Dangers of the Middle

I am quoted at length in this recent Boston Globe op-ed column by Cathy Young, entitled "Common sense in the warming debate." (Via Prometheus.) I really appreciate the attention from Young, but without necessarily intending to do so, she appears to have put me in a box that I don't wish to occupy. So allow me to clarify.

Young starts off like this:

Global warming is the subject of intense debate. But if ideology is getting in the way of science, maybe both sides of the debate are letting that happen.

While the evidence of global climate change is overwhelming, there are skeptics who challenge the consensus view that warming is caused by human activity. These individuals are routinely accused of being in the pocket of big corporations that would be hurt by aggressive measures to curb carbon emissions. (And, in fact, many of them work for groups that receive funding from such sources as ExxonMobil). Chris Mooney, author of "The Republican War on Science," has argued that treating the issue as a legitimate debate is misleading because it bestows legitimacy on pseudoscientific propaganda.

But is everyone on the other side disinterested? On his blog, Mooney notes that sometimes "environmental groups and their ilk oversell the science." On the issue of whether global warming is to blame for hurricanes, he says, "it's clear the science has been abused on both sides."

People can easily see economic motives to bend the facts and abuse the science. Ideological motives are less readily apparent, but no less real; and, for quite a few people, environmentalism has become a matter of not just ideology but quasi-religious zealotry.

I am then cited again at the end:

There is a growing number of voices in the scientific community that reject both denialism and alarmism on global warming. Roger Pielke, an environmental science professor at the University of Colorado, calls such people "nonskeptical heretics" -- those who believe that human-caused global warming is a real problem, but one that can be met in part with technological management and adaptation. Mooney has come to embrace such a viewpoint as well.

There's nothing literally incorrect about how my stances are portrayed in this article. But after reading it, one might get the impression that I think (as Young apparently does) that the "industry" and "environmentalist" sides are equally culpable when it comes to misusing science in the global warming debate. In fact, however, I don't think that at all. That came across clearly in my debate with Ronald Bailey out in Pasadena at the Skeptics Society meeting a number of months back. Bailey and I were debating precisely this question: who's worse when it comes to abusing science, the left or the right?

I argued the right, but there were a lot of caveats. I said my position only applied to the current political moment in the United States. And then I outlined the criteria that I was using to determine who's "worse" (while admitting that this is hardly an exact science, and that a lot of judgment was necessarily involved in such a determination). Those criteria included: consequences of the misbehavior; total extent of the misbehavior; the extent to which the misbehavior is institutionalized and self-sustaining; and the extent to which the misbehavior is strategic in nature, rather than merely consisting of occasional honest mistakes.

By these lights, I strongly believe that fossil fuel interests' attempts to sow doubt about climate change, which have been well funded, institutionalized, and apparently strategic in nature (see The Republican War on Science for details), far outweigh occasional missteps by environmental groups. I fully admit that those missteps have happened, and suspect they will continue to happen. And Young is right--I do see plenty of misuses of science with respect to hurricanes and global warming, and those misuses are coming from the left as well as the right.

However, I do not believe there is absolute parity between both sides when it comes to misusing science on global warming generally. I am not saying, "a pox on both their houses," to rip off Shakespeare. If a "non-skeptical heretic" is one who declares such a pox, then that's not what I am.


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The "two sides to every story" thing ends up painting a stupid picture in a lot of cases. Evolution vs. creation, global climate change, the age of the freaking Grand Canyon. There's just not a very journalistic way to say that only a few isolated crazies disagree with this very obvious shit.

The left-right axis may not be the most appropriate way to evaluate abuse of science. I've begun to divide abuse of science into a couple of classes.

One, in which science is misrepresented to advance a political end, as in global warming. Either Left or Right extremists can put ideology above evidence. On global warming, it happens to be the Right and in general the recent Republican movement has taken an ideology-over-facts stance on issues across the board (including Iraq), but there is nothing inherent in being Republican or Democrat that necessitates it. As you say, it's a symptom of the moment.

The other, in which science itself is attacked -- not for a political end, but just out of a worldview that we should not meddle with nature. I see this attack clearly in the fight against stem cell research, against evolution teaching, and in the attacks on "gay sheep" studies into the biological basis of homosexuality I've been following closely. There are "back-to-the-land" folks on both sides of the aisle, but by definition this is a conservative (as opposed to progressive) position, in a literal sense. There is a great deal more anti-science sentiment among Republicans, and I think that in fact is inherent to being on the Right.

The subtlety here -- that abuses of science can come from either side, but almost always do come from the Right (and have mattered more) -- is perhaps too fine for a newspaper piece to get accurate. After all, you did write recently "I am a 'non-skeptic heretic' if..." with the first point being a criticism of environmental groups.

I told you that you weren't a skeptical heretic! I wrote: "...you are a conservative skeptic in the best sense of the words."

See http://scienceblogs.com/intersection/2007/01/what_does_nonskeptic_heret…

In your conservative skepticism, you have looked at the evidence and concluded that in the case of climate science, the big-money interests are worse abusers than those who let an environmentalist ideology (rather than environmental science) be their guide.

It's not a left/right or Democrat/Republican divide here. Religious conservatives are awakening to the need to act, and many Republican-leaning entrepreneurs see the economic benefits of acting responsibly as well.

I wish people would stop inventing such boxes in which to put other's viewpoints!

Well, Mark Kleiman also smacks down Young for misinterpreting what he said.

See Huffington Post:

So if Young got your thoughts wrong and Kleiman's then why does Pielke thinks it's such a great op-ed. And who is this Pielke character? He tries to position himself in the "middle" but he seems to get an awful lot of kudos from right-wingers.

He gets a mention by Inhofe

And here he is getting some praise from climate skeptic, Pat Michaels at Cato.

Even the National Association of Manufacturers thinks Pielke is dandy.

He seems to be cited as a political scientist, and a climatologist.

"If a "non-skeptical heretic" is one who declares such a pox, then that's not what I am.'

A "non-skeptical [sic] heretic" is whatever Roger Pielke says it is.

Putting people in such "boxes" is a rhetorical (propaganda) tactic, but such boxes are rarely an accurate representation of reality.

By Dark Tent (not verified) on 16 Jan 2007 #permalink