The Intersection

Seed has just posted my column from the latest issue. It’s a piece in which I try to grapple with the question of why the science/politics issue has become such a big deal–much bigger than even I anticipated (and I had every reason to overestimate its potency). The answer, I conclude, can be summarized as follows: “George W. Bush.” As I put it:

The “Bush is anti science” meme carries political weight because it underscores why so many Americans (including previous supporters) are becoming increasingly disenchanted with Bush: They don’t think he’s fit to lead, and they don’t believe many of his appointees are competent administrators of various branches of the government, virtually all of which require some form of scientific or other expertise.

I really think this is the rub here. It’s a point I elaborate on in much more detail in the new preface to The Republican War on Science, written for the paperback edition, which is due out in the fall.

But meanwhile, lest anyone think that only Bush’s administration misuses science, here’s Bill Clinton telling Floridians that global warming is “going to lead to more hurricanes.” If he had said “going to lead to more STRONG hurricanes,” I’d have had no problem with the statement. But there’s no current scientific basis (beyond mere speculation) for the claim that GW will lead to more total storms (except insofar as a general strengthening of the average storm will lead more tropical storms to reach hurricane class, but I highly doubt that’s what Clinton meant). The changes that we may be seeing from GW appear to be changes in storm intensity, not storm numbers.

Just to be clear: I’m not saying Clinton is intentionally misusing science here. (The question of intentionality came up in my debate with Ron Bailey about which side is “worse” in this area.) With a statement like this, I’m guessing that Bubba just made an honest mistake. Nevertheless, he shouldn’t have said it.

P.S. Looks like Alberto won’t make it to hurricane status after all…


  1. #1 Laurence jewett
    June 13, 2006

    Americans are beginning to see,
    That Virtual Real-i-ty,
    Ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

  2. #2 Roger Pielke, Jr.
    June 13, 2006

    Chris- To be accurate, the news article said not that Clinton alledged that simply “global warming” will lead to more hurricanes, but “former President Clinton predicted Monday that Republican environmental policies will lead to more severe storms.”

  3. #3 Chris Mooney
    June 13, 2006

    Yes, that’s the paraphrase by the article, but the quote offered doesn’t actually back that up…so it’s unclear to me whether the paraphrase is right.

  4. #4 Laurence Jewett
    June 13, 2006

    I’d have to agree with Chris:

    “It is now generally recognized that while
    Al Gore and I were ridiculed, we were right about global warming,” Clinton said at a fundraiser for the Florida Democratic Party. “It’s a serious problem. It’s going to lead to more hurricanes.” — By BRENDAN FARRINGTON, Associated Press Writer

    It is also clear from the context that the main point of Clinton’s remark was to get convey the message that Global Warming is a REAL problem that should be dealt with.

  5. #5 Jon Winsor
    June 14, 2006

    Virtual Real-i-ty,
    Ain’t all it’s cracked up to be

    Sometimes I wonder if part of the problem of the devaluation of scientific knowledge might have something to do with the technology we now have. If we now all have access to tons of information and (superficially) sophisticated tools to present and “analyze” it, a lot more people can look sophisticated. More people can have access to gads of information, manipulate it, and present it in (superficially) impressive ways.

    And there are some disasterous results out there with this sort of thing. I recently came across a great discussion of “spreadsheet culture” that appeared in a book on technology prototyping (I just found it on Google Book Search– here is a link to the first page of the chapter). Apparently the accountants at one company were so good (superficially) at getting spreadsheets to say whatever they wanted that the board of directors bought their presentation hook line and sinker, without analysis, and the whole thing bankrupted the company.

    So, anyway, I wonder if part of the problem is that there are lots of “nouveau smart” people out there, with access to gads of information and “spreadsheet culture”-like technology, who some people consider to be fungible with actual qualified experts.

    Just a thought…

  6. #6 SteveG
    June 14, 2006

    I think one of the reasons that the science/politcs connection right now is so hot is that it signals a realignment in terms of how we understand our political divide. The public face of left over the last few decades has been the post-modernist humanists types who left us the legacy of politcal correctness. The right was able to thereby brand the left as out of touch with the real world. I think because of Bush and the momentary success of the intelligent design folks, the scientific left is reascending and the old stereotypes are having to be shredded. We are in a time of political flux and between your book, Al Gore’s movie, and the overtly anti-scientific push by the religious right, folks are trying to figure out where the lines are to be drawn. I make this argument in a bit more detail at Philosophers’ Playground.

  7. #7 Laurence Jewett
    June 14, 2006

    Jon, I think there is much to your “spreadsheet culture” remark.

    Computers and spreadsheets make it very easy not only to fool other people, but also to fool yourself into believing almost anything.

    Some people seem to be under the impression that there IS no underlying reality — or if there is, that it is irrelevant, at any rate.

    They think it is just fine and dandy to manipulate — even make up — the facts to create whatever “outcome” they desire.

    These are the folks who much prefer a President who assures them them that they can go on living the wasteful lifestyle that they have been living without worrying about environmental (or any other) repercussions — indeed, without worrying about ANYONE else.

    They absolutely loathe people like Jimmy Carter because 1) as a nuclear engineer, he actually understands technological issues (quite unlike themselves) 2) he tells them things that they certainly do not want to hear: instead of driving that Hummer, they should drive smaller, more fuel efficient cars.

    These people only face reality when it hits them squarely in the face (as it has begun to do of late, with high gas prices, Hurricane Katrina, etc) and avoiding it is no longer an option.

    In the end, their flimsy “spreadsheet world” is no match for the real one — and becomes little more than a “shred-sheet” .

  8. #8 Laurence Jewett
    June 14, 2006

    And, of course, sometimes the people at the top are the ones putting together the spreadsheets …

    Where haven’t we heard THIS before?

    Researcher alleges climate cover-up
    By Jim Erickson, Rocky Mountain News
    June 8, 2006
    BOULDER – The American public is not hearing the full story on global warming because Bush administration officials are muzzling government scientists, a top climate researcher said Wednesday.

    Warren Washington, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, said that Bush appointees are suppressing information about climate change, restricting journalists’ access to federal scientists and rewriting agency news releases to stress global warming uncertainties.,1299,DRMN_15_4759358,00.html

  9. #9 Jon Winsor
    June 15, 2006

    Speaking of a low regard for empirical evidence, this just in:

    A recent article by Laura Rozen for the Los Angeles Times revealed the Pentagon has created yet another Office of Special Plans-type body called the Directorate for Iran, or the Iranian Directorate.

    The notorious Office of Special Plans – which focused on Iraq — is now believed by most experts to have provided a secondary conduit of cherry-picked intelligence on Iraq to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the White House.

    More background:

    (I hope this isn’t too far off topic.)

New comments have been disabled.