Adam Smith, the 18th century Scottish philosopher, is renowned as the first person to describe how market economies harness self-interest for the common good. "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner," he wrote in 1776, "but from their regard to their own interest."
Smith's insight is accepted as fundamental to our market economy and much of the prosperity and liberty the market economy has generated over the last two centuries. Some people honor Smith's ideas by wearing a tie bearing his image.
And yet many free market apostles — including well-credentialed scholars, business people, bloggers and now some in Congress who voted to cut many climate programs — reject Smith's ideas when it comes to the science of climate change.
A scientist like me finds this frustrating.
These skeptics question the overwhelming body of scientific evidence that suggests the Earth's climate is significantly warming, largely due to human actions. Some suspect a conspiracy by scientists whose grant money, they say, depends on spreading a state of fear.
In essence, many of the people who proclaim that the pursuit of self-interest produces a common good in the economy deny this same principle when it produces scientific conclusions they find inconvenient, especially if that conclusion might suggest a need for government intervention.
Marketplace of Ideas
The truth is that modern science provides a Smithian utopia, the most effective marketplace of ideas the world has ever known.
Science is a vast, decentralized, global network of self-interested individuals, most of whom enjoy low barriers to entry. The rules are simple. Support theories with evidence to better explain the past and to predict future observations.
Scientists the world over strive to build their own reputations. Fame and true glory go to scientists who present an entirely new, comprehensive theory that explains the data more effectively than the current understanding.
This time-tested process has produced today's climate science, which does a reasonably good job explaining millions of years of data from before and during the period of human influence.
Today's understanding of the climate is not complete. Virtually every one of the thousands of papers that scientists publish on the topic each year claims to shed light on some shortcoming, large or small, in our knowledge of the Earth's climate. Solving such puzzles is, after all, what scientists love to do.
Current theory leads inexorably to the conclusion that human actions are changing today's climate. Despite the opportunities for everlasting fame, no scientist has been able to offer an alternative, comprehensive theory that fits the data and avoids this conclusion.
Not surprisingly, scientists occasionally publish results that seemingly weaken the evidence for human influence on the climate. These papers, along with the rest of the climate science literature, can help to correct errors and refine knowledge.
With this dynamic in place, how could anyone argue that the world's many thousands of scientists, one by one, agree to be in some clandestine collusion?
No Alternate Theory
If it were really possible to explain millions of years of Earth data with a theory that doesn't also imply a recent human influence on the climate, some ambitious, self-interested team of scientists somewhere in the world would seek scientific renown by doing so.
If the data supported a credible, alternative theory, the vast, decentralized, global Smithian utopia of self-interested scientists would certainly produce it.
But that hasn't happened. So when considering the debates over climate science, one should recognize the contradiction in believing the principle underlying markets on one hand, and believing in a global, organized hoax on the other.
The decentralized network of self-interested scientists provides the best means we have to uncover the truth about human impacts on our planet. Perhaps climate scientists should be the ones wearing the Adam Smith ties.
Robert Lempert is a senior scientist, policy analyst and director of the Center for Longer Range Global Policy and the Future Human Condition at the non-profit, non-partisan RAND Corporation, and a member of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The opinions expressed are his own.
This commentary appeared in Bloomberg Government on March 30, 2011