My Column on "Left and Right vs. Science"

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Recently, a bipartisan delegation of United States senators visited Alaska, where they solicited anecdotes on such phenomena as forest damage caused by northward incursions of spruce beetles, melting permafrost, and coastal erosion. The senators blamed all these phenomena on global warming.

One of these senators, John McCain (R-AZ), is cosponsoring legislation with Joe Lieberman (D-CT) to limit greenhouse gas emissions from utilities and industry. Hillary Clinton's (D-NY) words best summarized the apparently unanimous verdict of the delegation. "I don't think there is any doubt left for anyone who actually looks at the science ... [C]limate change is accelerating."

There is only one problem with what Clinton said: Those who "actually look at the science" -- for a living -- don't display the same unanimity as our merry band of junketeers. Consider just four newsworthy incidents from the past year.

(1) Two Russian solar physicists placed a $10,000 bet with a British climatologist that the earth will cool over the next decade.

(2) The prestigious journal Science published a literature survey concluding that 75% of the articles examined supported human activity as a cause of global warming. It then controversially refused to publish a survey of the same literature whose figure was only 33% -- ostensibly because the dissenting conclusion had already appeared on the internet.

(3) A member of a panel reporting to the President on climate change resigned because he thought the other panelists too wedded to their own views on climate change to make objective judgements.

(4) An American hurricane scientist quit a U.N. climate assessment team after its leader told the news media that global warming had caused an increase in hurricane activity. He called the claim "unsupported".

If global warming is scientifically controversial, why are these senators pretending otherwise and pushing legislation that can affect your standard of living? Should they not, at the barest minimum, base important public policy initiatives on facts?

While McCain's presence at the press conference would come as no surprise to many conservatives, that of Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina would. The American Conservative Union rates his voting record as 91% conservative -- identical to Strom Thurmond's rating!

The surprise is because global warming is a hot-button issue of the left. Conservatives generally reject global warming legislation as part of a larger environmentalist agenda that threatens economic freedom. Property rights are sacrificed to endangered species. Automobiles cost more due to clean air standards. Some communities even force residents to recycle, sacrificing their time and effort to save cheap commodities.

All of these regulations, like the proposed emissions legislation, have this in common: They prevent man from fully benefiting from the activity he has evolved to do and must do to survive, namely, changing his environment. Why? Because the environment is regarded as having intrinsic value exceeding that of man. The pseudoscientific justifications for this agenda are a means of selling it to a public that enormously respects and values science.

Two prominent environmentalists admit as much.

David M. Graber, a research biologist, opines on the value of human life. "It is cosmically unlikely that the developed world will choose to end its orgy of fossil-energy consumption, and the Third World its suicidal consumption of landscape. Until such time as Homo sapiens should decide to rejoin nature, some of us can only hope for the right virus to come along."

And environmentalist Stephen Schneider has this thought on the need for truth in major public debates, "[W]e need to get some broad-based support, to capture the public's imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we may have. ... [We have] to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest."

At best, Hillary Clinton and company have been fooled by people like Graber and Schneider. At worst, they are just as guilty of abusing the prestige of science to pursue their agenda. Thank God the Republicans control both houses of Congress and the presidential veto besides!

Before you say "Amen", you might want to consider whether the right really is the champion of science that its resistance to environmentalism seems to indicate. Conservatives certainly appear to be allies of science in the global warming debate, but they are openly arrayed against it in another major debate: over whether stem cell research should receive federal funding -- or be allowed at all.

The enormous potential benefits of stem cell research are admitted by all -- even its opponents. One opponent wrote that "life-threatening blood disorders such as beta-thalassemia, or ... Parkinson's disease" could eventually be cured, and that "[A] Massachusetts company reported a 'proof of principle' in which tissues from clonal cow fetuses were shown to be tolerated as grafts by their adult genetic prototypes." This could pave the way for human transplants using genetically identical organs!

Rather than expressing excitement over this news, the writer expressed fear. Each new cure, he said, would take mankind further down a "slippery slope" towards the use of fetuses grown from stem cells.

What makes this a "slippery slope"? The fundamental objection raised to stem cell research is the notion that fertilized human eggs and embryos constitute human lives because they have been imbued with souls.

The conservatives who believe in this doctrine are not content merely to forgo the benefits of stem cell technology. Rather, they intend to make it unavailable to all.

Just as liberals regard veneration of nature as more important than man, so do conservatives regard their religious beliefs as more important. This is true even if you would die a preventable death as a consequence of following such beliefs -- whether you share them or not.

The real problem in today's public debates over science is that so many on the left and on the right feel that their own unproven beliefs trump your right to reap the enormous benefits of science. Suddenly, the unanimity of the senators in Alaska makes a lot of sense: It is the logical consequence of this attitude.

-- CAV


9-14-05: Clarified wording in introductory section.
11-21-05: Removed introductory section.


Vigilis said...

CAV, I applaud your article and recognition of some bipartisan bias toward what is bad science. In fact, you will find the whole Global Warming thing has been a major peeve of mine at Molten Eagle.

You raise some excellent points and inject several new facts that I had not been aware of before.

One thing that did strike me (not as a flaw, however) was your characterization of Sen. Graham based on his ACU rating, and you were acurate. Here is something of which people are generally not aware:

"Conservatives in South Carolina and elsewhere have been harshly critical of Graham, believing that he helped derail Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s decision to change the rules and prohibit filibusters of any judicial nominees."

Graham lost a lot of his base in SC with his poorly justified explanation to SC voters.
His re-election will not be as certain, nor is he as popular as he once had been.

Gus Van Horn said...

What you point out about the ire of conservatives towards Graham is unsurprising. While I think the Democrats have (through their reflexive and vehement opposition to any and every Republican judicial nominee) done much to discredit themselves and the use of the filibuster, I am not a fan of the proposed rule change that Graham acted to derail.

Having said that, I would suspect that Graham knows he has lost conservative support and is now pandering to liberals in an effort to be more "reelectable". His couching of a liberal position in conservative language, far from making him a poor example of a conservative politician being ready to sacrifice science for other considerations (not that you necessarily meant this), actually underscores my point. Regardless of their political orientation, the willingness to pretend that facts and logic are unimportant is the thread that unites most politicians today.


Vigilis said...

"the willingness to pretend that facts and logic are unimportant is the thread that unites most politicians today."

Could not have said it better.

Anonymous said...

You touch on a question that I have examined before. Specifically, what constitutes a religion, and is Science today what Christianity was 2000 years or so ago.

Believers of Science believe without verification (i.e. they have faith) in what their leaders tell them. I would venture that you have never done the calculations necessary to verify that the sun revolves around us. You see it move every day from once side of your stationary landmass to the other, and still you wholeheartedly (I assume) believe that it is the stationary one. Why? Because you have taken on faith what Science, your parents, and your community have told you. Now, different is your faith that God exists? You believe what Christianity, your parents, and your community have told you (assuming you do in fact believe in God).

I wasn't going anywhere specifically further with that... I was just thinking of that as I read your article.


Gus Van Horn said...


Thanks for your comment. You may not like what I have to say in response, but you bring up a very important point.

Before I answer, I'll state up front that I am an atheist.

The crux of your comment is contained in this quote: "You see it move every day from once side of your stationary landmass to the other, and still you wholeheartedly (I assume) believe that it is the stationary one. Why? Because you have taken on faith what Science, your parents, and your community have told you. Now, different is your faith that God exists?"

You (like many people) are confusing two different meanings of the word "faith", and the root of this confusion lies in the fact that we can indeed learn both religious precepts and scientific ones from other people.

However, unless we integrate what others have told us with the rest of what we know, it doesn't constitute knowledge.

To take your example. Do I have to accept as an article of faith that the Earth revolves around the Sun? No. We initially learn this by rote as children, but we then learn about observations made by, say, astronomers and by spacecraft that show that the Sun is enormously more massive than the Earth. It has far more gravity: So much so in fact that the Earth should fall into it. And yet it does not. We also know that manmade satellites successfully orbit the Earth even though they should fall. Why? Because these satellites have enough momentum to offset the pull of Earth's gravity. This same principle explains how the Earth could orbit around the Sun. Conversely, the Law of Gravity explains why the Sun cannot orbit the Earth.

This is an example of how valid knowledge works. Apparently unrelated items can be found through reason to "fit together" and explain other phenomena. These explanations, or hypotheses, can be tested via experimentation. No one person can do all this work, but you can learn enough about an experiment (or even a whole body of knowledge) to decide whether it fits in with everything else you know.

This is totally different from the tenets of religion. These are invariably claimed to have been supernaturally revealed to a select few, who can only communicate them, but cannot show or prove them to be true in relation to the rest of reality. Some of these tenets even contradict themselves. (e.g., God is everywhere and nowhere.) There is no evidence, no proof, and no rigorous testing: just a passive acceptance of what other people say as true.

Thanks for the comment. That's an important point to remember: the difference between the "faith" we have in people to have obtained their knowledge by valid means and the blind, uncritical faith of religion.