Nov 17, 2009

Scientific Organizations - Should We Trust Them?

Frequently, when one expresses skepticism regarding global warming theory, knowledgeable folk respond with a version of the following:
Numerous scientific bodies from around the world believe global warming is a real and present danger. Who are you to second-guess such esteemed organizations - to substitute your judgment for theirs?
This question is entirely and absolutely appropriate. When I began researching the global warming debate back in April, I was deeply troubled by the fact that I had no clue how to respond.

My journalistic instincts told me this issue smelled. It reeked of hype and fear-mongering. How could responsible scientific organizations be mixed up in this?

I'm now far closer to formulating a detailed outline of what seems to have happened to the culture of science in recent decades. That explanation will ultimately comprise one or two chapters in the book on which I'm working. For the moment, let me draw attention to two pieces of a larger puzzle.

First, I’ve been reading the 1976 third report to the Club of Rome titled RIO: Reshaping the International Order. This book's overall premise is that humanity must adopt a system of world government in order to solve problems associated with nuclear weapons, Third World poverty, and environmental degradation.

The book's proposed solutions include a laughable number of new international bodies to plan, regulate, and tax just about everything. In other words, bureaucracy and taxes will save us!

In Chapter 7, Section 5 (p. 133 of my Signet paperback edition) one finds the following quote:

“In the past, specialists [this term is used interchangeably with scientists] have often been reluctant to engage in political debate or to share their knowledge and fears with the general public. Given social dilemmas, they have often preferred to adopt neutral rather than value positions, to tacitly advise rather than openly advocate. This generalization no longer holds true. In many branches of science there are radical movements. Increasingly, both in the rich and poor worlds, scientists are involved in active advocacy which they see as an intellectual and ethical duty.” [bold added by me]

In other words, back in 1976 it was being admitted that “many branches of science” had become politicized by radical elements. It was acknowledged openly - by people who approved of this development - that some scientists were abandoning the dispassionate stance we expect of them in favor of overt activism.

The are many reasons to be troubled by this. Roger Pielke Jr's book, The Honest Broker (which I discuss here) examines a number of them.

I also recommend this article, available free online, titled The Double Standard in Environmental Science. Its author, a soil erosion expert, argues that research findings that suggest humanity is making environmental progress get rejected by prestigious science journals, even though they're based on decades of real-world measurements. Yet papers that reach alarming conclusions get published, even when their authors have little expertise and scant data. His experience suggests this bias has been operating since the early 1980s.

My second point comes from a 2008 paper (also free online) authored by Richard S. Lindzen, of MIT, titled Climate Science: Is it Currently Designed to Answer Questions? Anyone who thinks scientists dwell in an ivory tower dreamily insulated from crass political considerations will find it difficult to hold such opinions after reading this text in its entirety.

I'm going to focus on one aspect in particular. At the top of page 5, Lindzen observes that science organizations:

"are hierarchical structures where positions and policies are determined by small executive councils or even single individuals. This greatly facilitates any conscious effort to politicize science via influence in such bodies where a handful of individuals (often not even scientists) speak on behalf of organizations that include thousands of scientists and even enforce specific scientiific positions and agendas."
On page 7, Lindzen discusses the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS):
"The academy is divided into many disciplinary sections whose primary task is the nomination of candidates for membership in the Academy. Typically, support by more than 85% of the membership of any section is needed for nomination. However, once a candidate is elected, the candidate is free to affiliate with any section. The vetting process is generally rigorous, but for over 20 years, there was a Temporary Nominating Group for the Global Environment to provide a back door for the election of candidates who were environmental activists, bypassing the conventional vetting procedure. Members, so elected, proceeded to join existing sections where they hold a veto power over the election of any scientists unsympathetic to their positions. Moreover, they are almost immediately appointed to positions on the executive council, and other influential bodies within the Academy. One of the members elected via the Temporary Nominating Group, Ralph Cicerone, is now president of the Academy. Prior to that, he was on the nominating committee for the presidency...Others elected to the NAS via this route include [well known activists] Paul Ehrlich, James Hansen, Steven Schneider, John Holdren..." [bold added by me]
This gives one pause, doesn't it?

I don't mean to suggest that no statements issued by any scientific body can be trusted. That would be foolish. But there are serious and compelling reasons to be cautious of activist-scientists in the environmental/global warming arena.

Life would be far simpler if we didn't have to wonder if what we're hearing is pure, unadulterated scientific evidence - or whether we're being fed someone's political agenda.

This mixing of politics, activism, and science is also evident in the genetically modified food debate. See my blog post Do As I Say, Not As I Do.