Why Political Pressure is Good For Science

It is always nice to see one’s perspectives confirmed by events. In the past I have strongly argued that science and politics are not autonomous or independent from one another. I have always believed that while scientific methods cannot be subject to political control, scientific presentations that do not take political moods into account are as arrogant as they are irrational. The arrogance stems from scientism – the belief that only scientific methodology reveals truth.

What political science – or perhaps, more accurately, political philosophy – teaches is that, following the wisdom of Hobbes, on any matter that touches human interests, there will be political disputes, especially over how data and findings are to be interpreted. Not even physics has been exempt, when we look at the degree to which it was politicized in the USSR and the battle between the “Copenhagen” interpretation of quantum physics and those interpretations preferred by Marxist materialists. And the further one descends from theoretical physics to say, biology, the greater and more politicized the controversies are likely to become.

But there is a vast difference between political control from above, as was exercised by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and political pressure from below, such as that which has been exerted upon the climate scientists of the IPCC. While they, and their most rabid defenders, first reacted to the Climategate scandal with utter contempt for the “denying” or “skeptical” masses, they have now actually admitted that they are culpable for the disaster and are in a far more conciliatory mood – indeed, what else can they do in the wake of scandal after scandal after scandal?

They understand, belatedly that they have lost the public’s trust, and that the public’s trust actually does matter, at least in a free, open and democratic society. And we only had to harass them night and day for months to get them to finally admit it. Now they are promising greater transparency, and all I can say to that is that it’s about bloody time.

The next thing they ought to do is apologize to the entire planet in general, and the skeptics in particular, for all of the nasty and libelous things that they said about them. It turns out after all that we were not “crazy”, “insane”, “naive”, “bought off” or any of the other things that were said about us; we were right all along, to a far greater extent than they ever were willing to admit, and the whole time they knew it but thought that they could bully their critics into silence with insults and by stonewalling. Now that they’ve failed, and admitted that they were at fault, it is also time for them to apologize for their arrogance.

Finally, its time we all learn a lesson about life in a democratic society: legitimacy is derived from the consent of the governed, especially when a massive global agenda of taxes and regulations that could affect millions of jobs and cause an unknowable number of unforeseen consequences is on the order of the day. If as a scientist you are claiming that human activity is killing the planet, and politicians are using your claims to rationalize power-grabs unprecedented in their size and scope, you have an absolute moral obligation to make all of your methods, data, and results down to the most minute detail known to the entire planet. It isn’t about allowing public opinion to dictate scientific results, but allowing citizens and policymakers to have a clear and truthful picture of the objective situation.

We cannot be asked to make major sacrifices on the basis of blind trust; that’s just fundamentalism, whether we’re talking about religion or science. After all, it isn’t as if science is never wrong, never revised, never changing, or as if scientists themselves were not human beings subject to human problems. Reason tells us that for these reasons and more, we have every right to be cautious and even skeptical when listening to scientific claims with vast political implications. We have every right to demand transparency and openness, perhaps in a way we wouldn’t demand when the topic is something mundane.  But this is the kind of wisdom that must come from outside of science itself.

In general, but most especially when the political stakes are this high, we must have as much certainty and accuracy as possible when we move from the scientific stage to the political stage. This has nothing to do with “denial”  - this is about the people of the world being able to decide their own fate, and not have it decided for them. That’s what it means to live in a democracy.  We must also remember that the truths that the American founders believed were “self-evident” were not establish by data sets, but through philosophical, religious and historical wisdom.

So in the end I think this development will be good not only for democracy but for science. I think it is entirely possible that a belief, an assumption, on the part of the scientists that they would not be accountable for their work and that politicians would take its accuracy for granted actually may have caused the blunders that have now come to light. I think it is entirely possible that in the future, knowing how closely the public scrutinizes at least some matters that most intimately affect its interests, climate scientists will be more scrupulous in their work and the result will be more accurate data.

One thing must be absolutely clear now, though: we will not be frightened, bullied, shamed through insults or coerced into accepting the planetary climate-change regime. Our watch over these processes remains vigilant and alert! So don’t underestimate us again!

11 Responses to Why Political Pressure is Good For Science

  • The stonewalling and shoddy work that the climate scientists have done are finally being brought. Over the Atlantic this is huge news. Here the U.S. media is desperately trying to ignore it (or put the best spin possible). Even the NY Times piece tries its best to spin what is corruption from top to bottom.

    The mere fact that the CRU can’t reproduce its’ own data is grounds for investigation. It’s time to call them out for what they are…crooks.

  • “… The next thing they ought to do is apologize to the entire planet in general, and the skeptics in particular, for all of the nasty and libelous things that they said about them. It turns out after all that we were not “crazy”, “insane”, “naive”, “bought off” or any of the other things that were said about us; we were right all along, to a far greater extent than they ever were willing to admit, and the whole time they knew it but thought that they could bully their critics into silence with insults and by stonewalling. Now that they’ve failed, and admitted that they were at fault, it is also time for them to apologize for their arrogance…”

    SPOT ON, Joe! Another great post.

  • It’s only because climate change was made into a political issue, that it became necessary to apply opposing political pressure. We don’t have political debates in meteorology because there is no political pressure to produce a certain result. It’s too late for climatology and I blame Al Gore and the right. It wasn’t a political issue in 2000. Then Gore made that comedy and the right, opposing all things Gore, wed itself with the opposing scientific fringe. The irrationality of the right got the left overly defensive and drove them off a cliff. Politics was the problem.

  • “It wasn’t a political issue in 2000.”

    This is demonstrably untrue. See, e.g.:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Politics_of_global_warming (provides timeline of global warming debate, showing, among other things, Senate action in 1997 to block Kyoto)

    http://www.cato.org/pubs/regulation/regv15n2/reg15n2g.html (libertarian Cato Institute questions the “consensus” back in 1992)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_warming_conspiracy_theory (global warming “conspiracy theory” first alleged in 1990)

    On an anecdotal level, I’ve been skeptical of the political agenda behind AGW since the late ’80s and have heard those AGW advocates pushing for a particular political agenda referred to as “watermelons” – green on the outside, red on the inside – going back at least to the early 90s.

    “Then Gore made that comedy and the right, opposing all things Gore, wed itself with the opposing scientific fringe. The irrationality of the right got the left overly defensive and drove them off a cliff.”

    So, let me see if I have this right: The science on AGW was correct before Algore got involved? People only became skeptical of AGW after Algore got involved?

    And, once again, Joe’s point is made. Those who are skeptical of AGW are dismissed as “irrational”.

  • That said, I do agree with Restrained Radical’s point that it was the fact that the science was “politicized” to begin with that made the political pushback necessary. I just disagree with RR on the how, when, and why that politicization took place.

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Politics_of_global_warming (provides timeline of global warming debate, showing, among other things, Senate action in 1997 to block Kyoto)

    The Senate action was bipartisan. That proves my point that it wasn’t political yet. Gore and Bush both supported a carbon tax in 2000.

    AGW skepticism always existed but the right’s irrational devotion to it was uncommon until Al Gore. You probably could’ve convinced Rush Limbaugh of AGW in the 90′s.

  • Did you listen to Rush in the 90s? He was one of the biggest and most vocal AGW skeptics out there … even before Al Gore ran for President.

    The notion that this political disagreement over AGW all started as a part of the right’s “irrational” hatred of Al Gore just isn’t historically accurate. That’s not to say having the world’s biggest AGW evangelist run for President didn’t bring the issue into focus, but the political disagreement over AGW predates the 2000 election by at least a decade.

  • RR,
    Regardless of the bipartisan nature of the Senate action in 1997, it was still a matter of AGW proponents trying to drive policy….getting involved in politics.

    Furthermore, why is skepticism of the anthropogenic nature of climate variations “irrational”? There are dozens of different things on can be skeptical about on the issue of global climate change. Want a short list?

    1. Validity of global average temperature figures used by scientists. Is the raw data valid? Does the raw data cover a large enough area? How is the temperature averaged? All of these things and more impact the numbers. If you think this is unimportant, then you’re hiding your head in the sand. This is the basis for so much of the rest of the climate scientists’ conclusions that it’s vital that these numbers are accurate.

    2. Validity of interpolation data set and formula used to project back thousands of years, building up a database of “global temperatures” predating use of measuring equipment. Tree rings from a few places are used to calculate global average temperatures prior to 1850, and diverging current temperatures and tree rings are simply dumped? (yes, I know that historical temperatures are based on more than just tree rings, but it is an example of something that should raise concerns about the data sets being used to analyze current trends. If they’re all validating each others models, then when one fails we need to verify the others). Again, this is vital, because if there is a problem with the projected historical data, then comparisons between current trends and historical trends are useless.

    3. Could this primarily be a normal climate cycle? Is the current trendline covering a long enough span of time? Should it be an overall slope trendline or a best-fit curve, moving average, moving range…what? There are a hundred different ways to analyze the data, and depending on which analysis tools are used the statistics can be made to say just about anything.

    Those three need to be completely open. Other scientists need to be able to recreate the adjusted temperatures based on the raw data. Other scientists need to be able to look at the methods used to determine historical temperatures (pre-recording times). Other scientists, and especially statisticians, need to be able to analyze the data.

    Once that (among many other things) is accomplished, if there truly is a warming trend that seems to diverge from historical trends and cycles, then the human impact needs to be evaluated.

    4. Historical atmospheric CO2 levels (another thing that needs scrutiny…how was this projected?) sometimes lead increased temperatures, sometimes lag. On what basis is there a certainty that CO2 levels will be a leading indicator this time?

    5. What amount of the observed climate change is caused by man? As an example, if historical trends for the past 500 years show a fairly regular 0.4C increase in temperature, and the past 50 put us on track to increase by 0.8C, is that a 0.4C natural increase and a 0.4C artificial increase?

    There are a bunch more places where questions need to be raised, just on the science side of things. Answering these questions doesn’t mean that work has to stop on current research into the effects we have on the planet (environment, climate, etc.), just that the information has to be freely available. Without the basic information, though, it’s impossible for an armchair scientist (like that patent clerk, Einstein) to do anything.

    Then we can get into what we can do to stop screwing things up. Will E-85 in place of petroleum-based gasoline really help? What’s the environmental impact of increased corn production for use as a fuel source? What other options are possible for our energy needs, and what’s the best way to get there? How do we require companies to reduce pollution without destroying the companies?

    Now, in spite of me saying all of that, it is still reasonable to reduce our impact on the environment, to seek cleaner sources of energy, to clean up the messes we’ve made. The government should still prosecute those who dump waste anywhere they want.

    It’s prudent to act as if we have an impact on the climate, because we do (I don’t know how much impact, but it’d be foolish to think we have none at all). It’s not prudent to act as if the climate is doomed unless we act in an extreme manner immediately. There is a middle ground between “we didn’t do it!!!1!1″ and “we’re all going to die!!!!1!!” So, instead of extreme measures that will have uncertain (if any) effect on the climate but will surely destroy companies (and jobs), go with a slow but steady system of improving our processes, reducing our environmental impact, reducing pollution, without destroying the world’s economy.

    But, yeah, I’m just an irrational skeptic, a Global Warming Denier, so beholden to the Republican Party that I simply MUST oppose AGW because of Al Gore.

    Well, to clarify a couple of things: I’m not registered with any political party. I tend to vote Republican more than Democrat, it’s true, but I expect my representatives to represent me and my values…I don’t represent the values of a party. Second, there are plenty of irrational skeptics out there, just like there are plenty of irrational alarmists out there. That broad-brush pigeon-holing of skeptics is quite a fallacy. “That skeptic is irrational. Therefore all skeptics are irrational.” The strawmen that are frequently set up (by both extremes of this issue) are the second massive fallacy in the whole issue.

  • Matt,

    “It’s prudent to act as if we have an impact on the climate, because we do (I don’t know how much impact, but it’d be foolish to think we have none at all). It’s not prudent to act as if the climate is doomed unless we act in an extreme manner immediately”

    I agree 500%. That’s exactly right.

  • And Restrained,

    I completely object to your entire characterization of this issue.

    While it may be true that Al Gore, in his toxic combination of arrogance and ignorance, overplayed his hand and underestimated the will of the people to resist, the climate scandal springs from ONE source alone – that is the people’s determination not to be dominated by a scientific hypothesis that could not be firmly established, and was being employed by governments around the world to justify massive political changes.

    The truth is that the entire global elite overplayed its hand. It assumed, wrongly, stupidly, and with the utmost contempt for the people, would submit to MASSIVE political and economic changes on the basis of a questionable hypothesis. The people smelled this for what it was – a political power grab. They said, “stop, lets listen to the skeptics, lets have a debate over the data” but the arrogant political class said “NO! There is a consensus! We must have global taxes and regulations even if it costs millions of jobs and ruins economies! It’s for mother Earth! That’s who we worship now!”

    Reason was on OUR side. Democracy was on OUR side. We wanted openness, transparency and a chance for legitimate skeptical scientists to make their case before plunging head-first into a global carbon regime. THESE ARE REASONABLE DEMANDS. It was UNREASONABLE to oppose them. And now they are understanding this.

    If you don’t get it, then I don’t know what to say. I suppose you don’t have to get it, you only need to understand that you will never, ever, be able to impose these drastic political changes without making a clear and reasonable case, without treating skeptics and doubters with a measure of respect and human decency, without resorting to insults and stonewalling and other belittling tactics.

    You’ve failed, ok? It’s over. Change your game plan.

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