Science and politics

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The conservative pundit Peggy Noonan today published an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal in which she blames confusion over global warming on – wait for it – climate scientists.

She writes:

…how sad and frustrating it is that the world’s greatest scientists cannot gather, discuss the question of global warming, pore over all the data from every angle, study meteorological patterns and temperature histories, and come to a believable conclusion on these questions: Is global warming real or not?

Yes, how sad. Except that the vast majority of scientists with any credibility have in fact come to the conclusion that global warming is real, and that it has a likely anthropogenic origin.

But here is where Noonan thinks the problem lies:

You would think the world’s greatest scientists could do this, in good faith and with complete honesty and a rigorous desire to discover the truth. And yet they can’t. Because science too, like other great institutions, is poisoned by politics. Scientists have ideologies. They are politicized.

All too many of them could be expected to enter this work not as seekers for truth but agents for a point of view who are eager to use whatever data can be agreed upon to buttress their point of view.

And so, in the end, every report from every group of scientists is treated as a political document. And no one knows what to believe. So no consensus on what to do can emerge.

The science of global warming has been politicized, of course. And there is confusion in the public mind. But, as with evolutionary biology in public schools, there is a reason for this: doubt and confusion serve a particular group’s political interests. Noonan is saying that, despite the fact that the scientific community has come to a resaonable consensus that global warming is a real phenomenon, the existence of manufactured political controversy and doubt is actually the scientists’ fault.

She concludes:

If global warming is real, and if it is new, and if it is caused not by nature and her cycles but man and his rapacity, and if it in fact endangers mankind, scientists will probably one day blame The People for doing nothing.

But I think The People will have a greater claim to blame the scientists, for refusing to be honest, for operating in cliques and holding to ideologies. For failing to be trustworthy.

That is, for saying things that “The People” don’t particulaly want to hear.

In other news, the Union of Concerned Scientists has documented the entry of politics into the decisions made by US FDA scientists.

Of the 997 FDA scientists who responded to the survey, nearly one-fifth (18.4 percent) said that they “have been asked, for non-scientific reasons, to inappropriately exclude or alter technical information or their conclusions in a FDA scientific document.” This is the third survey UCS has conducted to examine inappropriate interference with science at federal agencies.

The survey also found that “forty percent of respondents fear retaliation for voicing safety concerns in public…[and] more than a third of the respondents did not feel they could express safety concerns even inside the agency.”

When political appointees overrule or suppress scientific decisions, that’s not “science being untrustworthy”. It’s a corruption of the scientific process by politicians. It’s bad for science, it’s bad for politics, and it’s bad for the country.

The UCS has taken on the goal of defending scientific integrity against this kind of meddling. You can help them set Peggy Noonan straight via their Scientific Integrity program.

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Two soldiers of Truthiness from Clever Beyond Measure on July 21, 2006 9:51 AM

There are two newspaper items at hand that serve to illustrate the scientific ignorance of the Religious Right, and the Bush administration's exploitation of it. One of them is a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece by Peggy Noonan that has Read More

36 Comments

This article is disturbing to me on many levels. It’s also very disturbing to see what responses she/they have posted to article. I don’t know how many responses have been sent in, but so far there only two that have “made the cut”: http://www.opinionjournal.com/colum[…]id=110008676. I sent in my 2 cents -as a scientist- but I’m pretty sure how well that will go over, I’m not holding my breath.

Noonan has spent too much time cocooned in her air-conditioned New York apartment reading only what her ideology will permit her to read. She’s completely out of touch with science, the public sphere, and reality. Sounds a little like Dubya in his cocoon in the White House.

Another sad example of the anti-enlightenment thought so prevalent these days…

Thanks for the update.

Noonan has adopted the post-modernist stance on science. Oh, the irony.

Unfortunately I think it goes something like this:

Man: Is it getting warmer, or it it just me?

Science: Its definitely warmer.

Man: Am I part of the problem?

Science: Yes.

Man: Can I do anything about it?

Science: Yes, but you’re not going to like it.

Man: Oh, well just how bad will it get?

Science: Ocean levels rise, stronger storms, changing weather patterns.

Man: Sound bad, but what does that really mean?

Science: Allot of damaged property and displaced people, suffering for hundreds of millions, and potentially famines (from damaged crops), plagues (from overcrowding and poor conditions), wars (from overcrowding, food shortages and general poverty) and deaths (see the first three).

Man: Am I going to be one of them?

Science: Not sure.

Man: Oh in that case get back to me when you reach a consensus.

Well, here is mine. No, it is not up yet. I expect editing, or failure to post.

Comment:

The scientists have met. They have discussed. They have a consensus. Peggy Noonan, though, seems to have missed it or failed to do any homework such that she would find it. Here, in a nice little essay, is the summary with references (gee, none of those in the Noonan article!) to the reports.

http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/repri[…]702/1686.pdf

I suggest that every one read that little free piece from the AAAS. Then, look over the book The Republican War on Science to see why there is a noncontroversy. In the empirical world of science, there is a wrong answer. Just because someone “believes” the wrong answer does not mean that there are two equally valid answers.

As much as it shames me, I must admit that global-warming denial is a pathology found almost exclusively in conservative circles. We cannot continue on our current course; the planet’s ill and the condition’s becoming terminal. I can only hope that my ideological allies will come to their senses before it’s too late (yeah, I know).

Invite Peggy over for a beer and some conversation.

Delta Pi Gamma (Scientia et Fermentum)

Dr. John: thanks for the pointer to the AAAS piece.

GoP: I think you’re right, and I wonder why it is that the global warming denial is so dominated by conservatives. Is it the dominionist christian influence, do you think? Or maybe a random reaction against the “liberal” environmental movement?

And conservatives as a group are not particularly stupid: presumably they can see that glaciers and ice caps really are melting. Is it just the case that they don’t think they can gain anything politically conceding the existence of the phenomenon?

In any case, I have the suspicion that Noonan’s piece is a prelude to a public acceptance that global warming is true. I think she’s preparing a way to deflect the blame away from “The People” (i.e., global warming denialists such as she has been) and onto scientists, once the consequences of global warming become clear to the average person.

As a scientist, this stuff really pisses me off. These people are positively Orwellian, and I can only conclude that they are either intensely ignorant, arrogant, Machiavellian, or some combination of the above. The claim is as transparent as glass: scientists must be political if their conclusions might result in government regulation (impinge on profits), place responsibility on individuals or corporations for damages knowingly incurred (impinge on profits), limit ones ability to use property without regard to consequences to others (basic selfishness and impinge on profits), challenge specific religious doctrines (insecurity), or, as a corollary to the last, undermine attempts to proselytize sectarian religious doctrine in a public forum (insecurity). Apparently they are so deeply ingrained into a world where political ideology dictates fact that they are incapable of allowing others the dignity of professional judgment that transcends political preferences.

They wonder why more and more scientists are “against” them? Jesus, how stupid can they be? On the basis of NOTHING but IDEOLOGY they trash science, smear scientists’ credibility and integrity, and then wonder why we don’t just sit up and go “gee, how could I NOT have realized that selling more Hummers is so important that my data must be wrong!”

I am normally quite moderate politically, but lately I’ve had to stop myself from automatically rejecting positions simply because these cretins are so intellectually poisonous that I can’t trust anything that they say.

Matt Wrote:

GoP: I think you’re right, and I wonder why it is that the global warming denial is so dominated by conservatives. Is it the dominionist christian influence, do you think? Or maybe a random reaction against the “liberal” environmental movement?

Probably a little of both. Many of my Christian brothers are a little cavalier about our “dominion over every living thing”. “Dominion” implies responsibility and thoughtful rule. Plus, a lot of us equate concerns over the environment with crypto-communism. The Left didn’t help by blowing a lot of things out of proportion in the early days of the movement. Nevertheless, the bulk of the responsibility lies on our shoulders. That’s why I always try to separate a man’s philosophy from the man himself; people can surprise you sometimes with a good insight.

Paley actually making sense on something of importance.

[Slaps self. Carefully reviews thread. Egad–he still seems to be speaking sensibly!]

Brrr. Spooky.

One gets the impression that the consensus that includes every scientist without a strong vested interest in denial, isn’t one Noonan herself agrees with. And since all scientists will never be unanimous about anything, it’s always possible to find a dissenter to ANY consensus, as ‘proof’ that no consensus has emerged. I would expect that if Noonan couldn’t find any scientists disagreeing on this (and this none agreeing with her), she’d have found a conspiracy instead.

Issues that are political hot potatoes ultimately have little to do with science. The human ability to kid ourselves is boundless - we are what Dawkins called ‘virtuoso believers’.

My impression is that Christianity has little to do with conservative rejection of anthropogenic global warming. This is mostly based on reading statements made by global warming deniers on the web so I may be way off base.

I think the tendency to deny global warming is based on both a perception of economic self interest and an attachment to libertarianism/free market capitalism that has a religious fervor to it. I’ve seen it suggested several times that global warming, indeed all environmental issues are an attempt to impose socialism and punish the wealthy.

While I don’t expect the Wall Street Journal to publish very many editorials I would agree with I do find this one particularly depressing. It is either incredibly ill-informed or genuinely evil in its intent to misinform.

Global warming skepticism is informed by ignorance and a fair amount of stupidity. It is not simply the sentimental right that is dismissive of global warming. Quite a few otherwise intelligent folk from the agnostic/atheist right have trouble understanding how science works and simply don’t get it.

Here is one of India’s most popular blogger journalists who writes for WSJ from Bombay on the subject http://tinyurl.com/lgpmh; and here is an embarassingly stupid article by the editor of India’s leading financial daily (an economist of some repute) http://tinyurl.com/c6ys7 with some priceless gems such as these

Almost as soon as the Kyoto Protocol on global warming came into effect on February 15, Kashmir suffered the highest snowfall in three decades with over 150 killed, and Mumbai recorded the lowest temperature in 40 years. Had temperatures been the highest for decades, newspapers would have declared this was proof of global warming. But whenever temperatures drop, the press keeps quiet.

Things were different in 1940-70, when there was global cooling. Every cold winter then was hailed as proof of a coming new Ice Age. But the moment cooling was replaced by warming, a new disaster in the opposite direction was proclaimed.

and then this one

And this of course takes the cake…

In his latest best seller State of Fear, Michael Crichton does a devastating expose of the way ecological groups have tweaked data and facts to create mass hysteria. He points out that we know astonishingly little about the environment. All sides make exaggerated claims.

Being used to working with simple data sets with most of the contingent variables omitted, economists almost always get science wrong.

The commie left too has a very poor record with the environment. The former Soviet communist empire made a monumental mess of lakes, rivers and forests. In India where the commies have run the eastern state of West Bengal for 30 years now the environment is close to collapse.

Science being uncompromising about the evidence and tentative about its theories is useless for constructing ideologies. So when it gets ideological; science suffers big time.

the article is full of disturbing fruitcakery, but the underlying stupid punditry is pretty familiar. when you KNOW the scientists have the wrong answer, you don’t need to understand what they do. you can safely sneer at their methods because you’re on such a sure thing that somewhere along the line they’ve made a stupid scientist bonehead error.

Like I said over at the Poor Man, I’m pretty sure this is just the vanguard for a wave of conservative pundits who are going to come round to global warming in the next few years, and proceed to blame our failure to do much about it on liberals (and for most conservative pundits, scientists are just a subset of liberals).

Witness this stunningly inane recent post from Jonah Goldberg, who ends up effectively blaming liberals for political stasis on global warming, on the grounds that since liberals support action conservatives have to oppose it.:

I think this is actually a fascinating thought experiment. What if science could prove 100% that the earth was warming dangerously but that this was 100% natural (i.e. from sunspots or some such)? I suspect this would scatter the current environmental coalitions and antagonists in all sorts of interesting and unexpected ways. To be sure, many environmentalists would still be concerned. But, I think, a large amount of the passion would be gone in certain quarters once the fun of blaming capitalism and mankind was out of the equation. I think the reluctance on the part of some on the right to fix the problem would evaporate while the reluctance to “tamper” with nature would cause at least some environmentalists to second-guess global warming science

In Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth”, he states that a survey of the peer-reviewed professional scientific literature didn’t turn up a single article stating that global warming wasn’t true. But a similar survey of the popular literature showed that the pro-con articles were running about 50-50. So naturally, Peggy blames the scientists.

As you say, she’s a conservative pundit.

KevinD got it in one. I read a lot of right-wing blogs and many are absolutely convinced that the modern environmentalist movement has become a bastion of the socialist left. They therefore regard any policies they advocate with suspicion and will actively oppose them any way they can.

Like it or not, though, the science becomes politicized when people start seeking solutions from their politicians in the form of regulations.

Issues that are political hot potatoes ultimately have little to do with science.

Amen.

Science being uncompromising about the evidence and tentative about its theories is useless for constructing ideologies. So when it gets ideological; science suffers big time.

I think this is just an RCH too smug. I doubt even the most chauvinistic supporter of the virtues of science would argue that our understanding of global climatology is anywhere near complete. What we have is models we hope have included the major factors, which might (more or less) predict broad trends. These models don’t or can’t include factors outside their rather narrow sphere, such as astronomical phenomena, long-range solar cycles not yet known, complex ocean current interactions, unanticipated feedback effects, etc.

Problem is, in the political world it’s necessary to DO something (or refrain from doing something). And these steps require enough consensus to be enforceable, they often cost a lot of money, they’re generally not easy to reverse, they step on a lot of toes either way. Science might be able to tell you that the odds on THIS roll of the dice are 60-40 in your favor. But if you lose, you lose 100% of your money, not 40%.

So politicians must ask more questions than just how likely the human-caused global warming scenario is. They also must assess the consequences of being wrong. Kind of like jumping off a cliff into what LOOKS like a big soft matteress down there. Once you’re close enough to see that it’s not what you expected, it’s hard to go back.

I guess this link seems appropriate here:

http://www.livescience.com/environm[…]warming.html

Personally, I’m with Jim Hansen on this one (remember him?), but the article has views from people on both sides (hope I don’t cause a fight).

Ginger Yellow, you probably already know this, but Jonah Goldberg claimed in a talk that America’s Great Plains were a forest until the Native Americans burned it down. Link here

Jonah Goldberg is an idiot.

Matt: I suspect it is both Dominionism and old fashioned “screw-‘em” individualism. I keep running into people who think an economic argument is enough to settle the issue. (“It will cost too much to change our ways, so it doesn’t matter what the facts are.”)

shiva Wrote:

Being used to working with simple data sets with most of the contingent variables omitted, economists almost always get science wrong.

Mainstream economics gets economic matters wrong, too, as Kahneman and Tversky showed a while ago. And yet people still talk about such … IMO, the neuroeconomics movement is long over due. Finally - economicists listening to psychologists.

One depressing possibility is that Noonan and her kind are aware of the fact of global warming (just as there must be those in the Bush administration who are aware that the war in Iraq is not going stunningly well). However, the short term goal of keeping their political rivals off balance are judged as being more important than the long-term consequneces of global climate change.

(Similarly, if the present administration can manage to funnel enough money to its cronies before the next election, the long term consequences are not seen as particularly important.)

I really doubt that religion has much to do with the fact that global warming denial fanaticism that stems almost exclusively from the political right. Yes, there are the random wingnut fanatics who literally think that the destruction of the Earth is perfectly acceptable because The Rapture is coming anyway, but they are few and far between and unlike with the antievolution argument, the religious justification simply isn’t going to fly in mainstream America.

Most of it I lie to the reputation of the environmentalist movement amongst political conservatives. I don’t think it’s because of any vague association between environmentalism and socialism, but rather, simply, environmentalism and fanaticism. Much of the damage has been self-inflicted. The image of the “tree-hugger” chaining himself to a forest somewhere is still very strong. In the image of many people, “environmentalist” equals “tree-hugger”, and because tree-huggers are insane, their claims can be ignored. I think it’s a case of fanaticism breeding counter-fanaticism.

I’m afraid that this is more insidious than you would believe. Peggy Noonan is a hired gun, and here she is showing the cut of her canvas. The right is using pieces like this to sow doubts into the population - to the right, and the center - with reasonable-sounding arguments about the need for “more study” - hey, yeah, mor study WOULD be a good idea. And now this; “well, not all of the scientists agree on this Global Warming thing, and you know how some of these guys are with their wacko-enviro-liberal ways”. This is swift-boating, plain and simple. Sad thing is, it works so darn well.

Enjoy!

You have to admit that the global warming deniers are quite intelligent (among the anti-science population, anyway) in not publishing anything, like the Wedge Document, that could incriminate them.

The Ghost of Paley Wrote:

As much as it shames me, I must admit that global-warming denial is a pathology found almost exclusively in conservative circles. We cannot continue on our current course; the planet’s ill and the condition’s becoming terminal. I can only hope that my ideological allies will come to their senses before it’s too late (yeah, I know).

Your ideological allies have discovered the power of attacking science, not from the lone crackpot fringe, but as an organized, deliberate political effort. Throw a lot of money into think tanks, publish lots of popular books, get one or two PhDs to side with you, exploit the ignorance of journalists, and party off the fat while America is slowly whittled down into an inferior nation. There is absolutely no difference in operation between ID creationism, supply side economics, and global warming denial.

You feed their antiscience frenzy in one corner, you feed their frenzy everywhere. Like it or not, you’re part of the global warming denial frenzy.

You have to admit that the global warming deniers are quite intelligent (among the anti-science population, anyway) in not publishing anything, like the Wedge Document, that could incriminate them.

Well, there’s no Wedge Document that has become public, that is, no strategy spelled out. However, there is the censorship of Jim Hansen of NASA by partisan hacks in the government as one recent example.

This is just another attack in the far right’s war on science.

Noonan is playing the blame game. She is trying to cover up the right’s efforts to spread doubt and confusion about climate science by falsely pinning it on the scientists. She is also trying to cover up the far right’s efforts to stop any regulations that address global warming by again falsely pinning it on the scientists.

Its like arguing kids saying “I know you are but what am I”.

haffer Wrote:

Most of it I lie to the reputation of the environmentalist movement amongst political conservatives. I don’t think it’s because of any vague association between environmentalism and socialism, but rather, simply, environmentalism and fanaticism. Much of the damage has been self-inflicted. The image of the “tree-hugger” chaining himself to a forest somewhere is still very strong. In the image of many people, “environmentalist” equals “tree-hugger”, and because tree-huggers are insane, their claims can be ignored. I think it’s a case of fanaticism breeding counter-fanaticism.

In historical terms, I don’t see this ending well. Jared Diamond’s book “Collapse” discusses the outcomes of societies that allow their environment to degrade. He looks what happens when societies collapse. It appears that they go pretty fast. There is a lot of hyper-violence, that sort of stuff. The “culture of life” the conservative like to talk about will be replaced by dog eat dog, man eat man. When you are an obstacle to the survival of your next door neighbor, things will get ugly.

Folks can say the radical environmentalists are wackos. When the history books are written (if there is anyone to write them), they won’t be on the wrong side of history. At least they tried.

Or just take the position of John Maynard Keynes who said “In the long run, we are all dead”.

Matt Wrote:

GoP: I think you’re right, and I wonder why it is that the global warming denial is so dominated by conservatives. Is it the dominionist christian influence, do you think? Or maybe a random reaction against the “liberal” environmental movement?

Matt, I think the correct answer here is also the obvious one: Global warming denial is mostly driven by a coalition of the industry lobby (primarily the coal and oil companies, but also the automobile industry and lesser players) and those groups with libertarian/laissez faire impulses. The former has a vested interest in preventing carbon mitigation policies, and the latter has an ideological objection to regulating businesses in any shape or form. The partnership is also quite convenient, as the former has a lot of money to throw around and the latter has a lot of think tanks and foundations in which that money can be usefullly spent.

As for Noonan’s article, it is as brazenly hypocritical as you can get, and for people of her political persuasion (I wouldn’t call it conservative) that’s really saying something. If it weren’t for the politicization of global warming by people like her, it wouldn’t be seen as terribly controversial, just a rather difficult and unpleasant engineering problem.

Still only two comments. (If you can call the Randy one a real, informed comment.)

I guess the truth is a bad thing. Perhaps they did not like my abbreviation of Sac for Sacramento? Sheesh.…

Sir, a Christian Scientist one time told me that they were not a cult and their beliefs were not a cultish issue. Was I ever surprised to find that they were. Why can we not say the same for Evolution? What beliefs make Evolution not a cult? Why believe in Evolution? What does Evolution have to offer me? Does believing in Evolution help me in getting to heaven? What would Charles Darwin do? What do eyewitness accounts say about Charles Darwin? Do we have any outside proof of his existence? Where can I find a local church in regards to the belief of Evolution? Why do people still worship Charles Darwin’s teachings today? Thanks for your time and have a great day.

Honest questions about Charles Darwin:

Sir, I have a question. Was Darwin a liar, a lunatic or a loser? Was he an idiot? Question no. 2 Did Darwin go crazy at the Galapogos Islands? Was he hallucinating? What do the experts say? Question no. 3 Are there any eyewitness accounts of Darwin? What do the eyewitness accounts of Darwin at the Galapogos say?

Thanks for your time sir. Have a good day.

Casey Powell

Casey Powell Wrote:

Sir, I have a question. Was Darwin a liar, a lunatic or a loser? Was he an idiot? Question no. 2 Did Darwin go crazy at the Galapogos Islands? Was he hallucinating? What do the experts say? Question no. 3 Are there any eyewitness accounts of Darwin? What do the eyewitness accounts of Darwin at the Galapogos say?

I have a question for you: have you stopped beating your wife?

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This page contains a single entry by Matt Brauer published on July 20, 2006 12:50 PM.

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