On Science and Politics

No doubt you’ve been aware of the recent debate that has been raging about whether or not the scientific case for climate change has been exaggerated by various scientists, in the light of the content of a long series of emails. It’s all over the news, and so I am sure I don’t need to point to all the news stories, commentaries, and – sad to say – convenient distractions that have been constructed on the basis of them by the climate change deniers, especially those with vested interest in the status quo. (Follow the climategate tag at The Intersection for some of the links, and a sampling of the discussions, and do look at the Nature editorial for example.) This matter, and the debates it has reignited, is of course a major issue in view of the upcoming work to be done by the leaders of the world’s major economies in Copenhagen later this month.

A key point here is to realize that when science intersects with politics – especially the kind of rabid, personal, dirty politics that surrounds the climate change issue – the grey areas that are already present in honest science can get further muddied by the fact that scientists are human beings who don’t always act perfectly in all situations, and whose actions (well emails suggesting certain actions) can also be subject to question (especially when we don’t have all the facts concerning context, etc, on several of the emails which seem very ambiguous to me).

There are two things to keep in mind. The first is that there is a global community of scientists at work here, with so many different approaches, motivations, contexts, data sets, and so forth that have been brought to bear on the matter of climate science. To think that a series of emails from some small subset of them (that may or may not suggest that data have been presented unevenly, for whatever reasons) can undermine a huge body of work and conclusions from an entire worldwide scientific community is to seriously misunderstand what science is about, and how it works. jenga_gameIt is not a tall, tottering late-stage game of jenga, where there’s a danger that at any moment one of the little wooden sticks will wobble and bring the whole game crashing to the ground. Instead, it is a highly interwoven collection of findings, ideas, analysis, and conclusions that are supported by a wide variety of pieces of evidence, all arriving at the same striking picture – Our world is changing fast and our actions are highly relevant to these changes both past, present and future. Instead of a jenga construction, think more of a woven tapestry. Pulling out a few threads changes it a little bit, but it does not make the whole thing unravel and destroy the picture. Or, if you like, think of a pyramid structure, like the lovely Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacán in Mexico (image borrowed from here).

pyramid_of_the_sun_mexico

There is a huge base. Pulling out one or two of the bricks at any point in the construction will not make the entire thing collapse. Again, to think science works like a jenga game is to not have understood what science is. One of the dangers of this new issue is that, as I’ve discussed here before, the general populace being subjected to this new shouting match over the emails already has a poor scientific education base (they are among the same crowd who genuinely can’t see that Intelligent Design has no place in the science classroom, for example), and so they will be easily manipulated into thinking, or offering as a defence of the status quo: Science is Suspect.

The great thing about science, and one of the things that distinguishes it from organized religion or other dogma-driven enterprises, is that it is bigger and more profound than any particular scientist. That science is not a late-stage jenga game, driven by personality and hence endangered by the personal flaws of a few scientists, is why it is a wonderful and powerful thing that will outlast any particular individual. It is a way of navigating the world using reason, and managing the inevitable uncertainty that lives in the world, and that will always afflict human beings, since we are not Gods and cannot know all the data with absolutely certainty.

The problem is that many people want certainty. They are uncomfortable without it. They are often the same sort of people who join organizations that have a reassuring father figure dressed in some sort of costume who tells them what to do. When science intersects with politics (and religion, etc), as it must from time to time, the tension between its inherent need to accept and manage uncertainty versus the desire for clear absolute statements becomes acute. Things get worse when people take up positions, have axes to grind, reputations to protect, and so forth – things that afflict scientists and non-scientists alike, since they are human.

It seems to me that the writers of the emails under discussion may have fallen prey to some of this tension, and may have crossed the line somewhat in terms of remaining transparent in their deliberations. This is not good, and we should learn to what extent this happened, and what the context is for some of the emails. (See the Nature editorial I pointed to for discussion of this. Some of the expressed desires to leave out certain papers from discussion did not come to fruition… as a result of there being a strong scientific community at work, those papers appeared in the key IPCC reports anyway…) But the key point is that it does not matter nearly as much as the politically-motivated would like you to think it does. Remember that.

Have a listen to an excellent discussion on this matter that took place this morning on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme. It is an excellent 10 minute segment (they read out some of the emails and discuss their possible meaning) that is at the 08:33 timepoint (scroll down this page and then click to listen). Synopsis:

How do you balance scientific facts with public policy? Scientists are faced with pressure to present evidence on issues of public policy, and to lobby for a particular outcome. Leaked emails from the University of East Anglia which imply that climate change data was manipulated have demonstrated the clash between politics and science. Correspondent Tom Feilden reports on the latest ’emailgate’ developments, and Professor Malcolm Grant, President and Provost of UCL, discusses how far politics should rely on science.

Enjoy!

-cvj

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9 Responses to On Science and Politics

  1. Arvind Iyer says:

    Often the ones who mindlessly chant the ‘Science is Suspect’ mantra and judge science based on the occasional fraud; are also the ones who sobbingly play the victim when they hear a slogan like “Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings”. “You can’t judge religion by its fanatics and loony fringe” they say. Advocates of science must make these folks understand that by the same token, you can’t judge science by its frauds. We must be able to call them out on these unabashedly ‘ad hominem’ attacks.

    Too many honest scientists have been viciously slandered in these slugfests. What we need is a website named something like ‘www.sciencedefenseattorney.com’ where the defense of scientists who face attacks from climate-change-deniers, evolution-deniers and the like can be conducted in the court of public opinion, by providing fact-files and citations to set the record straight, and also to express solidarity for them.

  2. Belizean says:

    Clifford,

    I have learned to tread lightly on this subject, as the belief in global warming is held with religious fervor by most of its adherents (many of whom have an interest in the status quo regarding the federal funding of climatology departments). It might be constructive, however, to ponder the following:

    1. Regarding causes, the important question is not

    “Is there a human contribution to atmospheric carbon dioxide?”

    Rather, it is

    “To what extent does the human contribution to atmospheric carbon dioxide determine global temperature?”

    The last 11 years of temperature decline in the face of increasing human production of CO2, suggests that factors other than the human contribution dominate.

    2. Regarding action, the important question is not

    “How can we sufficiently reduce the human contribution to atmospheric carbon dioxide?”

    Rather, it is

    “How can humanity maximally flourish in the face of potentially severe global warming?”

    The answer to the latter is same as it has been for any potential catastrophe. We must sufficiently increase our scientific knowledge and technological capacity to avert disaster. As such knowledge and capacity are byproducts of wealth, crippling wealth-creating capitalist economies (as global warming adherents usually demand) would seem to be counter productive.

    3. Lastly, it’s difficult to believe that a space-faring, technological civilization of the 22nd century — two orders of magnitude wealthier than ours and dominated by hyper-intelligent machines – will be stymied by the simple problem of controlling the quantity of sunlight that lands on the surface of the earth. [Especially given that we know how to do this now, but are only deterred by its expense.]


    My objective here is not to instigate another round of global warming debates; it’s merely to address you use of the term “climate change deniers”, which suggest that those who don’t share your opinion are willfully ignorant deviants who choose to oppose an obvious truth for the sake of personal profit.

    It would be nice if you could acknowledge that it is at least possible for a reasonable and well-informed person to disagree with you without being in the pocket of an oil company.

    Regards,

    –Belizean

  3. Clifford says:

    “It would be nice if you could acknowledge that it is at least possible for a reasonable and well-informed person to disagree with you without being in the pocket of an oil company.”

    Well, that’s easy. Not only is it possible, it is quite common. No idea what the big deal is you’re getting at. Any other “difficult” things you’d like to get me to say?

    Best,

    -cvj

  4. I realize that nobody actually wants to debate these matters, but I do find Belizean somewhat puzzling.

    The last 11 years of temperature decline in the face of increasing human production of CO2, suggests that factors other than the human contribution dominate.

    Like the fact that we’re in the midst of a deep solar minimum?

    Are we to expect that to persist indefinitely?

    Lastly, it’s difficult to believe that a space-faring, technological civilization of the 22nd century — two orders of magnitude wealthier than ours …

    If, for instance, climate change turns the American Midwest into a dustbowl, we will have to struggle mightily, merely to feed our population, a century from now, let alone have the spare wealth to engage in massive geo-engineering projects.

    As such knowledge and capacity are byproducts of wealth, crippling wealth-creating capitalist economies (as global warming adherents usually demand) would seem to be counter productive.

    I always find puzzling the combination of boundless technological optimism about the (distant) future, coupled with crushing technological pessimism about our ability to mitigate carbon emissions in the not-so-distant future.

    Maybe the phrase “climate change denier” is the wrong one to attach to the phenomenon. But there clearly is something systematic afoot.

  5. Joe says:

    My biggest concern about the whole ‘global warming’ debate is the lack of transparency from the key architects of this, namely Mann, Hansen and so forth. When repeatedly asked for the data and analysis methods for independent analysis and verification to be shown, it has been patently refused. Then with the ‘Climate-gate’ scandal it does serve to make them look extremely bad do to the content of the e-mails sent. Specifically with the group at the University of East Anglia bluntly looking at ways to circumvent their own country’s Freedom of Information act. That says only one thing to me… maybe there is something to the claims of the ‘climate change deniers’. Why actively hide the data & methodology that you use to make your claims from independent scientific verification unless there is something fundamentally wrong with your methods and you don’t want to have the scientific community at large to find out about it?

    Don’t get me wrong, in my opinion there isn’t enough verifiable data to make a claim one way or another. So right now I would be walking the fence, so to speak. But if you want to be taken seriously in the scientific community, you should be completely transparent with your data and methodology so that it can be independently verified or proven to be completely baseless (cold temperature fusion anyone?). And this has yet to be done by the group who so avidly claim that anthropogenic global warming is a fact, they claim consensus. And lest you forget the claim in the early 70’s about how mankind was causing the earth to slip into another ice age because of the pollutants that were being pumped into the atmosphere. There was a cover-page story in Time Magazine about this very phenomenon, and they also had scientific ‘consensus’ whatever that means…

    Just something to think about before making up your mind on the subject, because I haven’t been able to do so thus far.

  6. Clifford says:

    Thanks Jacques,

    You are right. I will admit that I’ve lost the energy to debate the same tired points that keep being brought up in the face of so much that is out there. It is a bit energy-sapping. That’s why that this “climategate” distraction is so sad, since it is largely irrelevant, and remarkably and predictably blown out of proportion. (I imagine you’ve seen the Nature editorial.) I appreciate your vigilance and willingness to point out a few things here.

    Best,

    -cvj

  7. Belizean says:

    I realize that nobody actually wants to debate these matters…

    Because it’s like arguing against the reality of the resurrection with Christian or the validity of Mohammed’s status as a prophet of Alla with a Muslim. Not productive. [No insult intended. It’s just that what seems obvious to believes is not obvious to me.]

    But I’m procrastinating instead of grading final exams, so…

    Like the fact that we’re in the midst of a deep solar minimum?

    Precisely my point. There are other factors that can swamp human-produced CO2. Solar cycles of unknown periodicity and duration are among them. [Also, CO2 seems to lag temperature rises, further indicating other causative factors.]

    If, for instance, climate change turns the American Midwest into a dustbowl…[we won’t]…have the spare wealth to engage in massive geo-engineering projects

    The short term (the better part on a century) affects of global warming are actually expected to be a net positive. The disproportionately high warming effects on polar latitudes over more temperate zones will lengthen the growing seasons there, resulting in cheaper global food prices, which would likely offset any unlikely reductions in Midwest food production (even without taking into account expected gains in agricultural productivity from robotic farming). Because wealth creation in capitalist economies increases exponentially with time (with a growth constant sensitive to the aggregate tax burden), the relative cost of “massive geo-engineering projects” declines exponentially.

    I always find puzzling the combination of boundless technological optimism about the (distant) future, coupled with crushing technological pessimism about our ability to mitigate carbon emissions in the not-so-distant future.

    It’s not a “crushing” short-term technological pessimism. It’s a human-centered vs. an environment-centered focus. Encumbering today’s economies with severe CO2 limits, would be a bit like having shackled factories and vehicles in 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries with 21st-century industrial pollution limits. Sure, you’d have cleaner air. But you would also have lost stupendous quantities of wealth (and the associated increases in health, knowledge, and standards of living) due to the reduction in the rate of industrialization. We could be living in a 2009 whose technology was that of 1909 (with all the human suffering that that entails).

    The goals isn’t to reduce CO2 emissions, it’s to end the threat of global warming. Reducing CO2 at best delays warming (at an exceedingly high cost in lost wealth creation and associated human suffering). It will not stop it. Accelerating the growth of wealth, and the concomitant growth of scientific knowledge and technological capacity, will — as we’ll be able to easily afford the ultimate solution (controlling the effective flux of sunlight).

    [It’s not like reducing the sunlight incident on the surface of the earth is a hard problem. It’s just expensive for us right now. Seeing as there’s no harm (and likely benefits) in waiting a century, why not wait until we’re in a better position to afford the ultimate solution?]

  8. The short term (the better part on a century) affects of global warming are actually expected to be a net positive.

    I think you … erm … oversimplify.

    Among the predicted effects (over the next century, or so):

    * Lower rainfall over the American Midwest. (Think the Dustbowl of the 1930s, but sustained …)
    * Warming surface temperatures in the North Atlantic trigger a diversion of the Gulf Stream southward. (No more French wine, or English cheese, for you. Considerably more dire conditions for hundreds of millions of northern Europeans.)
    * Ocean acidification leading to the failure of several major fisheries.
    * …

    It’s all very well to assert that someplace on the globe, growing seasons will be longer. It hardly follows that they will compensate for the decreased productivity elsewhere, not to mention the massive dislocation and economic disruption that such shifts would entail.

    It’s not a “crushing” short-term technological pessimism. It’s a human-centered vs. an environment-centered focus. Encumbering today’s economies with severe CO2 limits, would be a bit like having shackled factories and vehicles in 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries with 21st-century industrial pollution limits. Sure, you’d have cleaner air. But you would also have lost stupendous quantities of wealth

    Nope, sorry, you’ve lost me completely.

    Consider the following two options:

    1) Build an additional coal-fired electric generating plant. And then engage in a geo-engineering project to increase the Earth’s albedo sufficiently to compensate for the additional CO2 released.

    2) Build a solar or nuclear or wind-powered generating plant.

    It is an easy back-of-the-envelope calculation that the total cost for option 1) is at least an order of magnitude larger than the total cost for option 2).

    The only reason why otherwise sane people prefer option 1) is that the “savings” associated to building the coal-fired plant accrue to the electric Utility, but the (much larger) cost of remediation does not.

    Even granting that the task of remediation can be postponed (for a while), we can do a present-value discount calculation, and it’s still vastly more expensive to burn coal now and “contro[l] the effective flux of sunlight” later, than to put that money into building a solar power plant today.

    We certainly should be researching our geo-engineering options. They may be necessary, even if we do make progress on carbon emissions.

    But it’s just not true that it would be cheaper, in the long-run, to do nothing about carbon emissions, and rely 100% on geo-engineering.

  9. vanderleun says:

    “1) Build an additional coal-fired electric generating plant. And then engage in a geo-engineering project to increase the Earth’s albedo sufficiently to compensate for the additional CO2 released.

    2) Build a solar or nuclear or wind-powered generating plant.”

    False dichotomy and you should know that. Shame on you. Do better.