At the core of the two same-sex marriage cases argued this week before the Supreme Court is the fundamental question of whether the Constitution requires the state and federal governments to treat same-sex marriage exactly the same as traditional, opposite-sex marriage for all purposes for all time, or whether it is permissible to draw reasoned distinctions between the two, ranging from California’s simple reservation of the term “marriage” to opposite-sex couples to the federal government’s comprehensive reservation of all federal benefits of marriage (including joint tax filings, Social Security benefits and immigration status) to opposite-sex couples. I respectfully submit that this should not be a difficult question. Common human experience, basic biology, and existing social science all confirm that there are significant differences between SSM and traditional marriage. Whether or not you support SSM as a political and policy matter, there should be no doubt as a legal matter that the state has the same legitimate right that it has always possessed to draw distinctions between the two in the many, many areas of law that touch on marriage and family life.
I have not, over the years, spent much time or energy on the battle over political recognition of same-sex marriage; while I don’t think it’s a wise idea, it is also not likely to have enormous consequences, for reasons I discuss below. Democracy works, however imperfectly: things done legislatively can be modified or undone the same way, can be adapted in different ways to the needs of different jurisdictions, and can be passed or amended with protections for conscientious dissent. Personally, for two decades, I’ve supported the “live and let live” option of civil unions, the moderate solution that allows people the freedom to choose whatever partner they want and make a life together, with the basic rights of contract, inheritance, hospital visitation and the like. Call it a marriage if you want, but without the official endorsement and coercive power of the state behind the name.
But the democratic process is one thing. A judicial determination that the Constitution prohibits recognition of any distinctions between the two institutions for all time would have much more far-reaching effects on our laws – effects we may not even be able to anticipate or foresee until creative lawyers have gone off to the races with this freshly-minted legal doctrine. We have seen, over and over, how changes in law and policy produce unforeseen or unintended consequences in the family and society; the institution of marriage in particular has buckled badly under a long series of liberal social experiments over the past five decades. You’d think that by now we would at least have learned to stop using irrevocable court decisions to open Pandora’s Box.
It does the law no good to pretend things that are not so. Whatever the merits of SSM, it is not the same thing as marriage between a man and a woman, and the differences are neither irrational nor insignificant. Even if you support SSM, the only reasonable conclusion is that male-male or female-female marriage is not the same as male-female marriage. Let us count the most obvious ways.
I will probably come back to this one again, but I was reading this excellent 2010 speech by Bill James in his latest essay collection, “Solid Fool’s Gold: Detours on the Way to Conventional Wisdom”, and the whole thing is available at his website if you’re a subscriber. It’s an excellent summary of what James does and does not do for a living, but I found it also very pointed about his approaches to conventional wisdom and what they say about aspects of our current public policy debates that turn on appeals to authority and the confident assertions of experts that they understand everything, or that presuppose central planning through the mechanism of complex rules devised by experts or solutions that purport to simultaneously understand the conditions of every local economy at once, in opposition to the worldview that presupposes that wisdom comes from the collective trial and error of the largest possible number of people over time:
I have always thought that it was best not to define oneself, but to let the world say about you whatever it is that the world chooses to say. This is my first reference point for the Power of Ignorance. By not claiming to know exactly what it is that I am doing, I remain able to attempt whatever it is that I feel like attempting. It’s a great advantage.
I should say, unless there be misunderstanding about this, that I am in no way in favor of ignorance or against the advance of knowledge. I have worked my entire life for the advancement of knowledge, trying to increase respect for reason and respect for research in the world of sports. I am embracing ignorance here in this sense and for this reason: that we are all, in my view, condemned to float endlessly in a vast sea of un-answered questions and unknown reference points – a Sea of Ignorance, if you will. The example that I like to use is a chess board. How many moves ahead can you see on a chess board? I can see about one move ahead of myself in a chess game. If you can see 3 or 4 moves ahead on a chess board, you can beat 99% of chess players, and if you could see 7 or 8 moves ahead in a chess game, you would be a world-class chess champion.
Well, suppose that a chess board was not eight squares wide and eight squares long, but a hundred squares wide and a hundred squares long, with a thousand moving pieces, rather than 32. How far ahead could you see on a chess board then? The world is like a chess board that is a million squares wide and a million squares long with hundreds of thousands of moving pieces and hundreds of thousands of different players moving them. In my view, anyone who imagines that he can anticipate what will happen next, in any area of life, is delusional, and people who think that experts should be able to do this are children and fools.
If the world was 10% more complicated than the human mind, or even if it was 40% more complicated or ten times as complicated, then the difference between an intelligent person’s ability to understand the world and a less intelligent person’s ability to understand the world would be very meaningful. But since the world is billions and billions of times more complicated than the human mind, individual intelligence is almost entirely irrelevant to the understanding of the world. What is critical to understanding is humility and co-operation. What is critical to gaining more understanding of the world is to learn to accept and appreciate the vastness of our ignorance, and to understand that one can only survive in a sea of ignorance by working with others to make our small lifeboat a little bit stronger. Only by embracing the fact of our limitless ignorance can one position oneself to increase the store of knowledge.
Scientific integrity and scientific progress continue to take a beating from the Left.
In Part I of my series of essays on Science and its Enemies on the Left, I looked at the toll of junk science, quackery and anti-technological Luddism and the role of the social and political Left in promoting all three. In Part II, I looked at politicized science (both the misuse of science by politicians and the politicization of scientists themselves) and the temptations presented to scientists by their ability to gain power through science.
I’m overdue to finish Part III of the series, but in the meantime, there have been enough additional examples of my thesis that it’s worth taking an updated look at the myriad ways in which the agenda and interest groups of the political Left stand in the way of scientific integrity and scientific progress.
One and a half cheers to the NY Times for the article “Skeptics Find Fault With U.N. Climate Panel,” which admits to some of the scientific and ethical problems facing the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and IPCC head Rajendra Pachauri. But the Times being the Times, while it lays out some of the damning facts, it omits key damaging details (especially regarding the egregiously amateurish nature of the IPCC’s errors regarding the Himalayan glaciers) and otherwise spends the rest of the article trying to explain away Dr. Pachauri’s problems, with hilarious results.
The Lancet, a once-respectable scientific journal, has conceded and retracted a now-discredited 1998 study claiming to show a link between vaccines and autism. Of course, the genie loosed by that piece of junk science can’t be so easily put back in its bottle, but score another one for science and a defeat for its left-wing enemies.
On a similar note, yet another scandal involving hackery posing as climate science at the IPCC.
In the first installment of this series, I looked at the real dangers to scientific integrity and scientific progress presented by junk science, quackery and Luddism promoted and practiced by the cultural and political Left, including the use of bad science in product liability lawsuits and the Left’s attacks on vaccination, nuclear power and genetically engineered crops.
In this second part, we look at politicized science and the temptations of power. Part II is posted in its entirety at The New Ledger but my site won’t support a single post that long.
III. Polticized Science
Many of the worst kinds of junk science and quackery are to be found when science is used to advance political agendas. The corrupting influence of money has nothing on the corrupting influence of political power. And contrary to what the Left may wish you to believe, the espousal of left-wing causes that advocate the expansion of such power is not an ennobling but a corrupting influence on scientific integrity. As I will discuss below, the current controversy involving climate researchers – the “Climategate” scandal triggered by the release of emails by the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia in Great Britian – vividly illustrates this.
There are at two main hazards presented when science is marshalled in political argument. One, politicians may take scientific data gathered in good faith and misrepresent, overstate or suppress it – witness John Kerry overstating the growth of carbon emissions by a factor of 32 for a recent example that didn’t stand up to even mininal scrutiny. And two, scientists themselves may become willing pawns in the circulation of bad science for political ends. Recent history shows that the agenda of greater government control of society pushed by the Democrats and others on the Left has often been abetted by bad science.
A. The Politics of Stem Cell Research
The most notorious recent example of politicians running far ahead of any scientific basis for their claims, of course, came from Democratic vice-presidential candidate John Edwards, who in the course of a diatribe about the miraculous promise of embryonic stem cell research, declared in October 2004, the day after the death of actor Christopher Reeve:
If we do the work that we can do in this country, the work that we will do when John Kerry is president, people like Christopher Reeve are going to walk, get up out of that wheelchair and walk again.
Nancy Pelosi likewise claimed that embryonic stem cells had “the biblical power to cure,” and Ron Reagan told the 2004 Democratic Convention, “How’d you like to have your own personal biological repair kit standing by at the hospital? Sound like magic? Welcome to the future of medicine.” Of course, no such thing was or is imminent:
In January 2003, a science writer for the New York Times admitted: “For all the handwringing by scientists, you might think that therapeutic cloning is on the verge of curing a disease or two. . . . Almost all researchers, when questioned, confess that such accomplishments are more dream than reality.”
But Edwards and Pelosi had elections to win. And scientists who should have known better went along for the ride:
In the summer before the 2004 presidential election, Ron McKay, from the National Institutes of Health, admitted that he and his fellow scientists had generally failed to correct the media’s false reports about the promise of stem cells – but that was all right, he told the Washington Post, since ordinary people “need a fairy tale.” They require, he said, “a story line that’s relatively simple to understand.”
In fact, the hot story in embryonic stem cell research in the middle years of the Bush Administration was a South Korean researcher, Woo Suk Hwang, looking at the use of stem cells for spinal cord research who claimed to have implanted cloned human stem cells in a cloned dog – results that turned out to be fraudulent. And proponents of embryonic stem cell research had fallen for it:
For all the major scientific journals, embryonic research had become what Robert P. George and Eric Cohen would call “a litmus test for being pro-science and the central front in the alleged war of scientific reason against religious barbarians.” Science magazine had fast-tracked Hwang’s work to let America know the cost of President Bush’s refusal to fund embryonic stem-cell research. Scientific American published a mea culpa for all scientific journals, and it is, George and Cohen pointed out, “remarkable for both its honesty and remorse: ‘Hwang is guilty of raising false expectations, but too many of us held the ladder for him.'”
This would not be the last time scientists made themselves willing pawns of the Left at the expense of their integrity.
B. Anthropogenic Global Warming
More recently than the stem cell controversy, we have the series of mushrooming controversies – most spectacularly the “Climategate” scandal – over Anthropgenic Global Warming (AGW), i.e., the theory that human industry is responsible, by means of carbon emissions, for an upward trend in global temperatures. AGW is very important to the Obama Administration and its allies in the Democratic Party and on the international Left; recall Barack Obama’s grandiloquent pronouncement that people would remember of his clinching of the Democratic nomination in June 2008 that “this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal”. But AGW theory and its adherents are rotten with bad science.
1. The EPA Report
The first sign that the new Administration was willing to push the barriers between science and politics in support of its AGW agenda was this spring’s flap over the Obama Administration’s suppression of an EPA report that contradicted the agency’s decision to classify CO2 (the most natural of gases, being that it is exhaled by human beings) as a “pollutant” – a decision that has been used to justify “cap-and-trade” legislation as well as administrative actions on the issue without the need for legislation (the latter being supported by an agency “finding” released in April by the EPA and finalized in November that greenhouse gases threaten public health and welfare). This episode was a fairly classic example of how government policymaking in areas of scientific expertise remains more about politics than about science. Read the summary overview of that report here, and Ben Domenech’s writeup here. Michelle Malkin sums up the kind of critique presented in the report:
[I]t spotlights EPA’s reliance on out-of-date research, uncritical recycling of United Nations data, and omission of new developments, including a continued decline in global temperatures and a new consensus that future hurricane behavior won’t be different than in the past.
Chris Mooney, the liberal author of the “Republican War on Science” book, went so far as to argue that because he disagreed with its conclusions, the EPA was right to suppress the report. Of course, this is rather a far cry from the arguments made during the Bush years that about the dangers of suppressing scientific skepticism and dissent; the orthodoxy must be enforced.
Given its policy aims, it is not surprising that the Administration was hesitant to publish a report that contradicted the AGW narrative. In fact, the AGW hypothesis presents the most egregious example in recent years – in terms of its sheer scale – of thoroughly politicized science. The AGW debate merits consideration at some length here because of its centrality to a policy debate affecting a vast proportion of human economic activity and the copious examples it provides of the corruption of politicized science. Put simply, any reasonable person who looks at the evidence must conclude that the proponents of AGW theory are political advocates first and scientists, if at all, a distant second.
Now, it may well be true – it is certainly possible – that the Earth is presently in a warming trend, and that such a trend can be projected into the future, and that human activity is responsible for that trend, and even that changes in future economic structures could alter that trend. All of that may be true, and it may be false; science is supposed to help us find the answers to such questions, and to tell us honestly if the answers cannot in confidence be found. Science is not about identifying what is possible or plausible or arguable and then asserting it as fact; it’s about following the evidence wherever it may lead, to determine whether a particular hypothesis is proven, disproven, unproven or inherently unprovable. (Unprovable theories aren’t without their uses in science, if they remain the most likely explanation for a set of facts – but such explanatory theories ought not to be asserted as fact, and they make a shaky basis for sweeping and disruptive public policy initiatives.)
If you were to construct a checklist of the warning signs of bad science, the campaign to persuade the public of AGW would tick off basically every box: the refusal to share data, to the point of outright destroying it; the manipulation of the peer-review process to skew results; the constant changing of models and predictions to avoid having them subject to testing against hard evidence; the campaign of alarmism and demonization of skeptics; the rank appeals to authority and consensus in place of reasoned discussion of the evidence. Only the most credulous rubes could believe the proponents of AGW without a raised eyebrow at these tactics.
2. Warming? What Warming?
The reason why AGW has such political salience, of course, is that it is used as justification for vast governmental controls over economic activity – long a project of the Left, but now with the newly-added patina of physical science as support for the same old programs. In order to justify the massive dislocations that would be caused by such controls, it is necessary not only that AGW be unquestioned, but that it be menacing; thus, we get things like a scientific advisor to the British Government claiming that AGW will annihilate 90% of the world’s population if the temperature rises four degrees Celsius. And in some cases, the rush to make dire predictions founders on the most banal forms of sloppiness, as when the IPCC predicted the demise of Himalayan glaciers by 2035, when the data said 2350. A digit here, a digit there…
The need to generate predictions of doom is a double-edged sword. One of the problems at the heart of AGW theory, and which has caused no end of difficulty for its proponents, is that it is a predictive model, yet proponents of the theory keep having to change what it predicts to avoid ever allowing the theory to be falsifiable. A theory of global warming, after all, presupposes that the Earth is getting warmer, and indeed the entire basis for convincing anyone that the theory holds water is to point to the correlation between increasing industrial emissions of carbon and recent increases in global temperature. But even before you get to the questions of (1) whether the historical temperature readings are accurately recorded and presented and (2) whether correlation equals causation, you run up against the fact that persistent alarmist predictions that the warming trend would continue have not panned out.
As you may recall, the headline-grabber that made AGW a political issue in the 1990s was the famous “hockey stick” graph produced by Penn State climatologist Michael Mann, so-called because it showed a sharp upward spike in global temperatures, shaped like the blade of a hockey stick, near the end of the 20th century. The hockey stick, in turn, was premised in good part upon historical temperature data derived from a database of tree ring measurements maintained by the CRU. Mann’s hockey stick was never the sole source of AGW theory, and the CRU was never the sole source of historical data, but the hockey stick graph was central to the project of capturing the public imagination and turning a scientific theory into a political juggernaut. The clear implication to anyone looking at the hockey stick was that at precisely the time of accelerating industrialization, we had entered a period of accelerating increase in global temperatures that would continue unchecked into the future. Correlation being easily confused with causation, much of the public simply accepted that the increase in carbon emissions resulting from increasing industrialization must have been the cause of the temperature spike; the two patterns were too visually striking to be coincidence.
While many scientists were convinced of the logic of computer models of how a “greenhouse effect” would work in transmuting carbon emissions into increased temperatures, scientists could never prove that their models of how carbon emissions affected the Earth’s temperature were correct; you can’t conduct an experiment on something as large and complex as a planet and its entire surroundings in the solar system, and there was no historical precedent for the Earth’s industrialization, only a long history on this and other planets of climates changing without human intervention. But with the hockey stick, nobody needed to question the underlying logic of causation anymore than they do in the case of lung cancer and smoking (i.e., it’s still not known how smoking causes lung cancer, but the statistical correlation over innumerable studies covering a very large sample is so strong that nobody today seriously disputes the causal connection despite the absence of a known mechanism – much of epidemiology works that way).
Unfortunately for the proponents of AGW, it turns out in retrospect that the hockey stick was just a figment of small and incomplete samples. You can read fuller explanations here and here, but I will summarize them briefly. Basically, the original “hockey stick” did two things: not only did it show a sharp upward spike in temperatures in the late 20th century, but it also rebutted the contention that this could be a natural phenomenon by showing the lowest temperatures in 1032, in the midst of what had been believed to be the “Medieval Warm Period.” That hockey stock was premised on a 1995 paper that “depended on 3 short tree ring cores from the Polar Urals whose dating was very problematic,” and when additional data became available in 1999, the updated temperature series was not published, but rather replaced with a new study from Yamal, also in Russia. But to skeptic Steve McIntyre, the Yamal data – collected in two sets – didn’t add up, and he embarked on a years-long battle to get all the data to review independently. When he finally did, in September 2009, the resulting sample – using a larger sample size for late 20th century data – changed the shape of the “stick” to eliminate the blade (as well as modifying the medieval results), leaving something much more clearly resembling a random walk of statistical noise. You can see the results in this graph from McIntyre’s site: the red line is the Mann/CRU hockey-stick graph, the black line is the data left out of the stick, and the green line is what you get when you combine the two sets:
The bottom line:
At least eight papers purporting to reconstruct the historical temperature record times may need to be revisited, with significant implications for contemporary climate studies, the basis of the IPCC’s assessments. A number of these involve senior climatologists at the British climate research centre CRU at the University East Anglia. In every case, peer review failed to pick up the errors.
The hockey stick isn’t the only such example, as illustrated by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) data wrongly showing a non-existent and persistent spike in ocean temperatures in 2001.
If you had – as many AGW proponents did, in the 1990s – begun to make short-term predictions about climate trends along the lines of continuation of the Mann/CRU hockey stick trends, you would have been grievously wrong, as in fact all such predictions have proven. Since AGW rose to prominence as a political project, the past decade has shown no growth in global temperatures since the natural El Nino temperature surge of 1998. One study after another has shown that the Earth simply has not gotten warmer in the past 11 years:
[In the fall of 2009], Britain’s Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research added more fuel to the fire with its latest calculations of global average temperatures. According to the Hadley figures, the world grew warmer by 0.07 degrees Celsius from 1999 to 2008, and not by the 0.2 degrees Celsius assumed by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. And, say the British experts, when their figure is adjusted for two naturally occurring climate phenomena, El Niño and La Niña, the resulting temperature trend is reduced to 0.0 degrees Celsius — in other words, a standstill.
[M]ean ice anomaly — defined as the seasonally-adjusted difference between the current value and the average from 1979-2000, varies much more slowly. That anomaly now stands at just under zero, a value identical to one recorded at the end of 1979, the year satellite record-keeping began.
Earlier this year, predictions were rife that the North Pole could melt entirely in 2008. Instead, the Arctic ice saw a substantial recovery. Bill Chapman, a researcher with the UIUC’s Arctic Center, tells DailyTech this was due in part to colder temperatures in the region. Chapman says wind patterns have also been weaker this year. Strong winds can slow ice formation as well as forcing ice into warmer waters where it will melt.
Why were predictions so wrong? Researchers had expected the newer sea ice, which is thinner, to be less resilient and melt easier. Instead, the thinner ice had less snow cover to insulate it from the bitterly cold air, and therefore grew much faster than expected, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center.
Likewise, Antarctic “sea ice coverage has grown to record levels since satellite monitoring began in the 1979, according to peer-reviewed studies and scientists who study the area” released in 2007.
The response of proponents of AGW: change the predictions so they don’t risk being disproven by events, as illustrated by this report from September 2009:
Forecasts of climate change are about to go seriously out of kilter. One of the world’s top climate modellers said Thursday we could be about to enter one or even two decades during which temperatures cool.
“People will say this is global warming disappearing,” he told more than 1500 of the world’s top climate scientists gathering in Geneva at the UN’s World Climate Conference.
“I am not one of the sceptics,” insisted Mojib Latif of the Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences at Kiel University, Germany. “However, we have to ask the nasty questions ourselves or other people will do it.”
Few climate scientists go as far as Latif, an author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But more and more agree that the short-term prognosis for climate change is much less certain than once thought.
In candid mood, climate scientists avoided blaming nature for their faltering predictions, however. “Model biases are also still a serious problem. We have a long way to go to get them right. They are hurting our forecasts,” said Tim Stockdale of the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts in Reading, UK.
Climate change models, no matter how powerful, can never give a precise prediction of how greenhouse gases will warm the Earth, according to a new study.
The analysis focuses on the temperature increase that would occur if levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere doubled from pre-Industrial Revolution levels. The current best guess for this number – which is a useful way to gauge how sensitive the climate is to rising carbon levels – is that it lies between 2.0 C and 4.5 C. And there is a small chance that the temperature rise could be up to 8C or higher.
To the frustration of policy makers, it is an estimate that has not become much more precise over the last 20 years. During that period, scientists have established that the world is warming and human activity is very likely to blame, but are no closer to putting a figure on exactly much temperatures are likely to rise.
AGW theory’s inability to accurately predict global temperatures has gotten so bad that it has spurred a movement to rebrand “global warming” as “climate change,” a moniker so vague that it can never be disproven (climates change; that’s what they do, and have for all of Earth’s history). The latest fad is “climate collapse,” apparently because “change” wasn’t scary enough. The ever-shifting definition of what the problem is, what it’s called, and how it could be measured is a classic symptom of bad, politicized science. The constant goalpost-moving may be a drearisome feature of politics, but it’s not supposed to be how science works.
Rebranding the AGW hypothesis allows things like Al Gore’s scare tactics based on supposed trends projected from short-term fluctuations in natural disasters. In the specific example of Gore’s misuse of disaster data, the question may be more one of politicians abusing scientific data than the underlying data being politicized, but both are problematic. It’s unhelpful to have leading political figures running around telling us that “I hold in my hand a list of dire climate predictions” that nobody can subject to dispassionate review. Fortunately, the resort to dire predictions about natural disasters, like predictions about temperature, are subject to correction by events; we just finished an unusually mild hurricane season for the second time in four years, which is not at all the “climate change” that Gore is threatening (in fact, predictions of 2009 the hurricane season were also inaccurate). But not to worry; the predictions will just continue being kicked out further down the time horizon to ensure that they can’t ever be disproven conclusively.
3. Consensus? What Consensus?
Given the mounting failure of efforts to convince the public that bad weather – or unseasonably good weather, either will do – is scientific proof of AGW, the theory’s proponents have instead turned to appeals to authority, insisting that there is an ironclad scientific consensus that proves the theory to be true, and demanding that the citizenry trust the consensus because they’re scientists.
This ought to set off serious alarm bells. To begin with, anyone remotely familiar with the history of science understands that scientific consensuses are made to be broken; most of the really important new scientific theories and discoveries since Aristotle have come from the overturning of an existing and erroneous consensus. If consensus was the end of science, we would have to consign Einstein, Darwin, and Newton to the ash heap of history.
Students of human nature should be equally alarmed. The proponents of policies supported by the “consensus” have sought to freeze that consensus in amber by embodying it in a series of reports by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international bureaucratic institution honored by another international bureaucratic institution with a Nobel Peace Prize. But the IPCC’s reports are worth no more than the sum of their parts, especially given that only a fraction of the vaunted 2,500 scientists signing onto the IPCC reports have personally conducted sufficient research to validate AGW theory from their own personal experience and expertise.
Indeed, Jonathan Adler finds the very structure of the IPCC reports to be a threat to scientific integrity:
The effort to compile an “official” scientific “consensus” into a single document, approved by governments, has exacerbated the pressures to politicize policy-relevant science. So too has been the tendency to pretend as if resolving the scientific questions will resolve policy disputes.
Mike Hulme, an AGW believer and climate scientist at the University of East Anglia, agrees.
Government-backed and -enforced scientific consensuses have a dire history, the most notorious example of which was the work of Soviet geneticist Trofim Lysenko:
Lysenko…ruled the life sciences of Soviet Russia from the late 1920s until the early 1960s. He had a theory which fit Marxism perfectly: acquired characteristics can be inherited. This is not true, of course, but Lysenko had the Politburo and Stalin behind him. It was science that fit the political needs of the Bolsheviks, and so it was science backed by the awful power of the party and the state.
Lysenko’s experiments were heralded, although the experiments were never replicated. The Soviet Union was full of botanists, biologists, geneticists, and other life scientists, and it was obvious to anyone with a free mind that Lysenko was propounding nonsense. But it was not until 1962 that the Soviet government allowed a real critique of his cartoon science.
As I will discuss below, the “Climategate” emails strike at the heart of the credibility of the IPCC reports. As the Future of Capitalism blog observes of the CRU emails:
On the broader question of climate change science, the group-think suggested by the emails is bad for the scientific process, and as Thomas Kuhn pointed out in his classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, it’s often a precursor to a paradigm shift that, when it comes, is adamantly resisted at first. Just ask Galileo. And for a flavor of the way that the elite reacts to the questioning of the climate change consensus, check out how the once-dignified New Yorker handled Superfreakonomics, and the way that handling was praised by the Nobel laureate New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. Self-reinforcing orthodoxies have a way of being punctured in fields other than science, too, whether it is a single party’s apparent dominance in Washington or mindless and widespread optimism about rising house prices.
(It should be borne in mind that groupthink and ideological bias are in addition to the far-from-foolproof nature of peer review in the first place; like any human endeavor, peer review can be and sometimes is also undone by ordinary cronyism or simple laziness or haste, as in the recent example of a scientific journal accepting for publication a nonsense article generated by a computer program, a scandal that resulted in the resignation of the journal’s editor).
Proponents of the AGW consensus as definitionally unassailable have circled their wagons against the danger of free thinkers by attacking their critics as paid shills of industry. Unsurprisingly, given that carbon-emitting industries have an enormous amount to lose from the policy proposals at issue, the targeted industries have in fact sought to fund anybody who might question the forces arrayed against them. But in science, the proper remedy for self-interested assertion is transparency and replication of methods, not “na, na, na, I’m not listening.”
The incessant attacks on the financial motivations of the skeptics – in addition to being antithetical to the whole project of scientific inquiry by means of evaluation of the evidence rather than argument ad hominem – not only ignores the fact that the proponents have great incentives of their own in terms of aggrandizing their political power, it also ignores that there’s quite a lot of money in AGW too. As Vladimir at RedState notes:
[Employees and scientists funded by the IPCC] work for the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Of course they believe in Climate Change; it says “Climate Change” on their paychecks! The global warming opinions of organizations like the American Petroleum Institute have always been treated with skepticism; why should we not consider the source when it comes to the IPCC’s studies?
If money corrupts and renders ones scientific opinions tainted, what’s with Nobel Peace Laureate Al Gore? As a partner in investment bank Kleiner Perkins, he’s positioned to score big from government’s “investment” in green energy.
Consider the case of Phil Jones, the director of the CRU and the man at the heart of climategate. According to one of the documents hacked from his center, between 2000 and 2006 Mr. Jones was the recipient (or co-recipient) of some $19 million worth of research grants, a sixfold increase over what he’d been awarded in the 1990s….
Thus, the European Commission’s most recent appropriation for climate research comes to nearly $3 billion, and that’s not counting funds from the EU’s member governments. In the U.S., the House intends to spend $1.3 billion on NASA’s climate efforts, $400 million on NOAA’s, and another $300 million for the National Science Foundation. The states also have a piece of the action, with California – apparently not feeling bankrupt enough – devoting $600 million to their own climate initiative. In Australia, alarmists have their own Department of Climate Change at their funding disposal.
And all this is only a fraction of the $94 billion that HSBC Bank estimates has been spent globally this year on what it calls “green stimulus” – largely ethanol and other alternative energy schemes – of the kind from which Al Gore and his partners at Kleiner Perkins hope to profit handsomely.
And of course, the CRU’s funding includes money from the U.S. Department of Energy and the EPA. Another email shows concerns that the Commerce Department would grow “suspicious” of the CRU’s activities. And the desire to keep the money flowing clearly affected AGW proponents’ view of the legitimacy of criticism, as illustrated by this October 2009 email from the Climategate files:
How should I respond to the below? [an article questioning AGW theory] (I’m in the process of trying to persuade Siemens Corp. (a company with half a million employees in 190 countries!) to donate me a little cash to do some CO2 measurments here in the UK – looking promising, so the last thing I need is news articles calling into question (again) observed temperature increases—
Despite the confident assertion of consensus issued ex cathedra by the IPCC and the heavy costs in acrimony and ad hominem assault to dissenting scientists, the skeptics, organized politically by Oklahoma GOP Senator Jim Inhofe, have found no shortage of scientists willing to question the “consensus” on AGW. Senator Inhofe has released reports in 2007 & 2009 quoting more than 700 dissenting scientists, many of them quite distinguished. (One of the more distinguished skeptics is profiled by the New York Times here). Ditto for the direst predictions of climate-change disaster:
[I]f there is one scientist who knows more about sea levels than anyone else in the world it is the Swedish geologist and physicist Nils-Axel Morner, formerly chairman of the INQUA International Commission on Sea Level Change. And the uncompromising verdict of Dr Mörner, who for 35 years has been using every known scientific method to study sea levels all over the globe, is that all this talk about the sea rising is nothing but a colossal scare story.
Despite fluctuations down as well as up, “the sea is not rising,” he says. “It hasn’t risen in 50 years.” If there is any rise this century it will “not be more than 10cm (four inches), with an uncertainty of plus or minus 10cm”. And quite apart from examining the hard evidence, he says, the elementary laws of physics (latent heat needed to melt ice) tell us that the apocalypse conjured up by Al Gore and Co could not possibly come about.
The reason why Dr Morner, formerly a Stockholm professor, is so certain that these claims about sea level rise are 100 per cent wrong is that they are all based on computer model predictions, whereas his findings are based on “going into the field to observe what is actually happening in the real world”.
In fact, one rarely has to look far for legitimate scientific skepticism about AGW climate models, even among those who buy into some aspects of AGW theory. Bjorn Lomborg, a skeptic who believes in AGW but argues that it’s been overblown, notes that “there are reputable peer-reviewed studies out there that show that because we have pumped out so much CO2 in the atmosphere, we haven’t gone into a new Ice Age.”. A July 2009 article in Science argued that cloud behavior is a major player in global warming, and that if so, “almost all climate models have got it wrong.” Others note that the historical evidence shows that the models don’t account for or understand all the factors at work:
[A] new study published online [in July 2009] in the journal Nature Geoscience … found that only about half of the warming that occurred during a natural climate change 55 million years ago can be explained by excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. What caused the remainder of the warming is a mystery.
“In a nutshell, theoretical models cannot explain what we observe in the geological record,” says oceanographer Gerald Dickens, study co-author and professor of Earth Science at Rice University in Houston. “There appears to be something fundamentally wrong with the way temperature and carbon are linked in climate models.”
During the warming period, known as the “Palaeocene-Eocene thermal maximum” (PETM), for unknown reasons, the amount of carbon in Earth’s atmosphere rose rapidly. This makes the PETM one of the best ancient climate analogues for present-day Earth.
As the levels of carbon increased, global surface temperatures also rose dramatically during the PETM. Average temperatures worldwide rose by around 13 degrees in the relatively short geological span of about 10,000 years.
The conclusion, Dickens said, is that something other than carbon dioxide caused much of this ancient warming. “Some feedback loop or other processes that aren’t accounted for in these models — the same ones used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for current best estimates of 21st century warming — caused a substantial portion of the warming that occurred during the PETM.”
To anyone who cares about the scientific search for truth, questions of this nature are an invitation to further research. To the political zealots who regard further inquiry as damnable heresy, they are simply quibbles to be brushed aside.
4. Not So Interested In Sharing
Even before the Climategate story broke, we learned perhaps the most damning fact of all about the CRU: its refusal to share the raw data that purports to demonstrate that the Earth is getting warmer. There is nothing more essential to scientific integrity than the willingness to share data to enable everyone – colleagues, competitors, skeptics – to peer-review the conclusions drawn by applying your processes to that data. In a world of many minds, you can never know who will bring new insight to a problem, and the spirit of open inquiry demands that the largest number of minds be brought to bear on any problem. Yet, AGW proponents have fought tooth and nail to avoid sharing their data, until CRU admitted this summer that critical data supporting the AGW hypothesis has been tampered with to the point where it is no longer accessible in its original, unadulterated form:
In the early 1980s, with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, scientists at the United Kingdom’s University of East Anglia established the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) to produce the world’s first comprehensive history of surface temperature. It’s known in the trade as the “Jones and Wigley” record for its authors, Phil Jones and Tom Wigley, and it served as the primary reference standard for the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) until 2007. It was this record that prompted the IPCC to claim a “discernible human influence on global climate.”
In June 2009, Georgia Tech’s Peter Webster told Canadian researcher Stephen McIntyre that he had requested raw data [regarding global temperatures], and Jones freely gave it to him. So McIntyre promptly filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the same data. Despite having been invited by the National Academy of Sciences to present his analyses of millennial temperatures, McIntyre was told that he couldn’t have the data because he wasn’t an “academic.” So his colleague Ross McKitrick, an economist at the University of Guelph, asked for the data. He was turned down, too.
Faced with a growing number of such requests, Jones refused them all, saying that there were “confidentiality” agreements regarding the data between CRU and nations that supplied the data. McIntyre’s blog readers then requested those agreements, country by country, but only a handful turned out to exist, mainly from Third World countries and written in very vague language.
Roger Pielke Jr., an esteemed professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, then requested the raw data from Jones. Jones responded:
Since the 1980s, we have merged the data we have received into existing series or begun new ones, so it is impossible to say if all stations within a particular country or if all of an individual record should be freely available. Data storage availability in the 1980s meant that we were not able to keep the multiple sources for some sites, only the station series after adjustment for homogeneity issues. We, therefore, do not hold the original raw data but only the value-added (i.e., quality controlled and homogenized) data.
Jones’ email response to McIntyre included a classic example of the mindset of politicized science:
We have 25 or so years invested in the work. Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it.
Anyone familiar with data storage throughout the short history of the computer age knows this is nonsense. Transfer of data from various systems to newer systems has been accomplished without real difficulty all thorough its development. What Jones is trying very hard to do is one of two things a) hide data that he’s pretty sure won’t support his conclusion or b) admitting to a damningly unscientific procedure which should, without his ability to produce and share the original data, call into serious question any findings he’s presented.
[T]he raw data on which the landmark 1996 United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change based its conclusion has been destroyed. The University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit acknowledged in August that it discarded data that, in addition to the IPCC report, has been cited by other international studies as the main justification for severe restrictions on carbon emissions worldwide.
More here on additional shenanigans with CRU’s computer models. As the CRU emails reveal, the destruction of data was something of a pattern driven by the need to avoid scrutiny:
A May 2008 email from Mr. Jones with the subject line “IPCC & FOI” asked recipients to “delete any emails you may have had” about data submitted for an IPCC report. The British Freedom of Information Act makes it a crime to delete material subject to an FOI request; such a request had been made earlier that month.
Only the subsequent breaking of “Climategate” has finally forced CRU to agree that it will begin to release the raw data on which its studies rest.
As things stood until mid-November 2009, the refusal to share raw data was bad enough. But it was about to get uglier.
5. “Hide The Decline”
The “Climategate” revelation of the CRU emails – which show deliberations among the CRU’s scientists and with allies such as Prof. Mann – came from an unknown source, almost certainly as a byproduct of McIntyre’s battle to get the concealed data. But no one now seriously contests their authenticity, and they are damning in the extent to which they confirm all the worst suspicions about the politicization of the science underlying AGW theory at an institution that has been a central player in shaping the IPCC’s “consensus” reports:
In global warming circles, the CRU wields outsize influence: it claims the world’s largest temperature data set, and its work and mathematical models were incorporated into the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2007 report. That report, in turn, is what the Environmental Protection Agency acknowledged it “relies on most heavily” when concluding that carbon dioxide emissions endanger public health and should be regulated.
At least one major figure in the scandal, CRU’s Prof. Phil Jones, has already stepped down from his position pending an inquiry into the affair.
I can’t hope to catalog here the full scope of the CRU emails – for example, accounts of the scientists cheering the death of one skeptic and musing about punching another in the face or questioning the motivations of their critics and comparing them to critics of Obama’s health care plan – but will hit a few of the high points. The emails show CRU personnel frankly admitting the political process’ impact on the science
Other emails include one in which Keith Briffa of the Climate Research Unit told Mr. Mann that “I tried hard to balance the needs of the science and the IPCC, which were not always the same”…
More broadly, they reveal a point of view in which facts need to be found to fit the theory rather than the other way around. Here’s one email response to the BBC piece linked above regarding the lack of warming over the past 11 years:
The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t. The CERES data published in the August BAMS 09 supplement on 2008 shows there should be even more warming: but the data are surely wrong. Our observing system is inadequate.
In what is now the most notorious email, Jones, in a 1999 message to Mann and four others, discussed imitating a “trick” used by Mann to “hide the decline” in certain post-1960 temperatures (context explained here and here):
Once Tim’s got a diagram here we’ll send that either later today or first thing tomorrow. I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) amd [sic] from1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline. Mike’s series got the annual land and marine values while the other two got April-Sept for NH land N of 20N. The latter two are real for 1999, while the estimate for 1999 for NH combined is +0.44C wrt 61-90. The Global estimate for 1999 with data through Oct is +0.35C cf. 0.57 for 1998.
(Mann, for his part, has offered the most unconvincing of explanations as to how he could be ignorant of what this email was talking about).
This graph shows precisely the impact of Jones’ trick on the dataset at issue:
A similar attitude is found in a 2009 email to Jones from Wigley, presenting strategies to “explain” a “warming blip” in the data from the 1940s – again, the sort of thing one does if presenting data in an argumentative format, rather than in the spirit of disinterested inquiry:
Here are some speculations on correcting SSTs to partly explain the 1940s warming blip. If you look at the attached plot you will see that theland also shows the 1940s blip (as I’m sure you know).
So, if we could reduce the ocean blip by, say, 0.15 degC, then this would be significant for the global mean – but we’d still have to explain the land blip. I’ve chosen 0.15 here deliberately. This still leaves an ocean blip, and i think one needs to have some form of ocean blip to explain the land blip (via either some common forcing, or ocean forcing land, or vice versa, or all of these). When you look at other blips, the land blips are 1.5 to 2 times (roughly) the ocean blips – higher sensitivity plus thermal inertia effects. My 0.15 adjustment leaves things consistent with this, so you can see where I am coming from.
Removing ENSO does not affect this.
It would be good to remove at least part of the 1940s blip, but we are still left with “why the blip”.
A similar example of Jones insisting that the data can’t be right if it contradicts his “gut feeling” is discussed here, and here an example of the CRU crew’s reactions to questions raised by skeptics that they recognized as having some validity. And the examples of the CRU’s misconduct may not be isolated incidents, as examination of official data at NASA and in the New Zealand government’s temperature records suggests.
Another of the alarming but – to observers of the AGW debate – unsurprising revelations was the extent to which the CRU cabal sought to control the peer-review process to determine its outcome:
Here’s what Phil Jones of the CRU and his colleague Michael Mann of Penn State mean by “peer review.” When Climate Research published a paper dissenting from the Jones-Mann “consensus,” Jones demanded that the journal “rid itself of this troublesome editor,” and Mann advised that “we have to stop considering Climate Research as a legitimate peer-reviewed journal. Perhaps we should encourage our colleagues in the climate research community to no longer submit to, or cite papers.”
So much for Climate Research. When Geophysical Research Letters also showed signs of wandering off the “consensus” reservation, Dr. Tom Wigley (“one of the world’s foremost experts on climate change”) suggested they get the goods on its editor, Jim Saiers, and go to his bosses at the American Geophysical Union to “get him ousted.” When another pair of troublesome dissenters emerge, Dr. Jones assured Dr. Mann, “I can’t see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report. Kevin and I will keep them out somehow – even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!”
Eduardo Zorita, a German climate researcher who reviewed papers for Climate Research, has called for three of the leading (Jones, Mann, and Stefan Rahmstorf) to be ousted from the IPCC, arguing that the CRU emails confirm what was already known by climate researchers about the corruption of the process:
I may confirm what has been written in other places: research in some areas of climate science has been and is full of machination, conspiracies, and collusion, as any reader can interpret from the CRU-files. They depict a realistic, I would say even harmless, picture of what the real research in the area of the climate of the past millennium has been in the last years. The scientific debate has been in many instances hijacked to advance other agendas.
These words do not mean that I think anthropogenic climate change is a hoax. On the contrary, it is a question which we have to be very well aware of. But I am also aware that in this thick atmosphere -and I am not speaking of greenhouse gases now- editors, reviewers and authors of alternative studies, analysis, interpretations,even based on the same data we have at our disposal, have been bullied and subtly blackmailed. In this atmosphere, Ph D students are often tempted to tweak their data so as to fit the ‘politically correct picture’. Some, or many issues, about climate change are still not well known. Policy makers should be aware of the attempts to hide these uncertainties under a unified picture. I had the ‘pleasure’ to experience all this in my area of research.
Others have also come forward with stories of Jones’ involvement in using peer review to stifle dissenting points of view. The structure of scientific peer review and of academia more broadly unfortunately creates opportunities for politicized groups to capture these institutions and enforce their particular brand of groupthink in a field like climate science. The critical way this is done – hinted at by Jones’ threat to “redefine” peer review – is the existence of gatekeepers. An establishment consisting of a comparatively small number of people controls publication, which controls who gets to get jobs in academia and who has to go out into business. That establishment also controls or influences grant funding (which is often government grant funding, depending on the field), which controls whose jobs are made permanent with tenure and whose aren’t. You have to publish and get funding to get and keep your job. If the gatekeepers refuse to publish or fund any dissenters, and they do refuse, then scientific consensus is not reached by reasoning but manufactured by brute force.
The kind of thinking apparent in the CRU emails is so common among AGW proponents that they are sometimes unafraid to say it aloud. Economist Thomas Schelling told The Atlantic that “It’s a tough sell. And probably you have to find ways to exaggerate the threat” before musing that “I sometimes wish that we could have, over the next five or ten years, a lot of horrid things happening — you know, like tornadoes in the Midwest and so forth — that would get people very concerned about climate change.”
Some environmentalists, like British leftist George Monbiot, found Climategate too much to stomach, leading calls for Jones to step down. But the head of the IPCC, after the fashion of all UN bodies, has circled the wagons around the Climategate miscreants; while he chastised them for being “indiscreet” in putting their comments in writing, he “said an independent inquiry into the emails would achieve little, but there should be a criminal investigation into how the emails came to light.”
The Obama Administration’s response, as the President prepares to journey to Copenhagen to promote new restrictions on the U.S. economy in the name of preventing AGW, has similarly been one of sheer denial of the need for re-examination of the science:
Press Secretary Robert Gibbs stressed this afternoon, and the White House nonetheless believes “climate change is happening.”
“I don’t think that’s anything that is, quite frankly, among most people, in dispute anymore,” he said during Monday’s press briefing.
Ms. Browner initially shrugged when asked about the e-mails, saying she didn’t have a reaction. But when a reporter followed up, she said she will stick with the consensus of the 2,500 climate scientists on the International Panel on Climate Change who concluded global warming is happening and is most likely being pushed by human actions.
“It’s important to understand that these kinds of controversies and even accusations of bias and improper manipulation are not all that uncommon in all branches of science,” Holdren told the House of Representatives Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.
This is unsurprising, since the email archive includes Holdren’s own emails sharing support and suggestions with a number of the Climategate figures.
Pay no attention, in other words, to the politicized hacks behind the curtain; just know they have reached a “consensus.”
C. Cutting The Corners
The assiduous use of shady science for political ends usually runs further under the radar than John Edwards’ snake oil or the Climategate scandal. As liberal Slate writer Will Saletan admits of efforts to use politicized junk science to prop up “sin taxes” on junk food and fast food as a means of meddling with individuals’ personal choices:
To justify taxes on unhealthy food, the lifestyle regulators are stretching the evidence about obesity and addiction…. Liberals like to talk about a Republican war on science, but it turns out that they’re just as willing to bend facts. In wars of piety, science has no friends.
And Congressional liberals can be quite as uninterested in science when acting on product safety scares driven by junk science, quackery or Luddism, as NPR noted earlier this year:
A new federal ban on chemical compounds used in rubber duckies and other toys isn’t necessary, say the government scientists who studied the problem.
The ban, which took effect in February, prohibits making or selling duckies and other children’s products that contain chemicals called phthalates, which are used to make plastic soft. Congress passed the ban in 2008 after concluding that the chemicals posed a risk to children who chew on their toys.
The action came despite advice not to enact the ban from scientists at the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which regulates toys.
The commission opposed the ban because “there was not a risk of injury to children,” says Dr. Marilyn Wind, deputy associate executive director for health sciences at CPSC.
It reached that conclusion after studying phthalates in toys for more than 25 years and acting several times to make sure children were not exposed to even a slight risk from products that contain the chemicals.
Overlawyered has extensive archives on the the Boxer-and-Feinstein-pushed legislation in question, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA), and its disastrous effects in practice – another reminder that injecting bad science into politics has real-world consequences. In fact, there is ample historical precedent, in the hard sciences as well as in social science, for left-wing political and social agendas to drive scientific hackwork whose influence far outstrips anyone’s ability to replicate its underlying research:
Consider the residue of such frauds as Rachel Carson, Alfred Kinsey, and Margaret Mead. Carson’s invented findings and unscientific methods led to the banning of DDT, which in turn cost the lives of tens of millions of children in undeveloped nations. Kinsey’s tortuously doctored “sex research,” as Dr. Judith Riesman has so amply demonstrated, was not only invented to sate his perverted lusts, but created scientific myths about normal and abnormal behavior which haunt us to this day. Mead also simply invented research to fit her idea of what the science of anthropology ought to be in order to justify her own immature and immoral behavior. Carson, Kinsey, and Mead had an agenda before they did any research, and this agenda governed everything else.
Which brings us to the root cause of politicized science: the temptation of power.
IV. The Temptation of Power
Politicized science is, itself, a subset of the most profound problem of scientific integrity: the temptation presented when science is freed from the restraints that accompany all other forms of human activity, from accountability to moral opprobrium to external civilian oversight. When experts rule, the first casualty is the quality of their expertise.
The siren song of scientific triumphalism was graphically on display throughout the multi-year controversy over embryonic stem cell research. The conservative objection to such research was that it not only entailed the destruction of human embryos, but envisioned the future creation of more embryos – each containing a genetically unique human identity – solely for the purpose of destroying them in the process of scientific research. Even moreso than the question of the humanity of unborn fetuses growing in the womb, the question of whether to regard embryos outside the womb as fully human due to their distinct genetic identity is one on which people of good faith disagree. There is understandable reluctance to face the consequences of granting any legal status to an embryo, especially because embryos are routinely created with no prospect of a full human life in the process of in vitro fertilization, and by and large our society has settled without much debate on the legality and propriety of in vitro fertilization.
President Bush, weighing the moral calculus involved, reached a compromise decision – explained in a nationally televised address in August 2001 – to provide for the first time federal funding for stem cell research, whether or not it involved stem cells derived from the destruction of embryos, but drawing the line at taxpayer funding for any research that would entail the destruction of future embryos. Bush’s compromise was not morally satisfying or entirely principled from anyone’s perspective, but it was an attempt to balance the moral and practical considerations surrounding some of the thorniest problems of modern bioethics.
Honest critics of Bush’s decision argued that Bush had drawn the line in the wrong place, and that embryos should not carry any moral weight. But those voices were few. By far the loudest talking point from the Democrats was that Bush had committed the offense of placing moral restraints of any kind on science. This was, we were told, “anti-science” or a “war on science,” and as discussed above it set off an orgy of exaggerations of the promises of the science involved. At the core of the argument was the assertion that religious people in particular should not dare to speak against the morality of anything scientists might wish to explore.
The constant insistence by the Democrats that scientific progress should brook no moral restraint, and that anyone standing in the way of this particular scientific project was a dangerous theocrat, was positively chilling. Because science, with its great power not only over human liberty but human life itself, is if anything one of the human activities most in need of our most strenuous moral faculties. Biochemists and climatologists need to be subjected to civilian oversight and the moral conscience of society for precisely the same reasons as soldiers, economists, central bankers, lawyers, spies, diplomats, epidemiologists, rocket scientists, urban planners, and every other form of expert.
The temptation of the unrestrained expert comes in two stages. First, the expert in pretty much anything is subject to tunnel vision, and the greater the expertise, the greater the risk of such a focus. The expert is apt to have a limitless appetite for resources while ignoring competing social priorities. He may demand policies that maximize the ends sought by his discipline, while ignoring countervailing considerations and interests. He may refuse to accept any moral restraints or limitations on his methods or the uses of his creations.
Tunnel vision is only the beginning, however. Because the expert who learns that the recitation of jargon and the appeal to authority effectively exempts him from moral or social scrutiny has made the most dangerous discovery known to man: the ability to get away with virtually anything. Because if people will let you talk your way into money and influence with good science on the grounds that they do not understand it or have no right to obstruct it, what is to stop the expert from using bad science from accomplishing the same end, if the layman isn’t equipped to tell the difference between the two?
Cracked.com, of all places, satirically captures the essence of the problem:
Every scientist dreams of a world without ethics. Whenever a scientist sees a set of twins, he or she secretly wonders what would happen if you surgically swapped their faces. They already have a chamber set up to harness the power of their screams as they gradually realize what has happened. Every day, ethics barely prevent experiments like this from being carried out.
But what if we didn’t have these ethics? When Nazi doctors were let loose during WWII, the incredible rate of their discoveries were matched only by the inadequacy of words to atone for them. They might have been monsters, but without them, we never would have discovered the yield elasticity of the elderly, or learned what part of a prisoner’s tongue detects the taste of angel meat.
The Nazis are obviously the extreme example, as is often the case, but the argument ad Hitlerum is a useful moral guidepost for precisely that reason: it reminds us why we insist that scientists, like everyone else, be subject to moral restraints and the skeptical eye of their fellow man. Because otherwise you do things like appointing a “science czar” who has written approvingly of compulsory abortion and sterilization as a solution to overpopulation.
In a society not yet as far gone as Nazi Germany, Climategate is what happens when scientists think nobody is looking, or at least that nobody is competent or willing to call them out. Given power, or the ability to influence those in power, the scientists have acted the way human beings have always acted around power. And because the Left provides greater scope than the Right for the exercise of power over civil society in the name of what science says is good for us – and because it denies the sources of moral remonstrance that can stand as a bulwark against scientific hubris – it will continue to offer the greatest temptations for scientists to be seduced by power.
In Part III: Dogma and the starvation of science and technology.
Liberals have dined out at length in recent years on the charge that the Bush Administration and the cultural Right spent the Bush years engaging in a “war on science.” Since political power passed to the Democrats, President Obama has practically dislocated his shoulder patting himself on the back for “restor[ing] our commitment to science”. But power in the hands of the Left is no boon to science. Quite the contrary.
Whatever one thinks of the validity of the “war on science” charge against the Right, the threats to scientific integrity and scientific progress from the Left are numerous, and they are very real. In this three-part series, I’ll consider six major species of dangers to science and the role of the Left (inside and outside of government) in promoting them.
I. Junk Science
While definitions of science differ, most of us learned in grammar school and high school the basic concepts. Science is, as Karl Popper famously defined it, the testing of falsifiable propositions. In other words, you start with a hypothesis that seems to be supported by certain facts, but that would be proven false if certain other things happened, and you test to see if you can make those things happen. The process of experimentation – whether by laboratory experiments, statistical regressions, archaeological digs, or myriad other methods of testing hypotheses about past events or present processes – can take a variety of forms. But the mental approach to science should remain common: the scientist, being human, may seek a desired conclusion, but is expected to use a method of testing for the truth that keeps the finding of truth always as its ultimate goal (wherever the chips may fall). Perhaps more importantly, the process must be transparent in its methods, so that later researchers can replicate the method to ensure that the same test in different hands produces the same result. Scientists, to be scientists, must never say “trust me, I’m a scientist” or “I’m a scientist, don’t question my work,” and must never demand acceptance of theories that cannot be put to a test they could fail; they must share information and accept correction with a spirit of collegial search for a common and provable truth.
Those are the ideals; humans, being human, often fall short of them. This shouldn’t shock us, but we should see the failures for what they are: bad science.
Probably the most pervasive cause of bad science, and one in which the Left and its component interest groups are heavily complicit, is junk science. Junk science is, broadly speaking, opinion or outright deception masquerading as science, for the purpose of persuading people of something that’s untrue, unprovable or at least unproven. Junk science shows up in many places, but is most frequently encountered in the courtroom, and its motives are often more or less baldly about money.
The proliferation of junk science in the courts is notorious and widespread, and while the federal courts in particular have tried to crack down on it since the Supreme Court’s 1992 Daubert decision authorized trial judges to act as ‘gatekeepers,’ the job of keeping junk science away from juries falls mainly to individual judges who may not necessarily have the scientific training themselves to spot all the charlatans. Much of modern litigation turns on expert witnesses of various stripes, from products liability experts to economists, and a good many of these are effectively professional testifying experts. That, in and of itself, need not be a bad thing; just as with lawyers, there are many honorable and principled professional experts, but many lazy hacks and cheap scam artists as well. Every lawyer knows that with enough monetary incentives, you can eventually find someone with a couple of degrees to say almost anything if you’re not picky.
The personal injury plaintiffs’ bar – one of the Democrats’ core constituencies – is by far the most notorious offender in this regard. The incentives for junk science are especially powerful on the plaintiffs’ side, since a novel scientific theory, in and of itself, can create from whole cloth an industry that will use governmental power to transfer millions or billions of dollars of wealth (a defendant can lose the battle of the experts but win a case on another basis, but a successful plaintiff must have an expert). There’s an awful lot of money to be extracted through the use of junk science. It is no accident that it is customarily the plaintiffs’ bar that resists efforts to have judges take a more active role in screening expert witnesses to determine the reliability of their processes. Asbestos litigation alone has produced more scientific scandals than one could possibly recount. Consider as a sample studies of vast disparities in diagnoses of asbestosis by unaffiliated and plaintiff-affiliated physicians. The Wall Street Journal has exhaustively catalogued the use of junk science to perpetrate a massive products liability fraud against Dole Foods in Nicaragua. The list could go on and on. Michael Fumento explains a typical example from the silicone breast implant litigation:
Consider the case of Dr. Nir Kossovsky of the UCLA, an inventor of one of the types of tests the FDA warned against. Kossovsky is one of the best-known critics of silicone implants, has testified at the FDA hearings that resulted in the essential ban on silicone breast implants, and is a regular expert witness for plaintiffs in implant- related trials.
Kossovsky developed what he called Detecsil, for “detect silicone.” “The Detecsil test confirms whether or not an individual has developed an immune response to silicone-associated proteins,” declared an advertisement. As such, it could be useful in showing whether women with autoimmune disease (in which the body’s immune system turns on itself) got that illness from silicone.
In legal depositions supporting his expert witness testimony, Kossovsky cited tests from the famed Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation in La Jolla, California as corroborating his own. In fact, Scripps researchers found the antibodies of autoimmune disease victims were the same regardless of whether they had silicone implants or not. All the test found was that there was a higher level of antibodies in anybody with autoimmune disease, exactly what one would expect.
Scripps has repeatedly to disavowed Kossovsky’s statements. Indeed, a Scripps researcher was on record as saying, “To my knowledge, there is no test that can predict or indicate any specific immune response to silicone,” which is what the test must do to prove adverse health effects.
Even before this latest public FDA warning, Kossovsky had been warned by the Agency to quit using his test. But the damage has been done. The test has played a crucial role in numerous implant trials, including ones with verdicts of $7 million, $25 million, and an incredible $40 million.
More of the same here.
II. Quackery and Luddism
Another longstanding threat to science is the twin scourge of quackery and Luddism. While there is likewise a lot of money in quackery, and sometimes money in Luddism as well, there is a subtle difference in their genesis. Junk science may be principally driven by the needs of its suppliers, who know what they want to prove and need scientific experts to bend their processes to reach the desired results. But true quackery comes from somewhere different: it arises from existing demand, from the needs of people to believe things that science can’t supply. Quacks prey on popular gullibility about quasi-scientific-sounding cure-alls, while Luddites (the heirs of the British protestors against the Industrial Revolution) thrive on irrational fears and superstitions about technological progress. The social, cultural and political Left is heavily complicit in both phenomena.
For a good illsutration of what this looks like, David Gorski has an exhaustive look at how the Huffington Post has made itself a haven for the opponents of modern medical science. It’s worth reading the whole thing, which details the site’s madness for anti-medical and anti-scientific quackery ranging from campaigns against vaccines to enthusiasm for all sorts of bizarre homeopathy, much of which is reflective of the Hollywood culture that pervades the site. The sort of quackery pushed by the HuffPo and its allies includes a lot of traditional junk science as well (for example, plaintiffs’ lawyers pushing assaults on vaccine makers in the hopes of hitting a judgment jackpot in court) but the rot runs deeper than that, from the Left’s neverending quest for substitutes for religion and commerce and its conspiracy theories about business.
We see all of this at work in the causes the HuffPo flacks for. Parents of children with autism need to blame some evil external force for their children’s condition. New Age spirituality fills the gap created by rejection of traditional faiths, and offers the promise of patent-medicine style cures where modern medicine is short of answers. Diet gurus of every kind prey on the widespread chase for the magic weight-loss pill, just as the purveyors of sexual remedies prey on deeper insecurities. Some of these forces go beyond politics, but New Age hokum and hostility to vaccines and other successful products are unmistakably phenomena of the cultural Left. The campaign against vaccine manufacturers has drawn support from icons of the Democratic party:
US senators John Kerry of Massachusetts and Chris Dodd of Connecticut have both curried favor with constituents by trumpeting the notion that vaccines cause autism. And Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a scion of the most famous Democratic family of all, authored a deeply flawed 2005 Rolling Stone piece called “Deadly Immunity.” In it, he accused the government of protecting drug companies from litigation by concealing evidence that mercury in vaccines may have caused autism in thousands of kids. The article was roundly discredited for, among other things, overestimating the amount of mercury in childhood vaccines by more than 100-fold, causing Rolling Stone to issue not one but a prolonged series of corrections and clarifications. But that did little to unring the bell.
The hysteria – contradicted by numerous peer-reviewed studies – has real consequences:
In certain parts of the US, vaccination rates have dropped so low that occurrences of some children’s diseases are approaching pre-vaccine levels for the first time ever. And the number of people who choose not to vaccinate their children (so-called philosophical exemptions are available in about 20 states, including Pennsylvania, Texas, and much of the West) continues to rise. In states where such opting out is allowed, 2.6 percent of parents did so last year, up from 1 percent in 1991, according to the CDC. In some communities, like California’s affluent Marin County, just north of San Francisco, non-vaccination rates are approaching 6 percent (counterintuitively, higher rates of non-vaccination often correspond with higher levels of education and wealth).
That may not sound like much, but a recent study by the Los Angeles Times indicates that the impact can be devastating. The Times found that even though only about 2 percent of California’s kindergartners are unvaccinated (10,000 kids, or about twice the number as in 1997), they tend to be clustered, disproportionately increasing the risk of an outbreak of such largely eradicated diseases as measles, mumps, and pertussis (whooping cough). The clustering means almost 10 percent of elementary schools statewide may already be at risk.
Left-wing Luddism is also at work in the outright hysteria, especially in Europe, regarding things like genetically modified “frankenfood” and nanotechnology, here at home in the form of fear of nuclear power and food irradiation; in each case the unfocused, irrational fear comes first, and the pseudoscience used to justify it comes later. Thus, despite the sterling safety record of nuclear power everywhere outside the Soviet Union, and its crucial role in the power systems of countries like France and Japan, we have not had a nuclear power plant built in the U.S. since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979.
The environmental Left is especially guilty of this sort of thing, creating bugaboos grounded in public fear and ignorance about technology ranging from 1989’s notorious Alar scare to 2001’s hysteria about microscopic quantities of arsenic in drinking water, to “Gulf War Syndrome.” Over and over we see the Left pressing to convince the public that unseen forces of technology and business – from pesticides to power lines – are conspiring to make them sick, and insisting that once such an assertion is made, the burden is on the skeptic of such crazes to produce conclusive scientific proof to the contrary. The process of disinterested analysis of the evidence and testing of falsifiable hypotheses falls swiftly by the wayside. Science itself becomes the enemy. Anyone who spent time wringing their hands over Bush-era policies with any degree of sincerity should find this all deeply alarming.
In Part II: Politicized science and the temptations of power.
Stretching the science to sell ‘climate change.’ The politicization of science proceeds apace.
Matthew Hoy looks at some new scientific research on whether the causal mechanism ascribed to manmade global warming even works. As is generally true with complex scientific theories about causation, there’s no “case closed” moment here, but it’s another piece of the puzzle for those who view such things with scientific skepticism rather than religious/political fervor.
The Mad Hibernian’s post on Friday on Michael Crichton’s new book questioning “global warming” and similar environmental dogmas (which followed on this powerful speech by Crichton last year denouncing global warming theories) prompted some interesting comments and links. Now, I’m no expert on the subject myself, but I did think it was worth repeating here something I said in the comments to that post. I’m very skeptical of hearing “global warming” discussed as if it is a single concept, like “the earth is round.” Basically, “global warming,” as I understand its popular meaning, is really three different concepts:
1. The earth has, for some period of time, been getting warmer.
2. This past warming trend is not a random or cyclical phenomenon but is a trend that will continue into the future unless interrupted by human intervention.
3. The past trend and its continuation into the future are the results of specifically identifiable human activities, i.e., carbon emissions.
It is entirely possible to believe #1 without believing #2 and #3, or even to believe #1 and #2 without believing #3. Beware of anyone who tries to use evidence supporting just one of those propositions to convince you of all three.