Dec 19, 2009

Science Says: Hop on One Foot

Vanity Fair's coverage of President Obama's visit to the Copenhagen climate conference is chock-a-block with the usual silliness. The summit, we're told, was "widely regarded as humanity’s last good chance to preserve a livable climate."

The term "catastrophic climate change" is used twice, with a reference to "catastrophic impacts" thrown in for good measure. We're warned about "mass extinctions" without anyone pointing out that species extinctions are normal and have occurred frequently on planet Earth. We're told glaciers might melt without anyone acknowledging that glaciers were advancing and receding long before industrial pollution was a twinkle in a capitalist's eye.

There are two quotes from Greenpeace, one from the Center for Biological Diversity, one from a scientist associated with the Stockholm Environment Institute, one from author/activist Bill McKibben (see my recent post on said gentleman), and another from a person who advises the German government on environmental issues.

In other words, we're bashed over the head with the perspective of a tiny sliver of the population - people whose careers depend on the view that human-caused global warming is a crisis.

There isn't a single quote in this article from a skeptical scientist, economist, or policy analyst. Nor is there any hint that some smart people who think global warming is a problem nevertheless consider emissions cuts a wrong-headed approach that's doomed to failure. (For example, see here and here.)

Most disturbing however, is that this 1,200 word article contains four separate slimy attempts to justify certain views as being determined by science and therefore not open to debate. We read that:
  1. certain policies are "what science says is required to avoid catastrophic climate change"
  2. "science says reductions of at least 25 to 40 percent are necessary"
  3. such and such is "consistent with what science demands"
  4. there's a need "to set a science-based national pollution cap" [bold added by me]
Unlike the childhood game, Simon Says, in which a particular course of action is dictated by the person playing the role of Simon, science rarely proscribes any one response.

First of all, science is performed by human beings - who are fallible. All science, therefore, has the potential to be biased and mistaken. When scientists observe, they make choices about what is worth noticing and what is not. When they calculate, they choose to employ one mathematical approach rather than another. When they write reports, they highlight some issues while sidelining others.

All these decisions, choices, assumptions and biases are part of the process that produces what we think of as scientific knowledge. There is no God of Science reaching down from the heavens with THE TRUTH carved into stone tablets.

Second, while scientific investigation can produce certain facts, even when we have full confidence in the accuracy of those facts we must still choose how to respond to them.

Do we put our faith in high-tech to solve our energy problems over the next few decades before matters become acute? Do we reinforce sea walls and levees? Do we make huge efforts to ensure clean and adequate water supplies in the Third World in order to minimize drought-related harm? Or do we continue to put pretty much all our eggs in one basket by pursuing grandiose international Kyoto-style emissions treaties - even when there's little evidence that such treaties accomplish anything?

There are always a variety of responses to any given situation. These responses - whether at the local, national or international levels - should be examined, debated, and negotiated out in the open. We all deserve a voice in these discussions. We should all participate in making these choices.

Science does not tell us what to do. When political activists insist otherwise, they are attempting to preempt important discussions, to silence our voices, to substitute their own views for those of the community.

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