Sunday, April 12, 2009

With or Without Bush, the Right Wing War on Science Continues. Is it Working?

President Obama appears to be backing away from strong statements about climate change he made during he made during his campaign for the White House. One key point of the NYT article: in the recently-passed budget resolutions, cap-and-trade provisions for industry were removed from the legislation in both the House and Senate without apparent objections from the Obama administration.

There may be a degree of insider baseball to this story, which the Times goes on to discuss, the gist being that the Obama administration may unilaterally impose dramatic changes to carbon emissions through the EPA rather than having to do it through congress. But more worrisome would be that the administration, trying to pick its fights and expend its political capital carefully, is backing away from a confrontation that they believe they might lose because the public still--after nearly three decades of increasing scientific consensus!--does not quite understand or appreciate the gravity of the situation. And Obama's political opponents appear to be gearing up on this front, threatening a large-scale misdirection and misinformation campaign about global warming. From my point of view, this is part of an ongoing war against the entire process of science; if right wing leaders find the discoveries of science to be incompatible with their political goals, they simply deny it, and go to great lengths to destroy science's credibility. And it hardly goes without saying that this is bad not only for America's present, but its future as well.

Denying global warming is hardly anything new to the right wing, but it has taken a more urgent tone in the past few months. The first and most appalling example came from an op-ed by George Will in the Washington Post on February 15--less than one month into the Obama administration. Entitled "Dark Green Doomsayers," Will lays out the case that climate scientists essentially have no idea what they are doing, that they are quite poor predictors of the future, that in the 1970's scientists actually thought the world was cooling, and as a consequence most if not all of their theories shouldn't be taken very seriously. Three days later, in the midst of several scientific blogs howling about Will's column, Andrew Revkin of the New York Times wrote a "news analysis" entitled "In Climate Debate, Exaggeration is a Pitfall," and among other things included a debunking of Will's column.

It's quite clear that Revkin's column is just that--a semi-opinion column rather than a "pure" news story--but Will counter-punched the following week, getting in a couple of nice jabs at the Times for writing "meretricious journalism in the service of dubious certitudes." This was done while theoretically defending one of his most important claims, which was that "...according to the University of Illinois' Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979." Leaving aside my pedantic instinct to point out that WaPo's copy editor got the possessive of Illinois wrong, Will, in rebutting the rebuttal, screwed the pooch for a second time in less than a week. The full explanation is covered by one of Discover magazine's bloggers Carl Zimmer, and is highly recommended reading, but the short version is that Will managed to cherry pick two points of data apparently supporting his claim, but doing so in a sea of information (an apt simile in this case) casting doubt on that very claim. Moreover, Will, in the second column, never bothered to contact the author of the source information that he cited to make sure he had his facts straight, which he most certainly did not. (And, of course, he didn't even deign to defend the biggest whoppers contained in his first piece, like his claim that most scientists in the 1970's thought the world was cooling, but no matter; as I have linked before, there's a not-very-smart "gosh, why's everybody upset?" comment by the Post's ombudsman.)

By March 21, WaPo ran yet another op-ed, this time improving the discourse: Chris Mooney, a writer whose subject matter is the politicization of science, shredded Will's reasoning (if it can be called that). Since the second column, though, no further words from Will. And as Bob Somersby at The Daily Howler points out, while Mooney's op-ed was welcome news in the editorial pages of the Post, Will's column is picked up by hundreds of outlets and his influence is wide; few probably picked up the Mooney column and thus many readers of Will's two columns haven't heard the reasonable counter-argument, and heard nothing from the people most qualified to discuss the issue (like Zimmer at his Discover blog). All in all, it was not a great month for the Good Guys.

All of this is chewing on old bones, but the Times ran an article on Thursday indicating that the misinformation put out by George Will is just the opening salvo in what might be a coordinated, all-out debunk effort by right wingers before serious attempts are made by the Obama administration to tackle the climate change problem. The piece features Marc Morano, a former spokesman for Oklahoma Senator James Imhofe (for those who don't follow national politics, Imhofe is about the most pure right wing senator there is), and how he is revving up a media campaign to attack any political solutions to the climate change problem. I don't have problems with anyone of whatever political stripe trying to disseminate information on scientific issues; the problem is that Morano appears to be working in the service of a political ideology first and picking the science to suit that view, ignoring or disparaging anything that contradicts that view. Additionally, he is willing to all but lie in support of those views: one of the tastier bits in the article discusses how he posts a list of "more than 700 scientists dissent warming claims" and includes one "meterologist" in the list of scientists who is not only not a meterologist (he's a local TV news weatherman), but one who is opposed to the idea of climate change "because it takes God out of the picture." Well done, Marc! Further explanations of Marc Morano's tactics and those of the global warming-deniers can be found at (that's "De-Smog," if the name didn't make any sense); if interested in yet another example of the corruption of the debate on global ice melt a-la George Will, see here.

I am not a climate scientist and as such do not have the qualifications to say definitively whether climate change is or is not a valid theory. But I can see whether or not there is a consensus (there is one on global warming) and try to understand the science behind it; that's the best any non-specialist can do. Moreover, I can try to understand the motivations of those who might not want the theory to be true, whether it is or isn't. And that has been, unfortunately, the guiding theme of (for the most part) right wingers in the US for at least the last 50 if not 100 years. (Yes, the Scopes trial was prosecuted by noted left winger William Jennings Bryan, but times have changed.) If science doesn't fit in with their short-term goals, they simply deny its truth. If that ain't dangerous, I don't know what is.

PS--I note, to be complete, that the Times ran a piece in its Sunday Magazine two weeks ago about a real scientist who has serious objections to global warming (Nobel laureate Freeman Dyson), though one voice of dissent to me does not suggest that we should ignore the consensus of climatologists and abandon efforts to reverse or halt climate change through public policy. There will almost never be "total" consensus on any given scientific topic (Nobel laureate Peter Duesberg believes that HIV is not the cause of AIDS, for instance; I think he's completely nutz), but in general there are just too many people who know about this stuff that say it is so, and that is good enough for me.

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