Feb 19, 2010

Is This Politics or Science?

When someone makes a statement about global warming it's important to ask ourselves: are they informing us about a scientific issue or are they taking bits of latex, inflating them with lots of hot air, and presenting us with a bouquet of political assumptions?

Everyone does the latter, to some degree. We interpret the world according to our beliefs, experiences, and values. (Hopefully, we also strive to be fair-minded.) But a problem arises when certain people insist that the processed, dyed, manufactured, and inflated balloons clutched in their hand are actually a cup of unadulterated liquid sap fresh from the rubber tree.

I've now been researching the global warming debate for the better part of a year. I've read a variety of perspectives and encountered all sorts of political spin. I find it curious that those who believe humanity has set in motion catastrophic global warming deny vociferously that they themselves are in any way political. They believe their perspective is simply the truth - and that the very existence of alternative viewpoints shows that science has been corrupted by politics.

This week's news contains flagrant examples of such thinking. I'm going to discuss just one [more here and here]. In an interview published yesterday, Dr. Michael Mann, (who has revealed himself, via the Climategate e-mails, to be a less-than-attractive human being) accused climate skeptics of creating a "poisonous atmosphere." This, he says, is:
…similar in many ways to that poisonous atmosphere we saw last summer in those healthcare town hall meetings — irrational sort of conspiracy-driven lunatics, frankly…
Now I'm not an American, but even I recognize Democratic Party rhetoric. Those who exercised their free-speech right to criticize proposed health care measures at public meetings have been written off by fans of the party in power as irrational nutcases.

There's nothing measured or good-natured about this. It's an example of partisan politics at its ugliest. It demonstrates that, rather than dealing with the content of people's concerns, Democratic Party hardliners prefer to hurl insults and name-call. No one who values diversity and inclusiveness can regard this as admirable.

Mann has therefore advertised – as surely as if he'd splashed it on a Times Square billboard – his own political orientation. He's made it clear that he personally buys into this profoundly partisan view of the world. He isn't merely a Democratic, he's hardcore.

Which is important to have clarity about since he then declares that: "The science community isn’t organized — it doesn’t have a single politically driven motive as the climate change deniers do." [bold added]

That sound you hear is me spitting up my chai latte. Does Mann mean climate scientists are never politically motivated? Or does he regard people whom he nastily denigrates as "climate change deniers" to be unified around a single motivation?

Both ways of interpreting this statement render it absurd. If science were conducted entirely by robots on a remote planet, politics-free science might be possible. But scientific research is undertaken by human beings – very few of whom could ever be described as not having "a single politically driven motive."

It's equally preposterous to suggest that the millions of people who have reservations about the current state of climate science can be viewed as any sort of monolith. Humans are never motivated by one thing alone. Declaring that a geographically and professionally diverse group are all propelled by a single doctrine is psychology too simplistic even for comic books.

It's clear that Mann - the hardcore Democrat - regards his own viewpoint as the unadorned truth, the equivalent of unprocessed liquid latex collected moments ago from the rubber tree. In his mind, other people exaggerate and twist the facts while he just tells it like it is.

Yet not once does he acknowledge that some criticisms of current climate science are valid, that other viewpoints deserve a hearing, or that climate skeptics have identified legitimate research shortcomings. In his opinion, anyone who sees the world differently is engaging in "a war…against the climate science and scientists". Tellingly, he speaks of the climate science rather than of competing perspectives.

But there are always multiple points-of-view. In his collection of thoughtful essays, The Scientist as Rebel, renowned physicist Freeman Dyson describes science as "a mosaic of partial and conflicting visions." No one has all the answers. Two different researchers, with different areas of expertise, will inevitably assess the same scientific question differently. It may be that both of them are at least somewhat correct – or that both of them will be proved wrong in the fullness of time.

As Tom Fuller wrote yesterday:
…the [global warming] argument isn't really about CO2. Most people with a bit of a scientific background understand…that more CO2 in the atmosphere will tend to elevate temperatures. The argument is really about water vapor. Does doubling CO2 then create enough extra water vapor to amplify this heating by a multiple, and if so, what is that multiple? How sensitive is the atmosphere to a doubling of CO2?

The [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] thinks it's moderate. The alarmist extreme thinks it's high. Lukewarmers think it's low. Real skeptics think it's non-existent, or even negative. The argument before the court is that we don't know. And until we do know, what right does one faction have to blacken the names and reputations of those with opposing views?
Mann approaches climate science the way he approaches the health care debate. If you're not on his team, you deserve neither respect nor consideration. He's all about scoring points, trashing the opposition, and winning at all costs.

For those of us who think science is about being open to new ideas and new perspectives, Mann isn't the kind of scientist we'd want our kids to grow up to be.


>> Bullies need not apply
>> If we don't agree, you're crazy
>> The cult of the expert
>> Bias: how the media distort the news