Monday, November 30, 2009

Why The "Climategate" E-Mails Do not Mean What Conservatives Seem to Think They Mean

Many on the right are up in arms over a set of stolen e-mail messages among some of the bigger names in the political climate debate. Accusations of fraud and deception abound and the inference they draw from these conversations is that the case for global warming is flawed and therefore that nothing needs to be done. Of course, that is not what they mean at all.

It is as wrong to call it "the" debate over global warming as it is to call it "the" debate over intelligent design. In both cases, there are two conversations: one scientific and one political. The scientific conversations in both cases are not as controversial as those on the right would have you believe. In both cases there is clear consensus with a few outlier researchers opposing that consensus. In every case there are such figures. Ernst Mach and Henri Poincare, two of the biggest names in turn of the century physics, both denounced the theory of relativity and the existence of atoms. There will always be figures who disagree with the mainstream scientific beliefs, but that does not mean that those beliefs are flawed. Dissenting voices are always there in science, occasionally these dissenting voices are right, usually they aren't. They play a crucial role in scientific discourse, but their existence in any given case does not imply anything special. The scientists in both of these cases have good reason to believe in the likely truth of the hypotheses.

That does not mean that there is not rousing and passionate disagreement among them. Again, of course there is. There are competing hypotheses and models within the research program, but that does not mean that there is a problem with it. to the contrary, it means that it is live. Scientists disagree with other. That is what they do. Evolutionary biologists duke it out over all sorts of questions. That does not mean that speciation by natural and sexual selection is in doubt. similarly, there are many open question in climate science, but their existence does not throw the central working hypothesis in a skeptical light.

But these debates, the ones between scientists, are not the only debates occurring. The other completely distinct conversations occur in the body politic. For decades, scientists shunned these discussions arrogantly believing that in the division of intellectual labor, their specialized knowledge made them the sole legitimate source for insight and that the rest of society would simply shut up and listen. This didn't happen. indeed, when the message they conveyed stood contrary to powerful and wealthy corporate interests, they found themselves minimized, all but shut out of the conversation. The public is scientifically illiterate thinking that "experimental error" means scientific flaw. Those with financial interest in moving public opinion away from scientific consensus realized that this ignorance was an advantage for them, that they did not need to win the scientific battles, only muddy the waters enough, create sufficient doubt in the non-scientists' minds that they could believe whatever was most convenient and desirable.

The tobacco industry was among the first to realize this and created the Tobacco Institute which housed scientists who were willing to say things (especially in court) that the industry liked for a nice fat paycheck. Other corporate interests follwed suit, especially after the Daubert decision. It had been the case that scientific testimony in a court of law was limited to qualified scientists explaining scientific consensus to the jury. but in a case brought against manufacturers of vaccines, the plaintiffs -- the little guys -- argued that they should be allowed to bring scientific witnesses who held views contrary to the consensus. When they won, the corporate fat cats saw an opening for them and they nurtured corrals of dissenting scientists willing to do their bidding. Not long ago, a similar call went out to academics -- earth scientists and economists (although somehow I received it as well) -- who would be willing to speak out against global warming for remuneration.

The strategy that had been used successfully by the tobacco industry was formalized for the global warming debate by Frank Luntz, the conservative mastermind who gave us the phrase "death tax" for inheritance tax. he realized that language reframed debates in ways that left certain presuppositions of limits to debate. It was he who coined the phrase "climate change" because it was much more friendly than "global warming" which sounded dangerous. Climate changes, that's just what it does, so there's nothing to worry about here. Move along. He explicitly articulated for conservative and corporate interests that they did not need to win the scientific debate, just muddy the waters in the public mind. If they could be perceived to have fought to a draw, they win -- whether they did or not in the scientific debate. People don't want to be responsible, so if you cast even a shadow of a doubt, people will think that the question is unsettled and opt for their preferred, more comfortable beliefs which is "do nothing."

So, scientists found themselves in an odd spot. They saw a need, were the experts in determining how to fix the problem, but were being shut out of the policy debates that would lead to the implementation of those measures that would fix the problem they knew was there. But what happened because of the Luntz strategy is that the level of support they needed to bring was not what was needed in scientific debate -- reasonable belief based on evidence -- but something utterly unattainable in any scientific case -- near proof, virtual certainty. Luntz knowingly raised the bar above what they could deliver. so, know scientists changed from merely being scientists to being scientist politicians. The scientific question was settled, now they needed to do battle in the political arena according to the political rules. And so they had to give an artificially inflated interpretation of the evidence for political reasons, one that exceeded the needs for legitimate scientific belief may have been inflated beyond the limits of the data itself.

And THAT is what we see in those e-mails. Look at internal discussions in any situation, on any side of any issue and what you see is exactly what you see in those e-mails. It is not scientific malfeasance, but political machination. The e-mails have no bearing on the scientific case, one that has never been effective in moving public opinion because we don't understand it and sadly, scientists suck at explaining it to us.

But scientists' political power comes in part because they are seen to be "objective" and the idea that they are part of a political movement seems to damage this objectivity. This, of course, is an equivocation -- the same one that keeps reporters giving equal weight to the views from left and right even if one is demonstrably wrong. What is meant by objectivity in science is that one tries to falsify beliefs and follows inductive inferences from the data. It does not mean that once the data has a reasonable interpretation, that one does not lobby on behalf of solving problems one has uncovered. If I see a baby being stalked by a coyote, I need to do what I can to save it. The scientists saw exactly that and so they cried wolf, not because there wasn't a threat, but because they needed to draw enough attention to get the problem solved.

And there is a problem. There are almost no glaciers left in Glacier National Park. The peak of Mount Kilimanjaro is no longer covered in snows as it has always been. Venice is having to build a sea wall to protect itself against the rising ocean. We are losing chunks of the arctic ice shelf the size of states. E-mails or no e-mails, we need to be responsible. We need to clean our room. We need to do what we need to do.