How did objectivity itself become partisan?

I’m not quite sure how this thought came into my mind. I was angry about what Mark Steyn is regularly allowed to write in Maclean’s (Peter Sinclair, if you’re reading, you should really use his columns as case studies for your videos – this is the most popular news magazine in Canada). Then I read his Wikipedia page and discovered that he regularly appears on Rush Limbaugh, writes for the National Post, and gets awards from Fox News. Somehow that made my anger diminish, as I started to look at his articles as case studies rather than as a reporter from a magazine I’ve grown up with. His climatology arguments are easily invalidated by the cooling stratosphere as well as tracking the warming over decades rather than years – just like S. Fred Singer. Singer’s writing doesn’t make me mad anymore, because it’s a case study, not a source.

Then I got distracted wondering what would happen to the temperature of the stratosphere if the planet was experiencing an aerosol-induced cooling. That sort of energy balance mechanism fascinates me, but I couldn’t figure it out.

Eventually I got back to politics and the media, and I started wondering how climate science became a partisan issue. It’s math and physics when you boil it all down, just like any other physical science – the very subjects which are, ideally, the pinnacles of objectivity. At what point did the public perception of the objectivity of climatology fall apart?

I trust scientists, and I trust science more than any other field to guide my decisions, so maybe I’m expecting that everyone else would feel the same way. But if I was confused about the link between the ozone hole and Antarctic temperatures, my first reaction would not be to declare that both ozone depletion and climate change were “religion, not science”. My first reaction would be to assume that I did not fully understand, and that the scientists had covered all of my misconceptions long ago. Then I would go to Google Scholar, rather than writing an erroneous editorial in a major national magazine.

However, when one frames their own scientific misconceptions as a conservative viewpoint of climate science, the more informed message of those who work in the field and keep up to date with the literature is cast as “liberal”. Then the artificial balance complex of the mainstream media kicks in. Equal time is given to contrasting conclusions, rather than to the most accurate and conscientious arguments. Space is allocated based on the ends (conclusions) rather than the means (methods and analysis).

Science is so fundamentally different from everything else the media reports. In politics and religion and musical tastes, there is no right and wrong. But in science, there is a right and wrong – at least hypothetically. We know there’s a physical truth out there, and we’re always striving to come closer to it.

The fallacies of the mainstream media make it incredibly easy to create a controversy where there is none. You can get away with misconceptions or outright lies (any guesses on how Steyn finished the phrase “hide the decline in….”?), as long as you frame it as a partisan opinion.


16 thoughts on “Partisan

  1. The science is still just the science. But groups will get partisan against the science any time the science reaches a conclusion that partisans don’t like for their partisan reasons.

    Evolution is an enormously well-supported chunk of science, but certain religious groups feel threatened by it, so it becomes ‘political’ to teach a well-understood and well-supported part of science. Various political and economic groups feel threatened by the science on climate, so they react in partisan ways against the science, and it becomes ‘political’ to observe that temperatures are higher now than 100 years ago, or that CO2 is a greenhouse gas — points that have no disagreement in the science. I’ve never figured out what the anti-vaccinationists are feeling threatened about. Reduced chance of their kids dying before they’re 10? And this threatens them … how? In any case, they react with the same language and tactics as the other sorts.

    In any of the cases, the operating principle is that they feel that reality should conform to what they wish it were. If they don’t like evolution, or climate change, or vaccination, then such things can’t be true. Period. Further, since they are drawing their conclusions based on what they want to be true, they also can’t envision that you’re doing anything different. They have a religious/political/economic reason to reach their conclusion, so you must have one as well. And, naturally, you must be up to religious/political/economic evil for disagreeing with their religion. That you’re trying to deal as best possible with your best understanding of what’s real — regardless of whether you like what turns out to be real — is a mystery.

    Now not everyone who doesn’t understand the science on evolution, climate, or vaccination is there because of this sort of conviction. They may just not have read much of the science, or realized just how much there really is. In an article that will appear at my place on Wednesday I take up a related issue.

    [Wow, this conversation is getting interesting already. I look forward to reading the post on Wednesday, I’ve been thinking about that topic a lot myself. -Kate]

  2. Excellent post (and co-incidentally, I’ve been consumed with a related question for quite some time, and plan on beginning serious research on the subject soon). Although, in the interests of honesty, I wouldn’t say science knows right and wrong. It knows “not yet wrong”, “wrong”, and “not even wrong”. Of course, this is somewhat too subtle a distinction to present in a sound bite (pay no attention to my attempt to do just that), so good luck getting that point across to the media and public.

    We know, thanks to Oreskes’ investigative work (and I’m anxiously waiting for May…) during the early days of the George C. Marshall Institute that journalistic “balance” was deliberately exploited for ideological means (promoting Reagan’s missile defense programs). This wasn’t necessarily partisan (I don’t have hard data to back this up, but I have a hard time buying that all the scientists opposed to it did so on political grounds), but it had all of the hallmarks needed to extend to partisanship.

    Of course, once you have any signs of conflict whatsoever, the media’s all over it – especially in recent times. (Dr. Andrew Weaver, in a recent talk at my campus, captured this perfectly in a form that cannot be adequately represented in text: he somehow managed to “baaa” the word “scandal”.) If you have thousands of scientists all agreeing on something, it isn’t as interesting as thousands agreeing and three dissenting. And, of course, if you’re one of the three dissenting, your chances of getting to speak to the media are widely amplified. If you use the opportunity to make a partisan statement – or show your ideological underpinnings and claim suppression – the argument becomes political whether the issue at hand is or isn’t.

    While it’s easy to blame the media for this (and believe me, I do, frequently and with great gusto, often with disregard for social norms), I don’t think the blame stops there. The only reason this works with scientific problems is also the main reason why we notice it: people who don’t think like scientists (or understand science) don’t realize how it’s different from everything else. This is probably part of the reason why anti-science zealots compare it with religion (something generally easier to understand in a “truthiness” sense), and is also undoubtedly one of the reasons why science-minded people can see through this for what it is immediately. (By “science-minded” I don’t mean “generally in favor of science” – people like that seem to assume science is synonymous with technology. I mean people who really understand the scientific method and think critically.) If people assume science is like everything else because they don’t understand it well enough to see why it isn’t, then they’re easily misled into the same cognitive traps that hit everyone on regular issues. (My favorite example of this is actually a false compromise: on social issues, if you’re presented position A and position B, you tend to assume the answer is somewhere in between them automatically. In science, what matters is the weight behind the two positions, not what they are directly. Theistic evolution is a great example of this: all of science points to evolution by natural selection, a small group of zealots point to pure God-driven creation, and people who hear both seem to conclude that God’s driving evolution (or some variation on that theme), regardless of the weight behind the positions.)

    (I had more to say on this, but I realized partway through that this is getting overlong and my thesis kind of dissolved past this point (read: NyQuil kicked in), so I’ll end it here, hoping some of that was coherent.)

  3. Recently I have begun to read Randy Shilts “And the Band Played On”. This book gives an overview of the hellishly poor response of the United States Government and people to the advent of the AIDS epidemic. In a review of the HBO movie based on the book John Woodcock stated that at that time, during the Reagan Administration, “science’s high standards for proof repeatedly gave” those uninterested in taking action “a repectable-seeming cover for their reluctance to deal with AIDS.” The parallels to the climate change problem in terms of failure to take needed action, and even to acknowledge the dictates of good science seem obvious to me.

    An added difficulty during AIDS crisis in the United States, resulting from the fact that AIDS first appeared in the male homosexual population, was that many people viewed this as being irrelevant to their lives because it was seemingly only effecting the gays. The medical doctors investigating the problem understood that an infectious agent does not care one iota how it is introduced into the blood stream of its host. A sexually transmissible disease can be spread by transfusion, homosexual sex, or heterosexual sex. Nature does not care about our political scruples, but unfortunately for too many years people refused to recognise this fact. Sadly this included those with authority over the blood supply. The inevitable result was that many people, including the late Issac Asimov, contracted the HIV virus and subsequently died. The refusal to recognise the problem of contaminated blood infecting and killing people was of course motivated at least in part by the recognition that it would cost money to solve the problem.

    Once more we have a situation where our politics, our morals, and our prejudices are leading us towards a disaster, and who is advocating a position based on willful ignorance?

    You know who.

  4. Dear Robert,

    In my experience the majority of concern amongst parents who have not vaccinated their children stems from a correlation being made between increasing rates of autism and increased vaccination of children. I have heard the claim that in 1980 children were given something like 8 vaccines whereas in 2000 the number of diseases being vaccinated against was in the neighborhood of 22. During this same time period the number of children being diagnosed as being autistic has steadily increased. Some have atributed this to the use of thiomersal which contains mercury in many vaccines. I do not give this notion credence, particularly as the use of thiomersal has largely been phased out, but I am not inclinded to treat these peoples concerns with scorn.

    My sister is a teacher who attempts to teach profoundly autistic children to function, and she has encountered people who have concerns with vaccination. I imagine any parent who has a child with autism would want to know why their child was autistic, and what if anything could prevent the same happening to any other children they had. I don’t know that you could call these concerns political, religious, or economic. Except if a wish that your child not be harmed could be so characterized. There are those who are Christian Scientists who do refuse to imunize their children for what are religious scruples, but they are by no means the only people doing so. The answer is both to educate parents, and to fund further research into why the number of autistic children continues to grow, whether it be an artifact of better diagnosis or a real increase in the phenomena.

  5. Robert,

    Just to be clear, I have only met three of these people with concerns about vaccinating there children; which is not a very large sample.


    [Are you a doctor? You sound like you have some experience with patient’s concerns. -Kate]

  6. Why are we so bad at assessing relative risk?

    A bus for special people is not allowed to lock the rear door so it cannot be opened from the inside because it is an emergency exit and the bus might crash and burn. But the risk of burning is minute, the risk of a special person exiting while the bus is in motion approaches certainty if the door can be unlocked from the inside. (In the end a different bus was the only answer)

    The medical profession tries to portray vaccination as risk free, after telling you it can kill you. Vaccination is not risk free, but the risks are far less than the diseases vaccinated against.

    The risk that global warming will prove more than catastrophic if we fail to act in no way balanced by a short term risk to the economy. Yet the money is more concerned about the economic threat.

    Money has definitely not got global warming. The few places that will be habitable later this century cost less to buy into than places whose habitability is already threatened.

  7. I’m sceptical about vaccination scares: they seem to be linked to a particular country, even when other countries use the same vaccine.

    “Before we begin, it’s worth taking a moment to look at vaccine scares around the world, because I’m always struck by how circumscribed these panics are. The MMR and autism scare, for example, is practically non-existent outside Britain. But throughout the 1990s France was in the grip of a scare that hepatitis B vaccine caused multiple sclerosis.

    In the US, the major vaccine fear has been around the use of a preservative called thiomersal, although somehow this hasn’t caught on here, even though that same preservative was used in Britain. In the 1970s there was a widespread concern in the UK, driven again by a single doctor, that whooping-cough vaccine was causing neurological damage.”

  8. I just want to say thanks to Patrick for the AIDS history parallel. Which actually goes a bit further, sort of, in that the bathhouses were serving as conduits for spread of the disease, just as journo-nihilism and unmoderated comments sections and even (somewhat) the American Meteorological Society are doing today, in that they’re serving to spread ignorance and misinformation about the problem.

    (The AMS, in that folks like Watts continue to invoke their AMS Seal of Approval while promulgating climate disinformation)

  9. Great post and comments. I have been discussing AGW with some friends who all seem to think it’s all a great big hoax.

    What I have learned in all this is that the 6 or so friends I discuss this with all attack the science and not what they are really upset about: Cap And Trade

    I find it interesting that they do this. I ask them why they are attacking science and not policy. They don’t seem to have an answer except to say that science and policy are deeply connected. Sheesh. They also just keep saying things like:

    Used tricks to hide the decline.
    Bullying and suppression of dissenting point of views.
    Manipulating the peer-review process.
    Disappointment over their not being able to predict the cooling trend.
    Proof that their statistical modeling is deeply flawed.

    I wonder why they don’t admit it is not the scientists they have a problem with… it’s the proposed policy: Cap And Trade

    So I keep asking them to please attack Cap And Trade if they don’t like it… not the science. Two different things… It’s so frustrating…

    [The thing is, if you accept the science and admit how serious climate change really is, but refuse to do anything about it, it makes you look like you don’t care about the future or other people. Denying the science as your rationale for refusing policy makes you appear to have a lot more integrity. Except, of course, to the scientists.

    The CRU emails look a LOT different in context….10 years of emails have a lot of context. If your friends don’t want to slug through all 3000 of them, they shouldn’t be commenting. -Kate]

  10. To make a joke on this serious issue, i think that anybody who can’t think on relative terms should be banned from commenting science, as the great Einstein said:”Everything is relative”. This leads to the exclusion of decision-makers, as they have a say only on votes “yes” or “no”, that is the politicians, company leaderships, judges and lawyers, as all these have to make a decision of thumbs up or down. All polls concerning science should have only gradable answers to most specific questions, or leave a room to explain why the question wasn’t properly formed. This of course makes fast action impossible. I’m just a bit concerned that the drill seargent Mother Nature gives us a team punishment for not taking action fast enough, when we discuss each other what the possible ‘suicide factors’ in the mission are.

  11. The history of denial in the realm of AIDS is an ongoing story. In America there are numerous individuals who’s stories are emblamatic of the lengths which people will go to in defending a position.

    An interesting example is author Christine Maggiore (What if Everything You Thought You Knew About AIDS Was Wrong) who was diagnosed with HIV in 1992. Maggiore’s daughter Eliza Jane, who she breast fed, died of what was diagnosed as HIV related pnemonia in 2005. Eliza Jane was three years old at the time of her death. Christine Maggiore also founded the group Alive And Well AIDS Alternatives.

    Her group is alive and well but she is not.

    Maggiore died of bilateral pneumonia on the 27th of December 2008. She was suffering from oral candidasis at the time. Both of these conditions are typical amongst those with HIV infection.

    I have no doubt that there are those amongst her supporters who will tell us that corelation is not causality, or words to that effect.

    The death of her daughter was reported on by the LA Times on
    24 September 2005.

    Her death was reported on by the LA Times on 30 December 2008, and once more on 3 January 2009.

    None of this is amusing to me.

  12. Aack.

    Once again, Michael Tobis manages to be (apparently, completely independently) scooping your topics. Quoth his most recent post:

    In legal and political circumstances, the opposition really is not just seeking the triumph of their ideas, they are seeking the triumph of their ideas irrespective of truth. That is, winning the battle is what counts; the actual validity of their position is secondary and the prospect of shifting sides under the weight of evidence is nil.

    What’s missing to link this to this topic is simple: Regular people are familiar with legal proceedings and political proceedings through the media and through their everyday lives. Often, they only see science through the fruits of research (i.e. technology, usually at a consumer level) rather than the research itself. While they have basic exposure to all of these through social studies / civics and science class in high school, only the reinforced bits tend to stick around.

    Thus, science would rather be right than win, while this attitude is alien to everyone else, who’d rather win than be right. There’s also a documented tendency to default to familiar, well-learned responses in stressful situations (although I’m not sure if this is applicable here; I’ll do some reading next week). When confronted with an issue and forced to take a stand, then, people thus reframe purely scientific arguments in the perspective of a familiar legal or political battle, at which point a clear us-vs-them (plaintiff/defendant in legal terms, partisan in political) divide develops naturally. The rest follows from proceeding along a political script rather than a scientific one – but the reason that script’s in use at all is, perhaps, due to familiarity.

    If this is the case, then there may be a renewed case for science journalism. If people are drawn to familiar scripts, an average audience must necessarily base some of that familiarity on media coverage (lots of politics on the news, legal dramas both real and fictional, and so on – all more common than Cosmos), since they lack firsthand experience with them. Thus, science journalism may help in building familiarity with the subject. (Of course, the problem is simple: How to make science interesting without losing the critical part of the story here. Mythbusters probably comes closest by focusing on explosions and editing the rigor, but I think we can all admit it’s no Cosmos.)

    You’ll notice, of course, that scientific literacy renders the science-style perspective more familiar (down to second nature for true scientists), and thus (if this view is correct) less likely to think of the issues in political terms when scientific ones will do. The big problem with this viewpoint is that some scientifically-trained people (especially of a libertarian bent) can be staunchly antiscience, politicizing every scientific issue if it intersects with their ideology. I don’t have a complete explanation here, except to suggest that they already see things politically second-nature, possibly due to the constant struggling they have to do when searching for self-determination. This part is just a post-hoc guess, though.

  13. … If your friends don’t want to slug through all 3000 of them, they shouldn’t be commenting. -Kate]

    Eh, 1073 to be precise. The 3000 (?) includes files, apparently email attachments stored separately.

    And about context, there’s the emails that were stolen but not included in the set. Do the math: how many mails would you send/receive over 13 years?

  14. Kate,

    I am sure I posted this before but a very good answer to your question can be found in Kahan et al (2007):

    The Second National Risk and Culture Study: Making Sense of – and Making Progress In – The American Culture War of Fact

    The study shows that individuals subconsciously resist factual information that threatens their defining values. The authors conclude:

    “Individuals’ expectations about the policy solution to global warming strongly influences their willingness to credit information about climate change. When told the solution to global warming is increased antipollution measures, persons of individualistic and hierarchic worldviews become less willing to credit information suggesting that global warming exists, is caused by humans, and poses significant societal dangers. Persons with such outlooks are more willing to credit the same information when told the solution to global warming is increased reliance on nuclear power generation.”

    In their 2008 national survey titled A Deeper Partisan Divide Over Global Warming, The Pew Center for the People & the Press show that only 27% of Republicans believe that global warming is being caused by humans compared to 58% of Democrats. Even more disturbing, only 19% of Republican college graduates say that there is solid evidence that the earth is warming and it is caused by human activity compared to 88% of Democrats who are college graduates.

  15. Note today’s news: Andrew Weaver is leaving IPCC.
    He tells us “its approach to science should be overhauled.” He claims, “the (IPCC) process has taken on a life of its own” and become “tainted by advocacy.”

    [I found that story here – keep in mind, though, it is from CanWest News Service. He has some fair criticisms of the IPCC, but where did you find that he is leaving? It doesn’t say that anywhere. -Kate]

    [Update: Andrew Weaver wrote an editorial here about how his criticisms were grossly misrepresented in the CanWest piece. -Kate]

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