Megan McArdle, Global Warming, and Accepting Authority
This weekend, I did a google search looking for a particular article by a favorite journalist of mine, Megan McArdle. Something came up in my Google search that looked interesting enough to click on, a blurb on thinkprogress.org claiming that McArdle has admitted to having “outsourced her thinkning on global warming to the Cato Institute…”
Here’s the quote that thinkprogress believes is the smoking gun:
The first reason I don’t post a lot [on global warming] is that I’m not an expert, and I’m not planning to become one. I’ve basically outsourced my opinion on the science to people like Jonathan Adler, Ron Bailey, and Pat Michaels of Cato–all of whom concede that anthropogenic global warming is real, though they may contest the likely extent, or desired remedies.
That doesn’t seem to me like the shocker thinkprogress wants it to be. They no doubt want to tarnish McArdle because she is what they’d consider a conservative journalist, and Cato is what they’d consider a conservative think-tank.
When you follow the link to McArdle’s actual article, she is aware that outfits like thinkprogress will consider her “admission” a cop-out. So, she offers this defense:
[H]ere’s the thing: I cannot be an expert on everything. I don’t know what the speed limit should be, how we should redesign the military to counter 21st century threats, or the best way to allocate scarce water resources between competing claims, even though I recognize that in a modern society, these are all the proper concerns of the government; even though I think that these questions are important, I am willing to leave them to experts on traffic patterns, national defense, and water rights. So with global warming. Time spent brushing up on the science is time spent not reading up on things where I have greater comparative advantage, like tax policy or the budget.
Okay, I don’t know about you, but that sounds stunningly reasonable to me, much more so than thinkprogress’s shocking headline spins it. And to be honest, this is one reason why I think we are hypocritical when we tell people that they shouldn’t accept authority, but always think for themselves. The problem is that, like McArdle says, this is literally impossible because to always think for ourselves, we’d have to become experts on everything.
Coincidentally, I had my own experiment with trying to become more informed about the global warming debates about ten years ago. I tried to read some very basic science books that walk through the climatology and meteorology of it all. And I really tried. But I quickly gave up, because I just didn’t feel myself understanding a lot of it. And even if I had, I was reading basic “general reader” books on the topic, all containing their own spin provided by whichever experts wrote the book. Even then, I’d have been deferring to experts.
McArdle mentions comparative advantage -the idea that we all have our areas where we are skilled and that, if we are smart, we stick mostly to those and leave stuff outside our skill set to others. When a mechanic tells me what is wrong with my car, or a doctor what is wrong with my body, I tend to defer unless there is reason to get another opinion, and even then, I defer to either that other authority or the original doctor. When I need advice from a colleague about the ins and outs of, say, cognitive neuroscience, I ask them and generally defer to them if I find them trustworthy. And all of us, even Megan McArdle do that. You know who else does it? The readers of thinkprogress. (How many of them do you figure follow each hyperlink from thinkprogress articles in order to arrive at their own conclusions? Who’d have the time?!)
But McArdle deferred to the evil Cato Institute, founded (in part) by the evil conservative Koch brothers! Well, another element to our deference to authority is that we – all of us! – tend more often than not to trust authorities most who arrive at conclusions we believe are most sensible or reasonable. Liberal lay-readers on global warming probably tend to find the Al Gore camp most trustworthy. Conservative or maybe libertarian readers tend to find the Cato camp most trustworthy. We generally have biases about what conclusions we think are most likely right and most easy to discount, so we pay most attention to those who give the former and discard those who give the latter.
But if you read McArdle’s actual article linked above, one more wrinkle presents itself. She actually fully acknowledges that global warming is a real process. Granted, she didn’t do the climatology/meteorology research herself, but did what all of us do: find an authority she trusts to be an authority, and goes with the pronouncements of that authority unless she finds reason not to. That is a far different “spin” than in the thinkprogress piece.
I guess the final act of irony here is that I suspect a great many readers of the thinkprogress piece about McArdle did exactly what the piece accuses McArdle of doing: taking the word of a source they trust, in part, because it fits the bias they have (if it didn’t, they’d think it likely to be correct).
My point is that what McArdle and those readers did is a fully human trait. As McArdle writes, we can’t be experts in everything and probably wouldn’t have the interest to be even if we could. Question authority, yes, but be mindful that none of us can question all authority. Mostly we defer, and sometimes we challenge. Because we’re human.
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