By Peter Gleick, Ph.D | 31 August 2011
Anti-science ideology isn’t completely new in the U.S. — there is a dismaying history of irrational, pseudoscientific, or downright anti-scientific thinking and political culture here. But it seems to be gaining momentum — even as it runs counter to America’s scientific and technological strengths. Such strengths, in fact, underpin our economic and political strengths.
I’m not talking about honest scientific skepticism and questioning – indeed, that is the very basis of good science. I’m talking about a disturbing combination of two factors: political cowardice hiding behind scientific skepticism; and political pandering to special interests by rejecting science, knowledge, and reason in favor of ideology, religion, or narrow economic self-interest.
Sadly and with few brave exceptions, some politicians are active and aggressive at using false, misleading, or discredited science, or explicitly ignoring good science, in setting public policy to support ideology. History tells us this never leads to a good outcome. The Soviets let Lysenkoist ideology pollute their biological and genetic sciences in the 1930s, and they’ve never recovered. We saw it with the long, successful effort of the tobacco industry and their allies to confuse the public and delay regulations to protect public health, leading to millions of unnecessary cancer deaths. We saw it with the veto by Richard Nixon of the Clean Water Act (overridden with the help of some brave and influential Republican senators). And we see it now, in full flower, on the issue of climate change.
Here is what the science conclusively tells us: climate change is real, it is already underway, and it is largely due to human activities. These findings are acknowledged by every single major scientific organization in the areas of climate, meteorology, geology, physics, chemistry, atmospheric science, and hydrology, as well as every single National Academy of Sciences, including our own, created by Abraham Lincoln as an independent non-governmental organization to provide the best scientific advice to the government.
Scientific conclusions derive from an understanding of basic laws supported by laboratory experiments, observations of nature, and mathematical and computer modeling. Like all human beings, scientists make mistakes, but the scientific process is designed to find and correct them. This process is inherently adversarial — scientists build reputations and gain recognition not only for supporting conventional wisdom, but even more so for demonstrating that the scientific consensus is wrong and that there is a better explanation. That’s what Galileo, Pasteur, Darwin, and Einstein did. But when some conclusions have been thoroughly and deeply tested, questioned, and examined, they gain the status of “well-established theories” and are often spoken of as “facts.”
For instance, there is compelling scientific evidence that our planet is about 4.5 billion years old (the theory of the origin of Earth), that our universe was born from a single event about 14 billion years ago (the Big Bang theory), and that today’s organisms evolved from ones living in the past (the theory of evolution). Even as these are overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, fame still awaits anyone who could show these theories to be wrong. Climate change now falls into this category: there is compelling, comprehensive, and consistent objective evidence that humans are changing the climate in ways that threaten our societies and the ecosystems on which we depend.
By pretending that the science is bad, some politicians are trying to avoid the truly difficult policy debates that are their responsibility. And they are simultaneously using claims of budget problems to destroy the nation’s climate research capabilities and stop efforts to improve the science. For example, cuts in NOAA’s budget aimed at eliminating anything “climate” related are likely to lead to a gap in satellite coverage of extreme weather events — precisely the satellites that provided the data our meteorologists used to generate advances warnings for the extreme tornadoes and recent Hurricane Irene. For every $1 saved by delaying replacement satellites, society will face an estimated $3 to $5 in higher costs in the form of damages, injuries, deaths, and efforts to obtain data using other approaches — this is a false savings solely due to anti-climate ideology. And because of inaction on climate policy, uncontrolled climate changes are already beginning to impose serious costs on our economies: reductions in crop yields, extra impacts from extreme storm events, drought costs, and more.
Things have gotten so bad that the highly respected scientific journal Nature called these actions “fundamentally anti-science” and an example of “willful ignorance,” and said:
It is hard to escape the conclusion that the US Congress has entered the intellectual wilderness, a sad state of affairs in a country that has led the world in many scientific arenas for so long.
The problem is, in part, that acting to reduce the risks of human-caused climate change could lead to policies that are inconvenient for powerful vested economic interests. We thus see a very well-endowed carbon-fuel industry willing to spend vast sums of money to confuse the public, support politicians and organizations whose influence they can buy, malign scientists who speak out, and create alternative “science” that is rejected over and over by independent review and analysis. Rather than have an honest, albeit difficult policy debate about what should be done about climate change, they postpone that debate by trying to discredit the science.
There are some modest signs of a return to rationality and scientific integrity. In recent days, one candidate for President, John Huntsman of Utah, has spoken out on the need for integrity of science. He told ABC’s “This Week”:
When we take a position that isn’t willing to embrace evolution, when we take a position that basically runs counter to what 98 of 100 climate scientists have said, what the National Academy of Science has said about what is causing climate change and man’s contribution to it, I think we find ourselves on the wrong side of science, and, therefore, in a losing position.
He went on to call on the Republican Party to stop being antithetical to science: “I’m not sure that’s good for our future and it’s not a winning formula.” Ironically, this shouldn’t be news: Huntsman’s comments are only newsworthy in the context of the extreme anti-science positions taken by his colleagues.
It is time to reassert scientific integrity, logic, reason, and the scientific method in public policy. The public may have disagreements about matters of policy, but our elected representatives must not misuse, hide, or misrepresent science in service of political wars and ideological positions.
Dr. Peter H. Gleick is co-founder and President of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, California. He is an internationally recognized climate and water expert and works at the intersection of science and policy, including issues related to the integrity of science.
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