The Intersection

Powerline’s War on Science

Yesterday Tim did a very nice blog post in which he took apart a Michael Fumento column attacking scientific journals. I contributed a smidgeon to the debunking in the comments section. I was very proud of myself.


But little did I know (mainly because I didn’t read to the end of Tim’s post) that Fumento’s rant had been picked up by the influential right wing bloggers at Powerline, who use it to declare that “in recent years, the politicization of science by the left has become a serious problem” (ha!). Powerline then goes on to show that, in fact, the right is the real problem with a sweeping statement more or less dismissing all leading scientific journals:

The moral of the story is that the leading scientific journals have been taken over by liberals who value politics over truth. So any time you see a news report on a “scientific” journal article that ostensibly has political implications, you should greet it with skepticism.

This sets the stage for nothing less than a complete conservative rejection of modern science itself. Nothing in journals is to be trusted? It’s all liberal activism? Are you kidding?

But from such logic–which is also used to entirely dismiss the “liberal” academy–it’s easy to see how the conservative think tanks come about. Having dismissed universities and scientific journals, the right has no choice but to create its own intellectual counterculture. But standards and rigor often don’t match what exists in the academy or in mainstream science, as is clear from Powerline’s attempt to debunk global warming:

Global temperatures fell during the 1970s, and many scientists (including some who are now leading global warming advocates) worried that the next ice age was on the way. There was even a proposal to paint the ice caps black so the earth could soak up more sunlight and avert catastrophic cooling. No doubt the editors of Science know this.

Stop and think for a moment–is there any logical way in which this statement undermines the notion that humans are causing global warming now? None that I can think of, unless you fallaciously believe that if there’s CO2, temperatures must rise, and if they don’t, the whole global warming thing must be hokum.

But of course, we know that there are many factors that can counter the effect of CO2, like sulfate aerosols (generally viewed as the explanation for the mid-century cooling cited above). It follows that the people at Powerline haven’t debunked anything. But what’s so disturbing is that they obviously think they have–and how cavalier they are in their dismissal not just of global warming, but of the scientific publication process itself.

Comments

  1. #1 anonymous
    March 1, 2006

    This comes under the heading of “the best defense is a good offense.” It also comes under the heading of “I know you are, but what am I?” I think it might also possibly be classified under “the big lie.” It does give them an excuse to reject any science that conflicts with their prejudices.

  2. #2 Adam Ierymenko
    March 1, 2006

    Observation #1: The right is increasingly walling itself off from the scientific discussion.

    Observation #2: This is having the side-effect of actually politicizing science– scientists, offended by this sort of thing, are running leftward. It was once very possible to be a scientist and a conservative. This is becoming more difficult.

    Observation #3: Almost all of the major economic growth in the U.S. in the past 50 years has been science and technology driven.

    If being conservative means blanket rejection of empirical science, then there’s going to be a lot more rich liberals and a fewer rich conservatives in a generation or so.

    There is a self-correcting feature to bad ideas. Bad ideas hurt those who hold them, which in turn makes those ideas look less attractive and makes them less influential.

  3. #3 Robb Heier
    March 1, 2006

    Wow. So, we are not to believe anything published in journals. From where would these people have us get our science? The answer is obviously from them. Basically, anytime we want to know anything about the world – be it science, economics, Islam, etc. – we should just go ask the Heritage Foundation. I’m sure they have a rigorous process (unlike the “liberal” scientific journals) to vet the lies they would spoon feed us.

  4. #4 Sir Oolius
    March 1, 2006

    I might be mistaken, but neither Hinderacker nor Fumento ever went through the peer-review process, right? And yet they get a bit testy (see comments) when you poke fun at them making sweeping generalizations about the peer-review process.

  5. #5 Colleen Derge
    March 1, 2006

    Speaking of the war on science, I read an excellent op-ed in the Washington Post today by Susan F. Wood on the failure in the FDA and the way they have mishandled the application for the morning-after pill. I also got an e-mail that linked me to a new website on the issue at http://www.sciencebeforepolitics.com. Both are worth checking out.

  6. #7 Jon Winsor
    March 1, 2006

    All of the major economic growth in the U.S. in the past 50 years has been science and technology driven.

    If being conservative means blanket rejection of empirical science, then there’s going to be a lot more rich liberals and a fewer rich conservatives in a generation or so.

    The thing is that the conservatives are the ones getting the MBA’s (like our president). There are probably a number of these MBAs who regard scientists/technicians as lower members of the caste structure.

    Remember this Robert Suskind article from a couple years ago in the NYT :

    The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

    Doubtless, this way of thinking sees MBA types as the bold, risk taking visionaries, while the scientists/techies are the timid, negative, wonky types who are only good for crunching numbers (which the MBAs will cherry pick, of course). The science/tech types only have the ears of the managers when the managers decide it’s convenient, and after that they’ll be asked to leave the cocktail party. Managers will make the decisions, then when they’re good and ready, they’ll call in the help to clean up afterward. (Umm, hey. We need you to refreeze Greenland?)

  7. #8 ColoRambler
    March 1, 2006

    (Powerline): The moral of the story is that the leading scientific journals have been taken over by liberals who value politics over truth.

    Likening the Bush League to Lysenkoists gets less and less over the top every day.

    Observation #2: This is having the side-effect of actually politicizing science– scientists, offended by this sort of thing, are running leftward. It was once very possible to be a scientist and a conservative. This is becoming more difficult.

    It’s still quite possible for a scientist to be a center-right conservative (like Eisenhower) or even a libertarian conservative (like Goldwater). A little more specifically, any political “conservatism” that is actually methodologically conservative (i.e., cautious, needing thought and deliberation before pursuing change) will fit many scientists just fine, since many scientists are like that by nature and training.

    My Ph. D. advisor from about 10 years ago was like that, though he was more of an anti-Communist than anything else (he emigrated from Czechoslovakia right around the time of famous Soviet nastiness there). Most of us grad students were somewhere to the left of him in varying degrees. What really mattered is that politics simply wasn’t a big deal in the lab, regardless of what flavor it was.

    What’s not really compatible with science and science policy these days is quasi-conservatism of the Bush League sort, which is neither methodologically nor philosophically conservative.

  8. #9 Joanna Bryson
    March 1, 2006

    Wow, except for your excellent writing, your blog is incredibly depressing. I’m worried that the US is about to do what China did with the Cultural Revolution — complete shoot science & the universities (the Chinese excuse for undermining this competing authority was that professors and trying to be top of your class were bourgeois, but the underlying reason was, as in the US now, scientific evidence doesn’t bow to autocracy) and then nothing gets fixed until a couple decades later the autocracy realizes they are falling too far behind all the other countries that *do* do science and they set a mandate to try to catch up at any cost, even liberalizing.

  9. #10 David Wilford
    March 1, 2006

    (Powerline): The moral of the story is that the leading scientific journals have been taken over by liberals who value politics over truth.

    Max Sawicky has Powerline’s number, although this comment of his wasn’t about this particular subject:

    The secret of corruption is the talent for credibly accusing your victims of your crimes.

  10. #11 Dano
    March 1, 2006

    These good folk at Powerline obviously, then, dismiss all science for themselves, as well. Medicine, optics, electricity. I’m sure they sit in their basements with a whale-oil lantern, reading Shelley (if I understand their logic correctly).

    Best,

    D

  11. #12 Anonymous
    March 1, 2006

    I enjoyed the comment about the articles on Greenland and global warming (which I can’t get to at the moment). Just because the center of Greenland is receiving more snow now doesn’t mean that global warming is bunk. Or even that the ice sheet isn’t melting faster. At best, it means that the sheet isn’t melting as fast as it could. It’s possible for Greenland to receive more snowfall annually but not enough to offset the increased losses from melting. I also recall both Science and Nature’s new coverage of these articles to be pretty clear on that point. Ahh… cherry picking your facts.

  12. #13 Roger Tang
    March 1, 2006

    Doubtless, this way of thinking sees MBA types as the bold, risk taking visionaries, while the scientists/techies are the timid, negative, wonky types who are only good for crunching numbers (which the MBAs will cherry pick, of course). The science/tech types only have the ears of the managers when the managers decide it’s convenient, and after that they’ll be asked to leave the cocktail party. Managers will make the decisions, then when they’re good and ready, they’ll call in the help to clean up afterward. (Umm, hey. We need you to refreeze Greenland?)

    I have no doubt that this is the attitude of many in the Bush administration.

    I also have no doubt that many of them are like Bush, a FAILED entrerenuer and businessman.

    Given my line of work (I try to find rich people who want to give their money away), the folks who really are driving the businesses are either the scientistis themselves (who have a good head for business) or businessmen who know what side of the bread is buttered and keep out of the way of the scientists. {This, of course, gets all out of whack when the young companies get bought out by the MBA driven giants…..}

  13. #14 Deech56
    March 1, 2006

    ColoRambler: Your PhD advisor didn’t have the last name Horak, did he?

    For the rest: I worked once at a biotech company and the corridor between the executive offices and the laboratories was also the dividing line between those who almost exclusively voted Republican and those who voted predominantly Democratic. I always wondered whether there was also an economic background factor involved. Many of us at the company who had PhDs came from working-class backgrounds; the life of a scientist looks pretty good coming from places like the Rust Belt.

  14. #15 mark
    March 1, 2006

    This sets the stage for nothing less than a complete conservative rejection of modern science itself. Nothing in journals is to be trusted? It’s all liberal activism? Are you kidding?

    Phillip Johnson would be so proud.

  15. #16 Jon Winsor
    March 1, 2006

    I didn’t mean to imply that all management types look down their noses at scientists/technicians, but there seems to be a healthy contingent that do.

    Otherwise, there wouldn’t be the problem that Chris has written about, with the Bush administration distorting science as a play toward business interests. There have to be folks in corporate management who want him to mess with the process like that, otherwise he wouldn’t be doing it. It’s business “expertise” thinking that it trumps scientific expertise. Empiricism, Enlightenment values, bah, “That’s not the way the world works anymore… we create our own reality.” That would be fine if it was just their reality that they were gambling with, but unfortunately there are others sharing that reality with them…

  16. #17 ColoRambler
    March 2, 2006

    …Your PhD advisor didn’t have the last name Horak, did he?

    Nope, sorry.

    To be honest, I’m guessing a little bit about my advisor’s political views: he was generally pretty quiet about them. When they did come out, they definitely were right of center…but as I already mentioned, no one made a big deal out of politics in my old research group.

  17. #18 Steve Reuland
    March 2, 2006

    I did my own take-down of Fumento’s attack on the sex-ratio study:

    http://stevereuland.blogspot.com/2006/03/michael-fumento-fraud.html

    It’s not just the bit on hurricanes and global warming, Fumento gets everything wrong.

  18. #19 Deech56
    March 3, 2006

    Thanks for getting back to me, ColoRambler. I had a college roommate from Czechoslovakia who was with his family in Italy (for a scientific meeting, I think) when the tanks rolled into Prague, and they stayed in the West. I don’t remember much about his political views, except that he was fervently (and understandably) anti-Communist.

  19. #20 Aakash
    September 23, 2006

    Mr. Fumento has done an excellent job, over the year’s of debunking the common misconceptions put forth by statists and others, in which they try to twist actual science and data to back up their viewpoints. He did a good job, along with John Stossel, of refuting the hype surrounding Erin Brockovich.

    While he may be wrong about Gulf War Syndrome, Mr. Fumento is an excellent writer and analyst. The fact that he seems to have the Establishment upset shows that he is on the right track.

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