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The Negligents

BY BEN ZAITCHIK
12.07.2006 | SCIENCE

In November, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in their first case concerning global warming, Massachusetts vs. EPA. Not surprising anyone, Justice Scalia's attitude toward the very subject of climate change proved to be one of smarmy disregard. It was more surprising, however, when Justice Kennedy admitted that he too was confused about the issue. When told that the court needn't address scientific questions of climate change, he asked: "Don't we have to do that in order to decide the standing argument, because there's no injury if there's not global warming?"

How did it come to pass that a man of Kennedy's influence and erudition could think there was still scientific uncertainty surrounding the fact of anthropogenic warming? The answer to that question begins with the American media. More specifically, it begins in our journalism schools.

Somewhere in J-school they teach you how to write about science. The template looks something like this:

  • "Researchers at X University have found that Y leads to Z."
  • "Professor K, chair of the department, says that ‘this discovery brings together P and Q showing us that S and T.'"
  • "But not all scientists are convinced. Dr. L, of the Institute of Concerned Experts, claims that Y and Z are unrelated.
  • "All sides agree that there is a need for more research."
Generally speaking, there's nothing much wrong with this formulation. Science is a discipline defined by discovery and dissent, and it is useful to inform the popular audience that both exist. Besides, in most cases, it really doesn't matter who's right at a given moment. Scientific progress is incremental, and disagreements over single studies are resolved or ignored as research proceeds. Passions may flare at esoteric scientific meetings, but it is adequate for the popular press to sketch the ideas, frame the debate, and offer teasers on emerging knowledge.

But the formula is not adequate in all applications. If the findings of Professor K have urgent implications for society, then it is important for policy makers and the public to understand the full weight of Dr. L's criticism. The greater the potential urgency of the topic, the more likely it is that Professor K or Dr. L is guided by non-scientific interests. In these situations the template for writing about science can be manipulated to give the illusion of scientific debate where no controversy exists. It's a simple manipulation, and the most valued qualities of scientific thought -- vigilant skepticism and honest uncertainty estimates -- make it easy for critics to obscure a socially important conclusion. The rigorous scientist can say very few things with certainty, while the skilled contrarian knows how to exploit this to maximize confusion.

Climate change science isn't the only victim of an organized contrarian attack. Another firmly established scientific idea, Darwinian evolution, has suffered the same manipulation for years. In both cases the anti-scientific group has cloaked itself in the robes of "skepticism" while stonewalling the advance of scientific understanding into the classroom and the Congress. The claim to skepticism is a powerful rhetorical stance -- skepticism (Greek: skeptomai, to look about, to consider), after all, is an admirable quality. The Creationist claim is generally recognized to be weak; they are more strongly associated with Fundamentalism than they are with skepticism.

But climate change "skeptics" have managed to hold the term, when their denial of change would more accurately be described as negligence (Latin: ne-, legenda, not reading). Where a skeptical argument would be grounded in creative research, climate negligence is all about willful ignorance. Their partially scientific rhetoric is designed to sow just enough doubt to slow public demand for action to mitigate climate change. As long as they succeed at this, popular concern is unlikely to lead to meaningful changes in policy.

In the fog of scientific jargon it can be difficult to spot this negligent rhetoric for what it is. Take a step back, though, and climate Negligism looks a lot like Creationism. They both do textbook anti-science, and we should be able to dismiss the Negligent's claim to a "scientific debate" as easily as we dismiss biblical stories from biology class.

* * *

Evolution is a messy business. Mutations, pandemics, extinctions, refugee populations, developmental dead-ends, nature red in tooth and claw. Given the enormous diversity of evolutionary processes and outcomes, the difficulty of drawing evidence from a sparse fossil record, and the surprises that accompany each new discovery, the honest student of evolution finds herself bloodied every now and again. The science of evolution is not unique in this regard -- all empirically based fields encounter the occasional anomaly that takes long hours to explain. Think Freakonomics. Think Pluto. It's part of the game.

As evolutionary scientists have known for some time, however, the game takes on a very different tone in their field. Whenever a bump is encountered, or a step modifies previous understanding, a pack of fresh-of-the-ark wolves descends, pointing to the temporary contradiction in data as the Achilles heel of the entire godless enterprise. Four specific tactics are utilized:

  1. The claim that the simple explanation is best.
  2. The "missing link" as evidence of poor science.
  3. The counter-example.
  4. The cabal.
These tactics work the same way for Negligism as they do for Creationism.

1. Simplicity

This argument is effective because it is intuitive. Evolutionary science itself relies on the simplifying principle of "parsimony": in the absence of compelling counter-evidence, the evolutionary reconstruction requiring the fewest steps is deemed the most likely to be true. When invoked by Creationists, however, the simplicity argument is used to destroy rational explanation, not to develop it. The speaker will generally pick a particularly convoluted segment of evolutionary history, and then laundry-list evidence, counter-evidence, arguments in favor, arguments against, debates on detail, on origin, on fidelity of data, problems of chronology, the cacophony of competing papers in the scientific literature... then he will pause. Theatrically. And dismiss the indignities of science in favor of the simple truth of divine creation.

Negligents do the same thing, right down to the dramatic pause. To be fair, descriptions of Earth's climate do make one pause; it's a complex system full of non-linear feedbacks, and our understanding is far from complete. This makes the simplicity argument fertile ground for the Negligent. He or she will correctly, if disingenuously, point out that CO2 alone can't possibly warm the planet as much as it has warmed in the past century. On top of that, fossil fuel emissions have been consistent while warming has occurred in irregular jumps... how could the two possibly be related? These criticisms hinge on a willful over-simplification of climate change. The problem is that it's necessary to engage the complexity of the system in order to respond. Overall warming, for example, depends heavily on water vapor feedbacks induced by elevated CO2; no scientist would ever claim that the climate responds to CO2 alone. Much of the jumpiness of temperature rise, meanwhile, appears to be related to aerosols and other known climate components. If an informed audience member raises these points then the "skeptic" leaps into action, hands waving, inveighing on the lay public not to trust such complex voodoo.

2. The Missing Link

The missing link criticism adopts the best of scientific curiosity -- "explain to me exactly how this works" -- in order to undermine the development of scientific understanding. Until our observations of any natural phenomenon are perfect, theory will be called upon to fill gaps in the empirical record. This is particularly necessary in the case of evolution, since the fossil record will never be complete for all lineages and will, in fact, only decay further with time. These imperfections present a series of exciting challenges to an evolutionary scientist, or to any thinker who might attempt a non-Darwinian explanation of phenomena. To the religious literalist, they're just an excuse to reject rationalism: how can you claim that humans are related to monkeys if you can't find a common ancestor? And if you can't do that, how can you claim to know anything at all about the history of life?

The missing link complaint plays out a little differently in climate change than it does in evolution, but the manipulation is the same: rather than work to close known gaps in observation that would have the power to support or reject the hypothesis in question, use the absence of information itself as a rhetorical weapon. MIT professor Richard Lindzen -- and Cato Institute favorite -- is a master of the technique. Any point of theory that has ever wanted for observational support has made it into his PowerPoint presentation. Whenever observations catch up with theory on a certain point -- historic temperature trends, for example -- the presentation gets a little shorter. I've caught the Lindzen tour three times, so I've seen a number of beautifully crafted slides disappear. A recent loss pertained to the vertical profile of warming in the atmosphere. I'd heard Lindzen harp on this one before ("How can CO2 possibly be responsible for warming, when our observations don't show warming at the right height?"), so I was surprised when it didn't come up at a recent talk. Maybe it had something to do with two papers, recently published in Science, that reconciled the apparent gap between theory and observation (1,2). Apparently Lindzen has read the papers, but he hasn't had time to incorporate their findings into his presentation -- he does have a busy speaking schedule, after all -- so now he just ignores the topic. His reassuring Negligent conclusions remain unchanged.

3. Counter-example

The third technique is bread-and-butter stuff for Creationists. Given the sheer number of species known to exist in the present and the discovered past, there are bound to be some weirdoes. Some defy present explanation, others simply have not been examined. This gives the creationist a bottomless bag of rhetorical devices to hurl at evolutionary theory. When one is taken away, by a new fossil find or a hopelessly obscure PhD project, he'll simply reach into the bag for another freak. In essence, this is argument by anecdote. It's the last refuge of the data-defeated (well, actually tactic four is the last refuge, but we'll get there in a minute).

The counter-example has obvious application to those promoting climate Negligence, precisely because modern climate records are so rich. Globally, there are over 8,000 weather stations that report daily data to the U.S. Climate Diagnostics Center. And guess what? It's not warming everywhere. Now this would hardly be surprising even if the hypothesis of global warming depended on uniform warming of the entire globe -- we'd expect a few stations with cooling simply due to instrument malfunction and local variability. But no reasonable scenario of anthropogenic warming involves uniform warming of the entire globe. It is well understood that significant portions of the planet will experience negligible warming, or even cooling for some time due to changes in ocean currents and atmospheric circulations. Polar regions, for example, are expected to warm more than low latitude regions, due in large part to feedbacks associated with melting ice sheets. Warming in the North Atlantic, meanwhile, may be offset for some time by the input of cold fresh water off of the melting Greenland ice sheet.

So it's child's play to drag up a few weather station records that show a cooling trend. Plot it up in Excel and you've got a great slide for your next keynote address. It's best to pair the slide with a puzzled wrinkling of the brow. I enjoyed such a performance recently from a German Negligent who, for some reason, thought it most appropriate to test his global sunspot theory for climate change using data from a single weather station record in northern England. His statistics still weren't very good, but the Excel graph impressed some economists in the audience. Incredulity with a German accent is potent stuff.

4. Cabal

Finally, the play to paranoid populism: evolution is a rouse dreamed up by a cabal of self-interested scientists that is only after your taxpayer dollars and probably the souls of your children as well. The logic behind this argument is impeccable in all applications. Who benefits from acceptance of evolutionary theory but the very people who make their dishonest living by talking about it? There is a vast conspiracy of lab geeks who chortle at the ignorance of the lay public while quaffing $6 microbrews at their favorite Cambridge pub.

It sounds like a Michael Crichton novel, but it's not. It's his Congressional testimony.

Michael Crichton has made a lucrative career of animating vain, amoral scientists who put personal glory ahead of social and scientific responsibility. These are entertaining stories. They also involve genetically engineered dinosaurs and swarms of evil nanobots. I assume he briefed Congress on those topics as well. Somewhere in the fog of celebrity-induced self-worship, Crichton has taken to preaching the gospel against climate change research, garnering innumerable speaking engagements, an award in "journalism" from the oil industry, and however many millions of dollars he netted from State of Fear. On his website he warns, "the intermixing of science and politics is a bad combination [sic]." Apparently the intermixing of science-fiction and politics presents no such concern.

Crichton's scientific points against climate change are anemic. The strength of his appeal on the issue is that he questions the authority of the scientific establishment. He appears to be genuinely concerned that a cabal of powerful professors and bureaucrats has silenced scientific debate in order to hoard grant money for themselves and to soak in the glory of the NPR circuit.

The cabal complaint is strange for at least two reasons. First, if Crichton had written 30 years ago then his hero would be facing "intimidation" in the other direction. Scientific consensus, such as it existed, was against anthropogenic warming, and it was the proponents of the theory who spoke out against conventional wisdom. In fact, it was just last year that Jim Hansen, a NASA scientist, was silenced by political appointees within the agency after he reported some alarming results about anthropogenic climate effects. Second, the surest way to scientific stardom is to tear down an existing understanding. Even if economic and political powers really did align behind the theory of climate change -- which they most certainly have not -- the cabal would leak badly as curious and ambitious young scientists sought to prove their star value by demolishing the fabricated consensus. "Oh no!" say the Negligees, "they're much too afraid of losing their grant money." The claim that research grants cause more corruption than oil money is, shall we say, non-intuitive.

* * *

I'd like to pitch the following story to Michael Crichton. Imagine a world in which wealth and power depend on a magical substance found deep under the earth. Then, imagine that this substance was found to cause floods, disease, and severe drought. Fearing popular retribution, the wealthy and powerful deny the findings. Studies on the danger of the substance are cast into doubt, their authors are charged with alarmism and corruption. The public is confused -- and reassured. Of course, all the while the harmful qualities of the substance continue to act, with increasingly costly effects. Members of the corporations insulate themselves from the danger with canny investments that perpetuate their extreme wealth. Even when the worst predictions are recognized, the propaganda machine continues to churn, assuring victims that their fate was natural and unavoidable.

I know; it's a crazy story. It is also the point at which the analogy between Creationism and climate Negligism breaks down. As far as I can tell, Creationists aren't profiteers. The key advocates of Negligism are. Profiteers invented the idea, and profiteers ensure its publicity. In legal terms, these are the "willful" Negligents. Then there are those who profit indirectly, whose cynical stance on climate change has won them notoriety and influence. These scientists and authors could be described as "carelessly" or "neglectfully" Negligent. Finally, there are the dupes. Hobbyists, politicians, and contrarians who believe the propaganda and use whatever influence they have to further the profiteers' agenda. Call them the "inattentive" Negligents.

The analogy between the science of evolution and the science of anthropogenic climate change also has its limits. Perhaps most important, the two fields differ in the nature of discovery. Evolutionists enjoy nothing more than confirming their discoveries with tangible evidence. Scientists of anthropogenic climate change, in contrast, need to use their discoveries to stop further physical confirmation of the theory. The more evidence we allow to accumulate, the less we'll be able to do about it. The Negligents know this. Every article that takes them seriously, every conference that invites them to speak, every policy brief that includes their testimony, is a victory for the profiteers at the expense of society. We need real debates: debates about priorities, about opportunities, and about mitigation. The illusion of scientific disagreement acts to postpone these debates, and to drop climate change from the political agenda. It's criminal negligence.

About the Author
Ben Zaitchik is a climate scientist living in Baltimore, Maryland.
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