Science and politics

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.