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Science, politics and global warming

Edward A. Larkin | Wednesday, November 3, 2010

According to the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” That Moynihan was a politician is ironic, as politics seems to be the one sphere where different parties actually do have their own facts. Social security, tax rates, charter schools — statistics are constantly produced on both sides by think tanks and used by political journalists. It’s easy to get either turned off or confused by the acrimonious debate.

The most polarizing issues are those over values that involve significant cultural elements and beliefs. Interestingly, science is inextricably involved in many of these hot-button topics. Some of the major cultural debates of the past decades have involved the role of science in determining priorities. The teaching of evolution versus intelligent design and the global warming debate are two examples of such issues. The handling of the two subjects by the scientific community affords larger insights about the interaction between science and politics.

The evolution debate is an example in which science clearly can and should be marshaled to support a specific viewpoint. Part of the reason for this is the accessibility of the scientific evidence to everyone — even a cursory study of evolution is incredibly persuasive. The similarity of our genes and proteins and those of yeast and bacteria can easily be displayed. Simply going on a walk or to the zoo can remind of us of our striking similarity to other creatures. The incredible richness of research on evolution for more than a century speaks firmly in its favor. No one has ever found a structure in living things that could not have feasibly evolved (called “irreducible complexity”). The science is clear — evolution should be taught in school. The debate about evolution is becoming less about cultural priorities and more about simple intellectual honesty.

This is a positive development — cultural issues are often the most divisive, and science should attempt to keep out of the crosshairs. Global warming is a situation where science has failed in this quest. Before I am accused of being a denialist, let me state that I believe that man-made global warming is probably true, and that something should be done about it. Moving our economy towards a more full embrace of alternative energy is undeniably good for the environment (even in the absence of global warming concerns), as well as national security and economic competitiveness in the next century.

One major problem is that the vast majority of people can never hope to really be able to evaluate the merit of global warming science — most scientists included. How many people have actually researched climate change, as opposed to simply accepting their party’s view on it, armed with a few choice facts from their favorite commentators? How can we be sure enough about the science to enact the large-scale change that must take place to adequately protect against the worst scenarios? Predicting the future is notoriously difficult, even for scientists. The reality is that the complex combination of physics, chemistry and computer-model based speculation that undergirds global warming is incredibly complex.

So where has science failed in the global warming debate? As much as I wanted Al Gore to win the 2000 presidential election, the idea of casting the necessity to deal with climate change as a “moral obligation” is exactly the wrong way to approach it. Militant attitudes about the necessity to act quickly and drastically, in a way that is economically harmful in the short term, is sure to only alienate people. Ridiculing people who deny the scientific consensus, despite the fact that no one on either side of the issue really knows how the scientific consensus has been reached — is foolhardy.

Indeed, the entire issue of the politics of global warming seems fundamentally unscientific to me, which is the reason why I am so surprised at the dogmatic attitudes of some scientific publications. Science is at its core a skeptical endeavor — rigorous proof is needed to publish anything. Scientists needle each other for minute experimental flaws, and are careful to never rule out any possibilities or permit unverified assumptions. No predictions go unchallenged. So when the leading scientific journal in the world, Nature, announced recently that it will soon publish Nature Climate Change, I was surprised, and quite honestly, disappointed. The sureness with which the scientific community has proceeded on the global warming front seems to threaten its stated precepts.

This attitude leads to a deep hostility towards scientists from many pockets of the electorate. It’s what fuels the media sensationalism about the Climategate scandal and the tiny fraction of errant claims in the IPCC report. It’s what animates some people to call the entire idea a hoax to impose more government control on the market. Obviously, politics requires getting your hands dirty. But those who believe in global warming (like myself) should understand that science is about a rational analysis of the facts, an embrace of all the data. There’s no room in science for insulation from competing claims.

The climate debate will not be won by castigating non-believers as ridiculous and throwing economics out the window. It will be won by a cool-headed articulation of the consequences of climate change — answer the “so what?” question, but do it in an intellectually rigorous way. Most people are driven to the polls by the state of their job or deep-seated beliefs about important cultural issues — not the idea of biodiversity loss or the prospect of future coastal flooding. This, however, doesn’t mean that doomsday predictions should be made to mobilize people. Making this debate as militant as possible is not worth it for the scientific community. If global warming does prove to be overhyped, the credibility of science could be seriously damaged. As Moynihan would surely agree, facts should be regarded with caution. Above all, everyone should be allowed an opinion.


Edward A. Larkin is a senior with a double major in Biological Sciences and Classical Civilization. He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.