Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Warming Wednesdays: who are the climate change deniers?

Because I do politics, not science, my first thought on observing resistance to the findings of climate science is to ask "who benefits?" The evidence for global warming seems overwhelming and increasingly is presented in ways non-scientists can understand. So who are the deniers, who pays for their continual sniping at legitimate science, and what motivates them?

Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, a couple of historians of science, answer these questions and more in Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. Their answer turns out to be pretty simple: a little coterie of cranky Cold Warriors, funded by industries and right wingers, are afraid that climate science will undermine their idol: unfettered free market capitalism. So they have been willing to scheme, to lie, and to smear in the interest of undercutting the legitimacy of all science. The only thing surprising about the tale is that these people were once legitimate scientists themselves, though not in fields relevant to those they target.

Here's the authors' summary:

In case after case, Fred Singer, Fred Seitz, and a handful of other scientists joined forces with think tanks and private corporations to challenge scientific evidence on a host of contemporary issues. In the early years, much of the money for this effort came from the tobacco industry; in later years, it came from foundations, think tanks, and the fossil fuel industry. They claimed the link between smoking and cancer remained unproven. They insisted that scientists were mistaken about the risks and limitations of SDI [Reagan's Star Wars anti-missile boondoggle]. They argued that acid rain was caused by volcanoes, and so was the ozone hole. They charged that the Environmental Protection Agency had rigged the science surrounding secondhand smoke.

Most recently--over the course of nearly two decades and against the face of mounting evidence--they dismissed the reality of global warming. First they claimed there was none, then they claimed it was just natural variation, and then they claimed that even if it was happening and it was our fault, it didn't matter because we could just adapt to it. In case after case, they steadfastly denied the existence of scientific agreement, even though they, themselves, were pretty much the only ones who disagreed.

A handful of men would have had no impact if no one paid any attention, but people did pay attention. By virtue of their earlier work in the Cold War weapons programs, these men were well-known and highly respected in Washington, D.C., and had access to power all the way to the White House. ...

It wasn't just the Bush administration that took these claims seriously; the mass media did, too. Respected media outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, Newsweek, and many others repeated these claims as if they were a "side" in a scientific debate. Then the claims were repeated again and again and again--as in an echo chamber--by a wide range of people involved in public debate, from bloggers to members of the U.S. Senate, and even by the president and the vice president of the United States. In all of this, journalists and the public never understood that these were not scientific debates--taking place in the halls of science among active scientific researchers--but misinformation, part of a larger pattern that began with tobacco.

Oreskes and Conway document this process exhaustively. It's depressing; several generations of scientists have seen their conclusions challenged and distorted for reasons that have their origin not in the truth of their work, but because some powerful interest might have to sacrifice some profits for the common good.

What struck me about this book was the extent to which Oreskes and Conway had to explain over and over how science actually works. For a people who benefit everyday from antibiotics and the internet, we are frequently pretty oblivious to the system of knowledge that underlies our civilization. So we get reiterated elementary lessons here:

While the idea of equal time for opposing opinions makes sense in a two-party political system, it does not work for science, because science is not about opinion. It is about evidence. It is about claims that can be, and have been, tested through scientific research--experiments, experience, and observation--research that is then subject to critical review by a jury of scientific peers. Claims that have not gone through that process--or have gone through it and failed--are not scientific, and do not deserve equal time in a scientific debate.

***
Industry doubt-mongering worked in part because most of us don't really understand what it means to say something is a cause. We think it means that if A causes B, then if you do A, you will get B. If smoking causes cancer, then if you smoke, you will get cancer. But life is more complicated than that. In science, something can be a statistical cause, in the sense that that if you smoke, you are much more likely to get cancer. Something can also be a cause in the everyday sense of being an occasion for something--as in "the cause of the quarrel was jealousy." Jealousy does not always cause quarrels, but it very often does. Smoking does not kill everyone who smokes, but it does kill about half of them.
***
Doubt-mongering also works because we think science is about facts--cold, hard, definite facts. If someone tells us that things are uncertain, we think that means that the science is muddled. This is a mistake. There are always uncertainties in any live science, because science is a process of discovery. Scientists do not sit still once a question is answered; they immediately formulate the next one. If you ask them what they are doing, they wont tell you about the work they finished last week or last year, and certainly not what they did last decade. They will tell you about the new and uncertain things they are working on now. ... Doubt is crucial to science--in the version we call curiosity or healthy skepticism. It drives science forward--but it also makes science vulnerable to misrepresentation, because it is easy to take uncertainties out of context and create the impression that everything is unresolved.
***
Scientists are confident they know bad science when they see it. It's science that is obviously fraudulent--when data have been invented, fudged, or manipulated. Bad science is where data have been cherry-picked--when some data have been deliberately left out--or it's impossible for the reader to understand the steps that were taken to produce or analyze the data. It is a set of claims that can't be tested, claims that are based on samples that are too small, and claims that don't follow from the evidence provided. And science is bad--or at least weak--when proponents of a position jump to conclusions on insufficient or inconsistent data.
Oreskes and Conway conclude by calling for all of us to take responsibility for affirming enough scientific knowledge to get human beings on track to deal with the manifold damage our unsustainable release of carbon energy is inflicting on the planet, our island home. This isn't easy; there are loud, annoying and quite vicious opponents out there.

At a recent conference, a colleague told one of us that in IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] discussions, some scientists have been reluctant to make strong claims about the scientific evidence, lest contrarians "attack us." Another said that she'd rather err on the side of conservatism in her estimates, because then she feels more "secure." ....Intimidation works.

Perhaps the most forgivable reason why scientists have not gotten more involved is because they love science, and believe that truth wins out in the end. It is their job--their singular job--to figure out what that truth is. Someone else can best popularize it. Someone else can better communicate it. And if there's garbage being promoted somewhere, someone else can deal with it. ... Unfortunately, garbage doesn't just go away. Someone has to deal with it, and that someone is all of us: journalists who report scientific findings, specialist professional bodies who represent the scientific fields, and all of us as citizens.

My emphasis. We really have no choice. Scientists have made the survival of contemporary civilized life possible. We have to listen to them when they do science.

1 comment:

Ronni Bennett said...

Climate change, garbage, carbon emissions, deforestation and all the other terrible things we need to work on - and quickly too. I worry about this all the time and wonder who will lead us - or rather, who will be allowed to lead us in the necessary changes and cleanup.

It seems so impossible. (I'm having a pessimistic day.)

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