Integrity of Science

Earlier today at the 2006 American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting in San Francisco, the former Vice President introduced himself, “I am Al Gore. I used to be the next President of the United States.” Those who have seen “An Inconvenient Truth” will know the line, which predictably drew laughs. However, today’s lecture, Climate Change: The Role of Science and the Media in Policymaking was stripped down and refocused. There were no PowerPoint slides, no Macintosh computer, no cherry pickers, just a man in a dark blue suit, a podium, and literally thousands of scientists hanging on his every word.

No one in the audience needed to be convinced that man-caused climate change is happening; rather today’s lecture was a condemnation of political interference in science and a rallying cry to the scientists in the audience. Before he uttered “I am Al Gore” he expressed empathy for those in the audience who had had their research “misused and misrepresented.”

There will be some great media coverage on this speech tomorrow so we’ll stick to the science-integrity angle. Gore talked of a history of scientists who were attacked for their “inconvenient truths,” including Galileo and John T. Scopes, and mused on the culture that allows attacks on science to take place. “We’ve persuaded ourselves that we don’t have to care that much about what we’re doing to future generations.” He described TV news as exacerbating this mentality. The “well-informed citizenry has become the well-entertained audience.” TV viewers receive, but don’t challenge political ideas or characterizations of scientific discoveries. This leads to a temptation to ignore inconvenient truths and to censor scientific discoveries that if fully absorbed would force changes in policy.

He reflected on the reports out this week that USGS scientists are being censored. “How have we as a nation become so vulnerable to this kind of behavior? How have we as a nation become so desensitized that attempts to censor scientists” fail to spark “widespread outrage?”

“We don’t want to know.” If politicians already want to know what policies they want to implement, Gore said, the science is inconvenient.

Gore then shifted gears from documenter of attacks on science to that of the General Patton of geophysicists. “It is time in my opinion for scientists to pay a different role … defending the integrity of scientific processes. It is time for scientists to consider taking a more active communicating role.”

The Vice President then rejected the prevailing wisdom of Washington: that it must wait for a disaster before it reacts. “As you know,” he said, “the climate crisis can not be dealt with that way.” If scientists lead, even those currently disengaged become more likely to follow, he suggested. “We must disenthrall ourselves from a prison of illusions.”

The thousands of scientists in the room were supercharged, as were the hundreds in the overflow room watching the closed-circuit presentation. Gore made defending science feel like a cause célèbre. Filing out of the Marriot basement, many were hanging on the would-be President’s closing words: “In the United States, the will to act is a renewable resource.

Comments

  1. #1 Mike Kaspari
    December 18, 2006

    When a subject as exciting and intriguing as science is so easily debased and manipulated by the powerful, it means we are not doing our job as teachers. Al Gore is starting with compelling content but it is his *teaching* that is spreading the word.

    We could learn a thing or two from Gore. Remember how wooden in front of crowds he was in 2000? If Al Gore can become a great teacher, there’s hope for us all.

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