect; all models are, by definition. Improvement is possible and desirable. But the right way to think about climate policy (and indeed public policies of many sorts), it has long seemed to me, is in terms of what John Ziman, physicist turned student of the workings of technology and science, termed “reliable knowledge”—not necessarily the last word, but good enough to serve as a guide to decision. (I still have a copy of Ziman’s Theory of Solids on my bookshelf.) Societies have had reliable knowledge of anthropogenic climate change for several decades now. What’s wanted are strong statements and action from more engineering societies along with other leaders of the larger community to which we, as Prism readers, all belong.