Critical Thinking

Issue 9 and Volume 103.

Bruce H. Easom, Sc.D., Groton, Mass.

Your letter on the opinion page of the May edition of Power Engineering brought my attention to the fact that there is indeed no small amount of uncritical thinking going on when it comes to the topic of global warming. Although your letter correctly points out that it is important not to “uncritically accept as fact the popular, alarmist position of global warming,” it’s equally important not to uncritically accept as fact your assertion that the science of global warming is a sham.

You assert that, because the scientists of the American Geophysical Union acknowledge that there is uncertainty in their findings, they are essentially ignorant. You suggest that legislators should take a posture of inaction until the science of global warming matures and scientists can agree on the severity of the problem and what to do about it. The first attitude comes from a misunderstanding of the concepts of uncertainty and ignorance. The second comes from impatience with, or a misunderstanding of, the scientific process and how it gets expressed in a public forum.

Decision-makers need to understand that science only asymptotically approaches the truth. They should, in a sense, behave like any scientist involved in the fray. As the evidence comes in, positions need to change to reflect the morphing “truth.” They need to do cost-benefit analysis taking into account the cost and benefits of both action and inaction. The uncertainty in the models is essential information in coming to the proper decision. In business and in government, it is truly rare that one is given the luxury to wait until all the data are in and until everyone concurs what it all means before a course of action is selected. The process is much more fluid. As the data come in and as the picture begins to get clearer, you have got to take your best shot. That’s why they pay decision-makers the big bucks. Anyone can make the right decision if they know all the facts. The trick is to make good decisions in the face of uncertainty.

In this type of environment, critical thinking is more important than ever.