Legislating Scientific Truth

Cross-posted from NextGen Journal

Scientific statements rely on uncertainty and error bars. If our understanding changes, the scientific consensus changes accordingly, in a more or less implicit manner. There’s no official process that needs to be followed to update our knowledge.

Laws passed by governments work in the opposite way. Official technicalities are paramount, and acknowledgements that the government’s understanding could be wrong are rare.

Why, then, are attempts to legislate scientific truth – an archaic practice to any reasonable person – becoming far more common in the United States?

One of the most early, and infamous, incidents of this manner occurred in 1897, when the government of Indiana attempted to legislate the value of pi (∏). The text of the bill, describing a circle, clearly says “the ratio of the diameter and circumference is as five-fourths to four”. If you do a bit of simple fractional algebra, this comes out to ∏ = 3.2, rather than 3.1415952…and so on. The scary part is that this bill passed the House without a single nay vote. Luckily, it was postponed in the Senate indefinitely.

More recently – in fact, just last month – Joe Read, a member of the Montana House of Representatives, penned a bill that is equally disturbing. Let’s take a look at what he is planning to turn into state law:

“The legislature finds:

(a) global warming is beneficial to the welfare and business climate of Montana;

(b) reasonable amounts of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere have no verifiable impacts on the environment; and

(c) global warming is a natural occurrence and human activity has not accelerated it.”

At least ∏ = 3.2 was moderately close to the correct value. This bill, however, proclaims exactly the opposite of what the scientific consensus tells us. I would argue that it is even more dangerous. A fundamental constant that is 0.1 or so inaccurate could cause a couple buildings to fall down in Indiana, but a law that orders the government to believe the opposite of what the scientific community says – a law that outright denies any possibility of a problem which, if not addressed, will likely harm the citizens of Montana for generations to come – could cause political ripples leading to mass destruction.

It looks like a case of government officials burying their heads in the sand, refusing to acknowledge a problem because the solutions are politically problematic. The physical world, though, does not obey the Thomas Theorem, a sociological theory of self-fulfilling prophecies. No matter how passionately people like Joe Read believe that climate change is natural/nonexistent/a global conspiracy, the problem won’t go away. In fact, it’s more of an inverse prophecy: if enough politicians refuse to acknowledge the reality of climate change, no action will be taken to address it, and the problem will get worse. It doesn’t seem like Joe Read et al have thought through this line of logic, though. Peter Sinclair wittily describes their mindset as “[s]o simple. Just pass a law. Command the seas to stop rising.”

Dana Nuccitelli goes one step further, claiming “Republicans have decided that they can repeal the laws of physics with the laws of the USA”. In this instance, he is referring to a second, similar, bill that the Republican Party is attempting to pass, this time at the federal level. Basically, Republicans are desperate to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from regulating  greenhouse gas emissions – which they have the authority to do, under the Clean Air Act, as they can “reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare”.

There are two ways to take away this responsibility of the EPA. First, Congress could create a system of their own to control emissions, such as cap-and-trade or a carbon tax – both more capitalist than standard regulation. Republicans aren’t too chuffed about this option, as they don’t want to have to control emissions at all. So they are invoking desperate measures by choosing the second option: if greenhouse gases were found to no longer pose a danger, regulation by the EPA would be unnecessary.

Legitimately reaching this conclusion would call over a century’s worth of physics and chemistry into question. If they could actually do it, the Republicans would probably win a Nobel Prize. Apparently, though, they aren’t interested in legitimacy. The “Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011”, by Members of Congress Fred Upton and James Inhofe, claims to overturn the EPA’s endangerment finding and, therefore, takes away their authority to regulate greenhouse gases. The justification for such an unusual scientific finding consisted of a couple of testimonies from climate change deniers, spouting out the usual long-debunked myths that scientists thought of, considered, and ruled out long before you and I even knew what global warming was. They offered no new information.

Ed Markey, the Representative from Massachusetts, took the opportunity to openly wonder what field of science Republicans will “excommunicate” next: will it be gravity, the heliocentric solar system, or special relativity? Watch and listen to his brief remarks. (Aside: I am amazed at how quiet and civil the House of Congress is. In Canada, Members of Parliament from opposing parties like to shout and pound their desks when others make speeches.)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QHVrE1NTgxI&feature=player_embedded

The Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee invoked amendments to this bill that, instead of repealing the scientific consensus, acknowledged it:

Congress accepts the scientific finding … that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal”; that the scientific evidence regarding climate change “is compelling”; and that “human-caused climate change is a threat to public health and welfare.”

Zero Republicans on the committee voted in favour of these amendments. Why am I not surprised?

I wouldn’t place these words of legislation in the same category as the others. Instead of saying “this is how the physical world works”, the amendments state, “we, as politicians, accept what our scientists tell us.” Most importantly, the Members of Congress aren’t trying to outsmart experts in a field in which they have no experience.

However, I agree with Henry Waxman, the Representative from California, who says that such amendments shouldn’t be necessary – not because they’re wrong, but because the “finding is so obviously correct”. To me, governments accepting what their scientists tell them is the null hypothesis. The idea of politicians stamping down ideas that they don’t like, by attempting to legislate scientific truth, seems unspeakably bizarre. How did the most powerful and developed nation in the world reach this point?

Advertisements

The Real Story of Climategate

A year ago today, an unidentified hacker published a zipped folder in several locations online. In this folder were approximately one thousand emails and three thousand files which had been stolen from the backup server of the Climatic Research Unit in the UK, a top centre for global temperature analysis and climate change studies. As links to the folder were passed around on blogs and online communities, a small group of people sorted through the emails, picking out a handful of phrases that could be seen as controversial, and developing a narrative which they pushed to the media with all their combined strength. “A lot is happening behind the scenes,” one blog administrator wrote. “It is not being ignored. Much is being coordinated among major players and the media. Thank you very much. You will notice the beginnings of activity on other sites now. Here soon to follow.”

This was not the work of a computer-savvy teenager that liked to hack security systems for fun. Whoever the thief was, they knew what they were looking for. They knew how valuable the emails could be in the hands of the climate change denial movement.

Skepticism is a worthy quality in science, but denial is not. A skeptic will only accept a claim given sufficient evidence, but a denier will cling to their beliefs regardless of evidence. They will relentlessly attack arguments that contradict their cause, using talking points that are full of misconceptions and well-known to be false, while blindly accepting any argument that seems to support their point of view. A skeptic is willing to change their mind. A denier is not.

There are many examples of denial in our society, but perhaps the most powerful and pervasive is climate change denial. We’ve been hearing the movement’s arguments for years, ranging from illogic (“climate changed naturally in the past, so it must be natural now“) to misrepresentation (“global warming stopped in 1998“) to flat-out lies (“volcanoes emit more carbon dioxide than humans“). Of course, climate scientists thought of these objections and ruled them out long before you and I even knew what global warming was, so in recent years, the arguments of deniers were beginning to reach a dead end. The Copenhagen climate summit was approaching, and the public was beginning to understand the basic science of human-caused climate change, even realize that the vast majority of the scientific community was concerned about it. A new strategy for denial and delay was needed – ideally, for the public to lose trust in researchers. Hence, the hack at CRU, and the beginning of a disturbing new campaign to smear the reputations of climate scientists.

The contents of the emails were spun in a brilliant exercise of selective quotation. Out of context, phrases can be twisted to mean any number of things – especially if they were written as private correspondence with colleagues, rather than with public communication in mind. Think about all the emails you have sent in the past decade. Chances are, if someone tried hard enough, they could make a few sentences you had written sound like evidence of malpractice, regardless of your real actions or intentions.

Consequently, a mathematical “trick” (clever calculation) to efficiently analyse data was reframed as a conspiracy to “trick” (deceive) the public into believing the world was warming. Researchers discussed how to statistically isolate and “hide the decline” in problematic tree ring data that was no longer measuring what it used to, but this quote was immediately twisted to claim that the decline was in global temperatures: the world is cooling and scientists are hiding it from us!

Other accusations were based not on selective misquotation but on a misunderstanding of the way science works. When the researchers discussed what they felt were substandard papers that should not be published, many champions of the stolen emails shouted accusations that scientists were censoring their critics, as if all studies, no matter how weak their arguments, had a fundamental right to be published. Another email, in which a researcher privately expressed a desire to punch a notorious climate change denier, was twisted into an accusation that the scientists threatened people who disagreed with them. How was it a threat if the action was never intended to materialize, and if the supposed target was never aware of it?

These serious and potentially damaging allegations, which, upon closer examination, are nothing more than grasping at straws, were not carefully examined and evaluated by journalists – they were repeated. Early media reports bordered on the hysterical. With headlines such as “The final nail in the coffin of anthropogenic global warming” and “The worst scientific scandal of our generation“, libelous claims and wild extrapolations were published mere days after the emails were distributed. How could journalists have possibly had time to carefully examine the contents of one thousand emails? It seems much more likely that they took the short-cut of repeating the narrative of the deniers without assessing its accuracy.

Even if, for the sake of argument, all science conducted by the CRU was fraudulent, our understanding of global warming would not change. The CRU runs a global temperature dataset, but so do at least six other universities and government agencies around the world, and their independent conclusions are virtually identical. The evidence for human-caused climate change is not a house of cards that will collapse as soon as one piece is taken away. It’s more like a mountain: scrape a couple of pebbles off the top, but the mountain is still there. For respected newspapers and media outlets to ignore the many independent lines of evidence for this phenomenon in favour of a more interesting and controversial story was blatantly irresponsible, and almost no retractions or apologies have been published since.

The worldwide media attention to this so-called scandal had a profound personal impact on the scientists involved. Many of them received death threats and hate mail for weeks on end. Dr. Phil Jones, the director of CRU, was nearly driven to suicide. Another scientist, who wishes to remain anonymous, had a dead animal dumped on his doorstep and now travels with bodyguards. Perhaps the most wide-reaching impact of the issue was the realization that private correspondence was no longer a safe environment. This fear only intensified when the top climate modelling centre in Canada was broken into, in an obvious attempt to find more material that could be used to smear the reputations of climate scientists. For an occupation that relies heavily on email for cross-national collaboration on datasets and studies, the pressure to write in a way that cannot be taken out of context – a near-impossible task – amounts to a stifling of science.

Before long, the investigations into the contents of the stolen emails were completed, and one by one, they came back clear. Six independent investigations reached basically the same conclusion: despite some reasonable concerns about data archival and sharing at CRU, the scientists had shown integrity and honesty. No science had been falsified, manipulated, exaggerated, or fudged. Despite all the media hullabaloo, “climategate” hadn’t actually changed anything.

Sadly, by the time the investigations were complete, the media hullabaloo had died down to a trickle. Climategate was old news, and although most newspapers published stories on the exonerations, they were generally brief, buried deep in the paper, and filled with quotes from PR spokespeople that insisted the investigations were “whitewashed”. In fact, Scott Mandia, a meteorology professor, found that media outlets devoted five to eleven times more stories to the accusations against the scientists than they devoted to the resulting exonerations of the scientists.

Six investigations weren’t enough, though, for some stubborn American politicians who couldn’t let go of the article of faith that Climategate was proof of a vast academic conspiracy. Senator James Inhofe planned a McCarthy-like criminal prosecution of seventeen researchers, most of whom had done nothing more than occasionally correspond with the CRU scientists. The Attorney General of Virginia, Ken Cuccinelli, repeatedly filed requests to investigate Dr. Michael Mann, a prominent paleoclimatic researcher, for fraud, simply because a twelve-year-old paper by Mann had some statistical weaknesses. Ironically, the Republican Party, which prides itself on fiscal responsibility and lower government spending, continues to advocate wasting massive sums of money conducting inquiries which have already been completed multiple times.

Where are the politicians condemning the limited resources spent on the as yet inconclusive investigations into who stole these emails, and why? Who outside the scientific community is demanding apologies from the hundreds of media outlets that spread libelous accusations without evidence? Why has the ongoing smear campaign against researchers studying what is arguably the most pressing issue of our time gone largely unnoticed, and been aided by complacent media coverage?

Fraud is a criminal charge, and should be treated as such. Climate scientists, just like anyone else, have the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. They shouldn’t have to endure this endless harassment of being publicly labelled as frauds without evidence. However, the injustice doesn’t end there. This hate campaign is a dangerous distraction from the consequences of global climate change, a problem that becomes more difficult to solve with every year we delay. The potential consequences are much more severe, and the time we have left to successfully address it is much shorter, than the vast majority of the public realizes. Unfortunately, powerful forces are at work to keep it that way. This little tussle about the integrity of a few researchers could have consequences millennia from now – if we let it.

Update: Many other climate bloggers are doing Climategate anniversary pieces. Two great ones I read today were Bart Verheggen’s article and the transcript of John Cook’s radio broadcast. Be sure to check them out!

What If…?

Cross-posted from NextGen Journal

Let’s start with the obvious – the U.S. midterm elections are upon us, and it’s quite likely that the Republicans will win a majority. (My American friends tell me that this is possible even with Barack Obama remaining president. Please bear with my limited knowledge of the American political system. It works very differently in Canada.)

I’m not going to comment on partisan issues – health care, immigration, economic stimulus. What I am here to talk about is an issue that should not be partisan, but has become partisan regardless: science, specifically climate science.

Climate change is not a theory – it is the logical result of several theories, based in physics and chemistry, that scientists have understood since the 1800s. What’s political about that? Exactly what part of the equation dF = 5.35 ln(C/Co) is an opinion that differs based on ideological factors?

The political part comes when we ask the question, “What do we do to stop climate change?” A carbon tax? Cap-and-trade? Regulation? Some of these solutions are more liberal or conservative than others. The only decision that doesn’t adhere to U.S. politics is to do nothing. Absence of action is a decision in itself, and the overwhelming scientific evidence (based not just on computer models, but also observations of past climate changes) shows us that doing nothing will allow this problem to spiral out of control, causing damages that no amount of money will be able to repair. What U.S. party advocates leaving that kind of world to their grandchildren? As Bill McKibben says, you wouldn’t expect it to be the Republicans:

If there was ever a radical project, monkeying with the climate would surely qualify. Had the Soviet Union built secret factories to pour carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and threatened to raise the sea level and subvert the Grain Belt, the prevailing conservative response would have been: Bomb them. Bomb them back to the Holocene—to the 10,000-year period of climatic stability now unraveling, the period that underwrote the rise of human civilization that conservatism has taken as its duty to protect. Conservatism has always stressed stability and continuity; since Burke, the watchwords have been tradition, authority, heritage. The globally averaged temperature of the planet has been 57 degrees, give or take, for most of human history; we know that works, that it allows the world we have enjoyed. Now, the finest minds, using the finest equipment, tell us that it’s headed toward 61 or 62 or 63 degrees unless we rapidly leave fossil fuel behind, and that, in the words of NASA scientists, this new world won’t be “similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.” Conservatives should be leading the desperate fight to preserve the earth we were born on.

But they’re not. Instead, many are choosing a psychological easy way out: if every solution seems imperfect, deny that the problem exists. Out of all the Republican contenders for the Senate, none support action on climate change, and most deny the existence of anthropogenic global warming.

It is questionable whether all of these statements are sincere. Politicians, after all, will say whatever they need to say to get elected. If these Republicans feel that their voting base denies climate change, they will adjust their public statements accordingly. Look at John McCain – during the 2008 presidential election, his promises for clean energy were nearly as strong as Obama’s. Now, he rejects cap-and-trade, and views the anthropogenic cause of climate change in the Arctic as an “opinion”.

Admittedly, a new, but growing, segment of the Republican voting base overwhelmingly denies climate change. As the New York Times reports, Tea Party supporters have all kinds of convoluted arguments against a field of science they know virtually nothing about. It contradicts “the preaching of Rush Limbaugh and the teaching of Scripture”, and it could be caused by “the normal cycles of nature” (whatever those are), so thousands of scientists spending their lives studying this problem must be missing something. Or they could be part of a massive conspiracy.

Republican candidates are catering to the extreme segments of their party, and, arguably, to their party as a whole. However, their plans to base action (or lack thereof) on the fervent hope that the scientific community is out to lunch may alienate voters who understand what a risk that would be.

Or so we hope. If Republicans get their way, climate science will not just be disregarded: the men and women who study it will be criminally investigated, for no reason other than that their research supports the existence of anthropogenic climate change. And since James Inhofe can’t find any gaping holes in the math, that means the scientists must be fraudulent, right?

The Republican Party also hopes to conduct yet another investigation into the private correspondence of scientists, stolen and distributed a year ago. Although these emails show that climate scientists are not always very nice, it does not undermine one iota of our understanding of the climate system, as five independent investigations have concluded. But that’s not the answer Republican officials want, so they will waste taxpayers’ money and researchers’ time with their own investigation. Kind of hypocritical for a party that promises fiscal responsibility.

I’m a Canadian. I don’t get a vote in this election. I am also eighteen years old. I, unlike most Republican Senators, will be around to witness the effects of climate change. We have wasted twenty years in the fight against climate change, and if we continue to let petty politics and finger-pointing delay us more, the whole world will suffer.

It’s no secret that American politics disproportionately influence the world. The same is true for American emissions of greenhouse gases, and American agreements to reduce these emissions, and American patterns of energy use and energy sources. So please, when you go to vote this week, think about not just yourself and your country but other young people and other countries too.

And please vote. I’ll leave you with some wise words from Seth Godin:

If you don’t vote because you’re trying to teach politicians a lesson, you’re tragically misguided in your strategy. The very politicians you’re trying to send a message to don’t want you to vote.

Voting is free. It’s fairly fast. It doesn’t make you responsible for the outcome, but it sure has an impact on what we have to live with going forward. The only thing that would make it better is free snacks.

Even if you’re disgusted, vote. Vote for your least unfavorite choice. But go vote.

Staying Sane

A long time ago, I learned to turn off the emotional half of my brain – can’t remember whether it’s right or left – when I read studies about climate change. I look at model results and projections from a purely analytical standpoint. I register how awful the scenarios are, but I don’t let it all the way in. I don’t let myself really think about the consequences. Instead, I think about how cool it is that we can study climate in this way, and how powerful math can be, so I find it quite easy to stay positive and not go completely insane.

I find this much more difficult when I read about climate change communication or policy. I think the analytical, math-loving side of my brain doesn’t have anything to do, so the full weight of the issue falls on the emotional half, and I go sort of nuts.

Take, for example, the bill that’s close to passing through the South Dakota government, requiring schools to teach climate change in a “balanced” fashion, framing it as a “largely speculative theory” that is disproven by astrology (?) Look at how US Senator James Inhofe, former Chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, has decided to criminally investigate 17 climate scientists with no evidence of criminal activity. Or how misconceptions spread by several British journalists have even made it into the Globe and Mail. The only misinformation that doesn’t make me angry anymore is the writing of the Heartland Institute and S. Fred Singer, because it’s so ridiculous that it seems like satire, even if it’s intended to be serious.

How do you stand it? How do you stay sane? How do you walk around all day without feeling the heavy weight of the world’s future, tossed aside by people who won’t be around to care?

I find it easy to stay happy when I only look at the scientific side of this issue. But as public communication is becoming absolutely vital for climate scientists, we can’t submerge ourselves in math anymore. Just look at how many editorials Nature has written lately on the abysmal state of climate change journalism. Even the peer-reviewed literature can’t stay separate from public communication and policy.

Most of you have been at it longer than I have. How do you cope? We’re going to need to figure it out, because our sanity is needed now more than ever.