Blog Post

climate change and the costs of skepticism

If you don’t spend a lot of time following right-wing media, it’s possible that you haven’t even heard of what’s been referred to as “Climategate.”  Some servers at the University of East Anglia were hacked by climate change skeptics, who have used a few choice quotes from internal emails to suggest the existence of a grand conspiracy by scientists working on climate change to abuse the peer review process to suppress skeptical scientists.  There is a good (although admittedly slanted towards the “consensus” position on global warming) summary here, at Media Matters for America.  For an alternative viewpoint, Glenn Beck or any number of conservative websites provide “analysis” of how these emails disprove the reality of climate change.

The notion of a dark conspiracy to undermine the high-consumption Western lifestyle plays perfectly into right-wing hermeneutics in this country.  This scandal, which has made merely a blip in the non-right-wing-controlled media, could also seriously undermine the Copenhagen climate change negotiations (already imperiled by the conservatism and behind-the-scenes maneuvering of the Obama administration and several key European governments).  So this is not merely an empirical, scientific question, or even a question about research ethics, but a debate which is already laden with political and cultural assumptions, and which could have huge, potentially catastrophic consequences for the world.

For those of us who aren’t scientists, of course, we are in a position of having to trust the claims of people who have spent their lives studying these phenomena.  As much sympathy as I have for the work of people like Bruno Latour, Michel Serres, etc., and as convinced as I am that climate change is a cultural problem rather than merely a scientific process, at the end of the day there are certain things we as humanists are not going to be able to directly evaluate.  For those of us who are raised on the notion of interrogating the core assumptions of discourses and practices that claim to be scientific, and examining their hidden assumptions and biases, this is naturally quite a discomforting process.  People like James Hansen (NASA’s top climatologist and, for two decades, the world’s most prominent Cassandra on global warming) are playing the role described by Foucault as the “specific intellectual.”  But, of course, when scientific claims require concrete public policy action, they have to be adjudicated by a scientifically undereducated public.  And that’s where it gets messy.

For me, the best answer that I have is rooted in pragmatism, rather than ideological certainty. When it comes to weather and climate, the average citizen of a Western nation (myself included) is much less knowledgeable than an average thirteenth-century peasant farmer.   We trust juries to evaluate complex scientific evidence, we trust legislators to vote on weapons systems and multi-billion dollar economic stimulus packages, we trust voters to make life-and-death decisions every day. Sometimes those decisions turn out right, sometimes they turn out wrong.  I’m not comfortable with granting “Science” a kind of unquestioned cultural authority, or with leaving the notion of “scientific consensus” uninterrogated.  But I also don’t trust the motives of right-wing critics, bankrolled by industries that would be devastated if meaningful action were taken to confront climate change, to be the people to raise these critiques.  And given the risks of inaction, and the certainty that the consequences of inaction will fall most heavily on those nations and individuals least equipped to manage the crisis, I think the costs of rigorously clinging to a position of skepticism towards the authority of Science is too high.



This Climategate nonsense is, I'm afraid, a big deal; that these few emails prove some sort of worldwide conspiracy of climate scientists is now an article of faith for the American right.

I had two posts about this on my blog this week, the first when the news first broke and the second after discovering just how fervently my conservative relatives now believed this new, paranoid myth. I'm not sure we'll ever be able to talk about climate change in this country without having the right's factually incorrect narrative of the East Anglia hack shouted back at us.


You've probably already seen it, but Nate Silver's take on the "scandal" is interesting and possibly useful:

"Actually, what you have is a scientist, Dr. Jones, talking candidly about sexing up a graph to make his conclusions more persuasive. This is not a good thing thing to do -- I'd go so far as to call it unethical -- and Jones deserves some of the loss of face that he will suffer. Unfortunately, this is the sort of thing that happens all the time in both academia and the private sector -- have you ever looked at the graphs in the annual report of a company which had a bad year? And it seems to happen all too often on both sides of the global warming debate (I'd include some of the graphics from An Inconvenient Truth in this category, FWIW.)

But let's be clear: Jones is talking to his colleagues about making a prettier picture out of his data, and not about manipulating the data itself. Again, I'm not trying to excuse what he did -- we make a lot of charts here and 538 and make every effort to ensure that they fairly and accurately reflect the underlying data (in addition to being aesthetically appealing.) I wish everybody would abide by that standard.

Still: I don't know how you get from some scientist having sexed up a graph in East Anglia ten years ago to The Final Nail In The Coffin of Anthropogenic Global Warming. Anyone who comes to that connection has more screws loose than the Space Shuttle Challenger. And yet that's literally what some of these bloggers are saying!"

Now off to teach the Gettysburg address the morning after Obama's Afghanistan speech.  Should be interesting...