March 03, 2008

Is a conservative climate consensus possible?

If hard cases make bad law, soft science makes sensible politics even harder. The Climate Wars present legislators on both sides of the aisle with few certainties, among them that one side is prone to construe any human impact on climate as tantamount to Weather of Mass Destruction.

It does so with Hollywood’s full arsenal of special effects at it disposal, and makes its case using lines corny enough to make Captain Planet wince, yet the results seldom face scientific criticism. This stands in stark contrast with its token opposition, chosen for political reliability rather than scientific acumen, and scripted by conservative media often as scientifically impoverished as they are well funded. The result is that Republicans find themselves poorly armed and bizarrely outnumbered in the Climate Wars.

Where does this asymmetry come from? Even recusing all those with a stake in the outcome in the Climate Wars, there are still hundreds of thousands of scientists at large in America. Yet Fox and the other self-styled conservative media can find barely a dozen willing to put their scientific reputations at risk on demand. Those often seem a pretty underwhelming and unenthusiastic lot, for a reason as simple as their discourse tends to be infantile”€”deliberate appeal to authority instead of evidence is akin to a scientific death wish.

“Less scientific common sense is heard on the right today than in Reagan’s time.”

In science, as in politics, the truth that sets men free is seldom the one they want to hear. The conservative media’s most favored talking heads frequently adduce views by turns obsolete, tendentious, or just plain daft. If Conservative journalism at large perseveres in relying exclusively upon them, it risks becoming a 21st century scientific eyesore. Some already regard it as such because of websites regurgitating Yack Radio sound bites as “€œsound science.”€ This is a risky business, for while faith-based science op-eds may find their target in a demographic of Fox viewers who last saw a science text in junior high, they tend to repel adults who invest in today’s technical economy.

Less scientific common sense is heard on the right today than in Reagan’s time. Many of the talking scientific heads on both sides seem more interested in trading truth for influence than speaking truth to power. Though presentable to the point of being, well, lawyerly, those on the right by and large lack a first-rate scientific constituency and show as little stomach for debating the facts in a serious scientific forum as Al Gore”€”who appeared before an audience of 12,000 earth scientists in San Francisco last year only to skedaddle the minute he finished his 1001st performance of The Speech.

Those demanding Gore debate, like Steve Milloy, should be exhorted to sally forth and mix it up at meetings that afford an open forum for controversy. But peer review cuts both ways. I must I accept Milloy’s protest that it is unfair to write he refuses to debate his scientific views, what there is of them. I”€™d love to see him enliven Association of Science Writers meetings and appear on NOVA in a warm Moyeresque colloquy with different climate modeler each month.

His cohort is wise to keep a low academic profile, for the burlesque of climatology on Milloy’s Orwellian “€œJunk Science”€ website would not stand an ice cube’s chance in hell of surviving scientific cross examination. Finding their polemics un-publishable in the face of peer review, some contrarians have scandalously opted to found, or co-opt, journals of their own, just as Creationists do, and for the same reason”€”to avoid the rigorous reality check that peer review affords.

The reluctance of the fringes in the Science Wars to come out and fight tends to polarize the apolitical scientific center. Absent intellectually serious Republicans, scientific professionals on websites like RealClimate have only Democrats with whom to discuss policy. It is hard to break this cycle because the most predictable contrarians long ago self-destructed on TV. In contrast, environmentalists have stayed on message ever since Frank Capra turned from Cold War to global warming propaganda in 1958.


What little scientific street cred the “€œglobal warming skeptics”€ brought to the debate evaporated in the heat of a long string of (un-peer reviewed) articles like “€œMeltdown for Global Warming Science”€.

“€œBombshell papers have just hit the refereed literature that knock the stuffing out of the United Nations, and its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In two research papers in…Geophysical Research Letters…we have a quarter-century of concurrent balloon and satellite data, both screaming that the U.N.’s climate models have failed, as well as indicating its surface record is simply too hot.”€

Authors Singer & Michaels were dead wrong”€”the satellite data they cited was seriously in error”€”the climatologist responsible agreed to its retraction in Science in 2005 and told Newsweek in 2006: “€œour satellite trend has been positive.”€

Canada has contributed to K Street climatology as conspicuously, and controversially, as NeoCans have to White House speechwriting. With barely concealed deference to the tar sand industry, Dr. Robert Ball has responded to Green polemics with an unnatural alliance of astrophysicists, economists, and climate modelers, responding to the IPCC report with such works as “€œPolar bears of western Hudson Bay and climate change.”€ While normative science accepts citation in peer-reviewed journals as the ultimate measure of success or failure, the Natural Resources Stewardship Project has another view:

“€œA measure of Dr. Ball’s impact was seen recently when, after one of his pieces was featured on the Drudge Report a leading on-line news service, he received approximately 1,000 e-mails from the general public during the next 24 hours.”€


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