The Intersection

John Marburger Does it Again

As usual, the president’s science adviser has been trotted out to explain away the administration’s latest misbehavior with respect to climate science. Marburger just put out a statement (PDF), defending White House changes to CDC director Julie Gerberding’s testimony. Because I’ve been on the road, I have not yet been able to do an in depth analysis of the before and after versions of the testimony. But I don’t even need to do that to challenge the following from Marburger:

2) Extreme Weather Events. The draft testimony says “Climate change is
anticipated to alter the frequency, timing, intensity, and duration of extreme weather events, such as hurricanes and floods.” The IPCC reports do not provide a basis for a link between hurricane frequency and climate change. Most of the text in the recent IPCC reports focuses on the link between hurricane intensity and climate change – an issue about which there is considerable debate within the scientific community. The testimony appeared to have modified a more general reference in the WGII report that “…some weather events and extremes will become more frequent, more widespread and/or more intense during the 21st century…” – a reference that may be accurately applied to certain weather events, but not, based on current science, to hurricanes.”

Huh? The original statement from the CDC draft testimony, as cited above, hardly strikes me as very problematic. First, it merely lists hurricanes as one example of an extreme weather event. Moreover, even with respect to hurricanes the statement isn’t so off base.

Global warming is bound to change hurricanes in myriad ways, not all of which are understood at the moment. But it’s probably inevitable that the storms will change, and it would be surprising if changes were merely felt in terms of intensity, rather than in other parameters. So despite Marburger’s attempt to be pedantic about what the IPCC did and didn’t say, I really have very little problem with the quoted CDC statement. Certainly I have a much bigger problem with the common White House practice of editing and changing testimony from expert agencies. I don’t think the White House should be involved with such testimony–period.

And moreover, if the CDC statement needed changes on this particular point then it should have been edited, not redacted…don’t ya think?

Comments

  1. #1 Neuro-conservative
    October 27, 2007

    Chris — Your implicit assumption is that agency staff and scientists are apolitical, neutral fact-gatherers. This is demonstrably false.

    62 million of your fellow Americans voted for President Bush to serve as Gerberding’s boss. Your line of reasoning veers towards the anti-democratic.

  2. #2 Jim RL
    October 27, 2007

    Neuro, are you arguing that facts are set by popularity? The majority of people used to think the sun revolved around the earth, but that didn’t make it true. Your statement also assumes that because 51% of the voting public elect someone that they necessarily agree with his/her every decision. I really don’t see what your point is. Chris is just calling them, once again, on their bullshit. The whole thing is just nonsense.

    “Climate change is anticipated to alter the frequency, timing, intensity, and duration of extreme weather events, such as hurricanes and floods.”

    Is a very mild assessment. Quite frankly it would be amazing if climate change had absolutely no effect on “the frequency, timing, intensity, and duration of extreme weather events” The original statement is well supported by the evidence, and Bush’s democratic election doesn’t change that.

  3. #3 daenku32
    October 27, 2007

    Neuro,

    I’m betting that more than 62 million would like to see Gerberding’s boss getting fired from his job. I say let’s do let democracy run its course.

  4. #4 Neuro-conservative
    October 27, 2007

    Jim — Your comments get right to the heart of the matter. While there are a few facts at its basis, AGW theory requires a series of inferences and judgement calls; formulating a policy response to the possibility of AGW is strictly a judgement call. In a democratic republic such as ours, these judgements are entrusted to our elected officials.

    daenku32 — Which article of the Constitution permits the firing of a president? Our democracy will run its course, with an election scheduled in just over a year. Mark it on your calendar.

  5. #5 Fred Bortz
    October 28, 2007

    Neuro, when you write:
    “AGW theory requires a series of inferences and judgement calls”

    I presume you mean “AGW policy” instead. We elect our officials to make policy judgments, but we hope they are intelligent enough to respect the process of science and its findings.

    Those findings are not based on majority vote, but on the evidence. I hope our future presidents will choose science advisers primarily for their willingness to present that evidence and the unvarnished interpretations of it to the administration.

    When the science adviser speaks publicly, it should be as a scientist, not as a policy-maker or politician. For instance, if our next president decides that a carbon tax is preferable to cap-and-trade schemes, that’s policy. Likewise, if our next president decides that the protocol that succeeds the Kyoto protocol is or is not in our national interest, that’s policy.

    Even if the president decides to ignore the science when making policy, that’s democracy in action. In other words, we’re stuck with the current administration’s anti-scientific bent (click my name) for the next 14+ months.

    But it pains me to see the science adviser actively participating in the politicization of science. It’s not just bad science, but bad politics.

  6. #6 Neuro-conservative
    October 28, 2007

    Fred — I meant exactly what I said: policy is strictly a judgement call, but even deciding on the theory involves a series of inferences and judgement calls. AGW is not a fact, and it is politics, not science, to pretend that it is.

  7. #7 Fred Bortz
    October 28, 2007

    Neuro,

    Are you saying that the IPCC reports are strictly political?

    When you first posted here, you seemed like a breath of fresh air: a conservative who accepts the IPCC reports and wants to argue policy.

    Now you seem to be saying that the scientific consensus expressed by those reports, namely that GW is anthropogenic to a high degree of confidence, is political rather than scientific. Science never deals in absolutes, but the IPCC conclusion is that AGW is strongly supported science.

    The IPCC was set up to avoid a bandwagon effect and to provide policymakers with reliable information on which to base their proposals. I agree that it has a political component, but its mandate is to provide scientifically sound interpretations and scenarios about climate change. It is a joint effort of the UN and the World Meteorological Society, not the UN alone.

    I’m disappointed, to say the least in your closing sentence: “AGW is not a fact, and it is politics, not science, to pretend that it is.”

    I’ll counter that buy saying AGW is strongly supported by a large body of evidence, and it is politics, not science, to pretend that it isn’t.

    So do you accept the IPCC reports as the best available science at this time? If not, what reports do you favor and why?

  8. #8 Neuro-conservative
    October 28, 2007

    I would not say the IPCC reports are strictly political, but I equally hope you wouldn’t deny that the process is clearly a political one. IPCC is run by politicians, who re-write the final report after the scientists are done. Moreover, the scientists themselves have a vested interest (grant $$$) in suggesting that danger is imminent and their work is therefore urgent.

    Even putting all that aside, and accepting IPCC at face value, there are still several layers of judgement required to determine the magnitude of any problem, the degree to which it is anthropogenic, and the degree to which it is malleable — all before even considering the policy implications. IPCC leaves broad latitude in quantifying these parameters.

    I strenuously object to the attitude, prevalent in these quarters, that the answers to the above questions are settled, and that they uniformly point in the desired policy directions, which somehow always seem to involve big government.

  9. #9 Fred Bortz
    October 28, 2007

    Neuro,

    I certainly accept that the process of producing the final report is political, but it is also guided by a respect for science which I find sorely lacking in the present U.S. administration (the subject of this thread).

    I certainly don’t dispute this statement of yours

    Even putting all that aside, and accepting IPCC at face value, there are still several layers of judgement required to determine the magnitude of any problem, the degree to which it is anthropogenic, and the degree to which it is malleable — all before even considering the policy implications. IPCC leaves broad latitude in quantifying these parameters.

    In fact, if I read Chris Mooney’s books correctly, he wouldn’t dispute any of that either. Nor does his writing seem to favor any particular political approach other than one that starts with the IPCC reports.

    He is obviously to my left and farther to your left on the political spectrum, but his writing has focused not on particular political remedies but rather on the way science is used and abused, noting that the abuse most recently has been worse on the political right.

    The one area where you and I may disagree most strongly is on the urgency of addressing the problems and finding a practical set of policies to mitigate the problems. From my reading over the past decade on the subject (click my name for reviews, including the two Mooney books), the worst case scenarios of the late 1990s are more plausible today than they were then.

    Changes in the polar regions, most notably, are happening at a faster rate than expected, which is why I say it is urgent to act. I’m not prescribing a specific remedy other than to stop fiddling while the Greenland and West Antarctic Ice Sheets are showing signs of dynamic melting.

    If we find those signs are less serious than they seem, we can implement new policies more slowly. But if we don’t start working on what those policies will be, events may move faster than we are prepared for.

  10. #10 Neuro-conservative
    October 29, 2007

    Fred — For the moment, we can agree to disagree on the urgency of any problem.

    As pertains to this thread, I think we are in agreement that evaluating the urgency is a matter of judgement, not scientific fact.

    In a democratic republic such as ours, it is the elected officials — not bureaucrats — who should be making those judgements on behalf of the citizens. These officials can be replaced every 2, 4, or 6 years if the citizenry is dissatisfied with the results of those decisions. Agency bureaucrats — more often than not liberals — have this strange tendency to forget that basic principle when Republicans are in office.

  11. #11 Philip H.
    October 29, 2007

    “In a democratic republic such as ours, it is the elected officials — not bureaucrats — who should be making those judgements on behalf of the citizens. These officials can be replaced every 2, 4, or 6 years if the citizenry is dissatisfied with the results of those decisions. Agency bureaucrats — more often than not liberals — have this strange tendency to forget that basic principle when Republicans are in office.”

    Oh, where to begin. As one of those much maligned bureaucrats, who chose public service over corporate life out of a sense of duty to my fellow Americans, I grow exceedingly WEARY of getting slapped around by both sides of this debate. When my daughters start into this kind of childish, pedantic behavior, I can send them to their rooms – how I wish it were the same in the blogosphere.

    We don’t forget that our “bosses” can be replaced every few years based on the Constitution – in fact we welcome it because it tends to shake us up and keep us from becoming TOO settled in our ways. Since you have all apparently forgotten, bureaucrats are also citizens, and we vote just the same as everyone else. We also read (!), attend political rallies, and volunteer for causes we believe in. And we’re not monolithically liberals. To assume that we are is like saying all African Americans are a dark ebony pigment, or all sea cucumbers are green. Its stereotyping, and you need to stop.

    What riles bureaucrats is that, when we do our jobs conscientiously, we present the full range of facts, and we try to help the politicans make decisions that help our fellow citizens, we then get steam rolled and made to look like uneducated buffoons because the answer coming our of the pol’s mouth often ignores the facts we laid out. It happens across government, not just in science. And it happens under administrations of both stripes.

    As to the firing of the President, The U.S. Constitution contains just such an article:

    ARTICLE II

    EXECUTIVE DEPARTMENT

    Section 4. The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the
    United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and
    Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.

  12. #12 Fred Bortz
    October 29, 2007

    Thanks, Phil, for the reminder that bureaucrats are people, not cogs in a machine.

    I was looking for a way to reply to Neuro’s statement that “Agency bureaucrats — more often than not liberals — have this strange tendency to forget that basic principle when Republicans are in office.” Now I don’t have to.

    As you note, most government employees are trying to do a good job and many. like you, see their work as a public service.

    Whenever I see the phrase “agency bureaucrats” or “government bureaucrats,” I immediately compare them with private sector bureaucrats whom I have encountered. When they see themselves as providing customer service, they can do well.

    But they are usually as constrained by corporate regulations as government employees are constrained by government regulations. When you add in the profit motive, my answer to the question, “Would you like a government bureaucracy in charge of your health insurance?” becomes this:

    Yes. A bureaucracy is inevitable for any health insurance system. Given that, I’d rather have an imperfect bureaucracy with a goal of public service than an equally imperfect one with a goal of making a profit.

    I know Neuro doesn’t agree with that, but I couldn’t leave this discussion without a friendly yank on his chain.

  13. #13 Neuro-conservative
    October 29, 2007

    Philip — Is that a chip on your shoulder, or are you just happy to see me? With that attitude, you are not helping dispel any preconceptions about bureaucrats. Please go back and re-read (or just read) my post, and you will see that I did not say the things that you imagined you heard.

    By the way, do you believe that editing Gerberding’s testimony is a high crime, or a misdemeanor?

  14. #14 Philip H.
    October 30, 2007

    It is a chip on my shoulder – the chip that comes from too many baseless attacks on “faceless” bureaucrats for all sorts of “crimes.” And to be clear – I blame ALL politicians for this approach. The current crop of Presidential candidates on both sides are, when time permits, slamming hard the very federal workers that they will need once elected to get their job done.

    And as to helping attitudes about bureaucrats, how would you suggest I change my tactics? Roll over and play dead as so many of my colleagues do when accused of being the “bad seeds” in the public apple? Really, the American experiment in democracy was built on dissent and open frank disagreement. I see no reason to pull my punches just because there is a popular notion that bureaucrats are unthinking, uncritical, voiceless rigid adherents to their own agendas while working in a political arena.

    Finally on the subject of Gerberding’s testimony, as a bureaucrat I’m in a rather similar position. In my daily communications I ‘m required by the administration I work for to disucss their official position – like it or not. Dr. Gerberding is as well. That doesn’t mean, however, that political appointees, or their bureaucratic staff, with little subject matter expertise, have a right to remove challenging testimony from the statements of a public official. Surely there was a better middle ground in this event – as there are in so many. So in this case I’ll go with misdemeanor, but reserving the right to switch to fealony if further evidence warrants it.

  15. #15 SouthernFriedSkeptic
    October 31, 2007

    It seems to me that urgency should be based not only on the strength of supporting evidence but also on potential consequences. And in cases where potential consequences are uncertain, then to me, it seems prudence lies with precautions taken with the worst case scenario in mind within certain parameters of reason and feasibility. “Day after Tomorrow” superfreeze- probably not worth preparing for. But if the effects could narrowed to a generally accepted range, then the most harmful end should be the basis for intervention. When a hurricane nears the coast, we encourage residents to prepare for the disaster. Stock up on water, board windows, and possibly evacuate. Though it is inconvenient, and often a financial strain, it is better to prepare- even if the hurricane does not hit your area. Climate change seems to have a good bit of grey area. I would just like to see both sides come together and put up some plausible, specific scenarios which model a range of possible effects and can garner a general consensus, rather than staking out a point along the continuum and complaining about those to the right and left of you.

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