Noted paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey predicts the “debate” over evolution will end within the next few decades. As Leakey sees it, scientific evidence in support of evolution will continue to accumulate to the point where “even the skeptics can accept it.” I am not so sanguine, as I don’t believe skepticism of evolution is driven by “skepticism,” scientific or otherwise, nor do I think additional scientific evidence will satisfy evolution’s opponents. To the contrary, resistance to evolution is driven, first and foremost, by a belief that evolution represents a threat to religious belief, and second by “tribal” impulses. Lack of evidence has nothing to do with it, and I doubt the accumulation of additional evidence will change many people’s minds.
Archive for the ‘Politicizing Science’ Category
The folks at the Heartland Institute are mad, and that seems to have driven them a little mad. For years environmental activists have compared climate skeptics and those who raise questions about the likelihood of a warming-induced apocalypse to Holocaust deniers and worse. In 1989, then-Senator Al Gore famously compared those who downplayed the climate threat to those who ignored Hitler’s rise and NASA’s James Hansen compared coal-bearing trains to the rail cars headed to Nazi crematoria, drawing a moral equivalence between the use of coal and the Holocaust. Think Progress also trumpeted the “climate denial” views of Norwegian terrorist Andrew Breivik and claimed he was “inspired” by mainstream climate skeptics.
Then, earlier this year, Heartland was the target of directed smear campaign after the Pacific Institute’s Peter Gleick surreptitiously obtained internal Heartland documents by impersonating a board member. Gleick anonymously distributed the purloined documents together with a forged memorandum purporting to provide further evidence of Heartland’s internal dealings. Progressive bloggers trumpeted the materials, and the forged memo in particular, as evidence of Heartland’s sinister machinations. While it seems likely that Gleick himself forged the memo (or knows who did) Heartland may have difficulty seeking legal redress for his actions. I posted on what some call “Fakegate” here and here.
Instead of trying to retain the moral high ground by defending the substance of its views, Heartland adopted the tactics of its most unhinged critics, purchasing a billboard comparing those who believe in global warming to the Unabomber. According to Heartland, this was to be the first in a series featuring famous “global warming alarmists,” including Osama Bin Laden, Fidel Castro and other “rogues and villians.” Heartland explained the campaign this way:
what these murderers and madmen have said differs very little from what spokespersons for the United Nations, journalists for the “mainstream” media, and liberal politicians say about global warming. They are so similar, in fact, that a Web site has a quiz that asks if you can tell the difference between what Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, wrote in his “Manifesto” and what Al Gore wrote in his book, Earth in the Balance.
The point is that believing in global warming is not “mainstream,” smart, or sophisticated. In fact, it is just the opposite of those things. Still believing in man-made global warming – after all the scientific discoveries and revelations that point against this theory – is more than a little nutty. In fact, some really crazy people use it to justify immoral and frightening behavior.
The response to this ad was quite negative from friend and foe alike, prompting Heartland to pull the ad within 24 hours. Heartland now claims the billboard was an “experiment.”
“This provocative billboard was always intended to be an experiment. And after just 24 hours the results are in: It got people’s attention.
“This billboard was deliberately provocative, an attempt to turn the tables on the climate alarmists by using their own tactics but with the opposite message. We found it interesting that the ad seemed to evoke reactions more passionate than when leading alarmists compare climate realists to Nazis or declare they are imposing on our children a mass death sentence. We leave it to others to determine why that is so.
Well lots of folks didn’t get the joke, including many of Heartlands friends and funders. Several speakers have withdrawn from Heartland’s annual climate conference, including Rep. James Sensenbrenner and IPCC critic Donna Laframboise. (More reactions here and here.) E&E News also reports the publicity stunt is costing Heartland financial support, and could prompt staff departures too.
Even if the billboard was initially designed as an “experiment,” it was a stupid idea. The implicit argument of the billboards is completely unjustifiable. So what if some tyrants and whackjobs believe in global warming. This is like arguing someone should eat meat because Hitler was a vegetarian. Lots of evil, crazy, and stupid people believe plenty of sensible things (and lots of brilliant people have embraced nutty ideas). Heartland’s justifiable anger at the vitriol spewed by its most extreme or unhinged opponents does not justify sinking to their level. If the folks at Heartland believe there is a double-standard — and I believe there is, even though I also believe anthropogenic global warming is a real problem — then they should explain why. There’s no need to provoke and offend countless commuters and others by suggesting that a believing in global warming makes one like the Unabomber. It was a know-nothing message, and not just because most so-called “skeptics” actually believe in global warming too, and only reject apocalyptic climate projections. I expect this sort of stunt from extreme animal rights groups, not those who purport to want an open and honest scientific debate. However angry the Heartland folks may be with some of those on the other side, this stunt was unjustified and unwise — and by all accounts it looks like it will cost Heartland dearly.
The New Orleans Times Picayune reports the White House denied the Department of Interior’s Office of Inspector General access to e-mails and communications about White House revisions to a report Interior Secretary Ken Salazar relied upon to justify a moratorium in oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. The story begins:
A senior federal investigator says he was denied access to a White House official and full email records as he tried to determine whether a BP oil spill report was intentionally edited to erroneously suggest outside experts supported the Obama administration’s deepwater drilling moratorium. The experts, in fact, did not endorse the moratorium the administration ordered after the 2010 spill. The White House and Department of Interior later said the mistake was inadvertent, a result of an early-morning edit that moved some material from the body of the report to the executive summary.
Although some e-mails were provided eventually, the IG’s office was never able to validate their authenticity or completeness, the investigator claims. He also alleges the White House did not allow the IG to interview a White House official involved in editing the report. An official in the IG’s office told the Times Picayune that his office “does not have authority to compel” White House cooperation with its investigation.
A new study purports to show that trust in “science” as an institution has declined precipitously in recent decades. This study has received substantial attention, including these stories in Inside Higher Ed and the Los Angeles Times. The IHE story, which is fairly representative of the coverage, begins:
Just over 34 percent of conservatives had confidence in science as an institution in 2010, representing a long-term decline from 48 percent in 1974, according to a paper being published today in American Sociological Review.
That represents a dramatic shift for conservatives, who in 1974 were more likely than liberals or moderates (all categories based on self-identification) to express confidence in science. While the confidence levels of other groups in science have been relatively stable, the conservative drop now means that group is the least likely to have confidence in science.
This is a fair characterization of how the study’s author, Gordon Gauchat, characterizes the study. The problem is this is not what the study actually shows. To measure “trust in science” Gauchat relies on data from the General Social Survey (GSS) from 1972 to 2010, in which respondents were asked to rate the degree of “confidence” they have in various social institutions. Yet the GSS specific survey question does upon which Gauchat relies does not actually measure trust in “science.” Rather, the question asks respondents to rate their confidence in “the scientific community.” But “science” and “the scientific community” are not the same thing. The Gauchat study certainly finds something interesting, but it’s not quite what he claims.
Why does this matter? Because one can have tremendous faith in science, as an institution and a process for discovering truth, while simultaneously lacking confidence in “the scientific community” as represented by current scientific leaders, science agencies, university researchers, those who purport to speak for science, etc. This split is one possible explanation for Gauchat’s finding that the decline in confidence in “the scientific community” has been greater among more educated conservatives — those who may be more aware of actions by leading scientists and scientific institutions that have squandered some of science’s credibility as many scientists have embraced political advocacy and sought to claim that science supports specific policy agendas. It’s also possible that some conservatives have become alienated from the scientific community insofar as they have perceived science to support “liberal” causes (e.g. environmental activism, government regulation) as opposed to “conservative” causes (e.g. military technology, industrial progress, etc.), as well as by the outward hostility toward religion voiced by many prominent scientists. See also these comments by Glenn Reynolds and Nick Gillespie.
In my view, both conservatives and liberals are guilty of politicizing science and pretending as if science supports their policy agendas, and this approach to science encourages partisans to be unduly suspicious of scientific findings that undermine a particular worldview. So conservatives are unduly skeptical of scientific evidence for climate change (lest global warming become a justification for bigger government) and liberals are unduly skeptical of scientific findings on GMOs or nuclear power. The more scientists play into this approach — and many do — the more skeptical partisans become, and much of this skepticism of scientists is justified. And insofar as specific scientific institutions have appeared to become more aligned with “liberal” causes, it should be no wonder that many conservatives have less confidence in such institutions, but that does not mean that conservatives have lost faith in “science” itself.
POST-SCRIPT: There are obviously some groups of conservatives, particularly those who deny evolution and claim “intelligent design” is a scientific theory, who lack confidence in anything we would recognize as science, but this is not the phenomenon Gauchat claims to be observing.
The revelation that Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute posed as a Heartland Institute board member to obtain confidential board documents and then distributed these documents, along with an almost-certainly-fake “Climate Strategy” memo continues to reverberate through climate science and policy circles. Folks that might otherwise be discussing the new study claiming climate change could lead to shorter people are instead preoccupied with the ethics of Gleick’s actins. There’s also reason to believe legal action could be coming. Gleick may have violated relevant state laws, and Heartland has apparently referred the matter to the FBI and is considering civil actions. Gleick has canceled recent speaking engagements, resigned posts with some organizations involved in climate science and policy, and is taking a leave from the Pacific Institute, where he is also under investigation.
The Heartland Institute, for its part, has released two sets of e-mail correspondence (on its new “Fakegate” website) that shed further light on Gleick’s actions. Early this year, heartland’s James Taylor had an exchange with Gleick on the Forbes website. More specifically, Taylor lambasted a Gleick essay, and Gleick responded. Shortly thereafter, Heartland invited Gleick to participate in a debate over climate change at the Institute’s annual dinner. There was a brief back and forth, but on January 27, Gleick declined the offer, even though Heartland had offered to pay $5,000 to a charity of Gleick’s choice. Interestingly enough, on the very same day he turned down Heartland’s invitation to debate — citing, among other things, concerns about the organizations lack of transparency and refusal to list all of its donors — Gleick began posing as one of Heartland’s board members in an e-mail exchange that led to his receipt of confidential Heartland documents. This is quite a coincidence — a coincidence that makes Gleick’s explanation of his actions all the more curious (as if they were not curious enough). As Steven Hayward quipped, “The only thing missing right now to make Gleick’s story weaker is an old Woodstock typewriter.”
Meanwhile, Heartland has been quite heavy-handed with bloggers and websites who posted the documents distributed by Gleick, suggesting that posting the documents on line could be illegal and demanding that all of the relevant documents, and not just the “Climate Strategy” memo, be taken down. Debbie Fine, general counsel for the Center for American Progress Action Fund, has responded to Heartland’s threats with a letter noting CAPAF (like many other organizations) has taken down the almost-certainly-faked memo, but explaining why it is under no legal obligation to remove the other documents. As I understand the law, CAPAF is correct. Those who obtained the documents lawfully may disclose their contents.
In 2010 and 2011 the climate science community was rocked by the release of e-mails from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit showing that climate scientists can be just as petty, political and (at times) unethical as any other group. To this day, it has not been determined who obtained the e-mail files and posted them online.
Last week, another potentially explosive trove of climate-related private documents was released on the web, in this case a set of documents prepared for a board meeting of the Heartland Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Chicago that sponsors the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change and other efforts designed to downplay the threat posed by anthropogentic climate change and discourage the adoption of climate change policies. Among the documents was a “Climate Strategy” memorandum purporting to outline Heartland’s secret efforts to, among other things, suppress “warmist” views and discourage the teaching of climate science in schools. Someone calling himself “Heartland Insider” distributed these documents to several progressive bloggers who promptly posted the materials on the web.
Other than the “Climate Strategy” memo, the documents were relatively pedestrian — revealing but not earth-shattering. If anything, these documents suggested that the Heartland Institute’s efforts — and those of climate skeptics generally — are less well-funded than some suspect (and certainly less well-funded than major environmentalist groups). Yet almost immediately, questions were raised about the memo’s authenticity. The content and tone of the memorandum were a bit off, and it contained subtle errors of the sort someone on the inside would have been unlikely to make. Megan McArdle dissected the memo here and here, while others identified evidence the memo had a different provenance than the other purloined materials. Heartland, for its part, declared the memo a fake (while also making threats and going on the warpath against anyone who dared post the purloined documents). Meanwhile, speculation swirled about the memo’s actual author.
Yesterday, a big part of the mystery was solved when a climate scientist, Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute, came forward as the source of the documents, but not as the author of the suspicious memo. Wrote Gleick:
At the beginning of 2012, I received an anonymous document in the mail describing what appeared to be details of the Heartland Institute’s climate program strategy. It contained information about their funders and the Institute’s apparent efforts to muddy public understanding about climate science and policy. I do not know the source of that original document but assumed it was sent to me because of my past exchanges with Heartland and because I was named in it.
Given the potential impact however, I attempted to confirm the accuracy of the information in this document. In an effort to do so, and in a serious lapse of my own and professional judgment and ethics, I solicited and received additional materials directly from the Heartland Institute under someone else’s name. The materials the Heartland Institute sent to me confirmed many of the facts in the original document, including especially their 2012 fundraising strategy and budget. I forwarded, anonymously, the documents I had received to a set of journalists and experts working on climate issues. I can explicitly confirm, as can the Heartland Institute, that the documents they emailed to me are identical to the documents that have been made public. I made no changes or alterations of any kind to any of the Heartland Institute documents or to the original anonymous communication.
The very, very best thing that one can say about this is that this would be an absolutely astonishing lapse of judgement for someone in their mid-twenties, and is truly flabbergasting coming from a research institute head in his mid-fifties. Let’s walk through the thought process:
You receive an anonymous memo in the mail purporting to be the secret climate strategy of the Heartland Institute. It is not printed on Heartland Institute letterhead, has no information identifying the supposed author or audience, contains weird locutions more typical of Heartland’s opponents than of climate skeptics, and appears to have been written in a somewhat slapdash fashion. Do you:
A. Throw it in the trash
B. Reach out to like-minded friends to see how you might go about confirming its provenance
C. Tell no one, but risk a wire-fraud conviction, the destruction of your career, and a serious PR blow to your movement by impersonating a Heartland board member in order to obtain confidential documents.
As a journalist, I am in fact the semi-frequent recipient of documents promising amazing scoops, and depending on the circumstances, my answer is always “A” or “B”, never “C”.
In this case, however, we are to believe that Gleick was so overcome with his rage at the Heartland Institute that he chose option “C” and, upon receiving additional documents from Heartland, sent the whole package of materials around without ever doing any investigation of his own as to the authenticity of the “Climate Strategy” memo. It’s hard to believe, but it’s also hard to believe that Gleick himself would have forged the document (as many suspected even before he came forward). Is there a third alternative?
In any event, Gleick’s actions will have serious repurcussions. From the NYT‘s Andrew Revkin:
Another question, of course, is who wrote the climate strategy document that Gleick now says was mailed to him. His admitted acts of deception in acquiring the cache of authentic Heartland documents surely will sustain suspicion that he created the summary, which Heartland’s leadership insists is fake.
One way or the other, Gleick’s use of deception in pursuit of his cause after years of calling out climate deception has destroyed his credibility and harmed others. (Some of the released documents contain information about Heartland employees that has no bearing on the climate fight.) That is his personal tragedy and shame (and I’m sure devastating for his colleagues, friends and family).
The broader tragedy is that his decision to go to such extremes in his fight with Heartland has greatly set back any prospects of the country having the “rational public debate” that he wrote — correctly — is so desperately needed.
Others have reached similar conclusions, but the feelings are not universal.
Much of the clmate science community seems unable to condemn Gleick’s conduct (see, e.g. here), just as some environmentalist groups and climate activists have a hard time acknowledging the frequent exaggeration or “sexing up” of climate studies to accentuate the threat posed by climate change. (And I say this as someone who believes climate change is a problem and supports appropriate policies to address the threat.)
When skeptics complain that global warming activists are apparently willing to go to any lengths–including lying–to advance their worldview, I’d say one of the movement’s top priorities should be not proving them right. And if one rogue member of the community does something crazy that provides such proof, I’d say it is crucial that the other members of the community say “Oh, how horrible, this is so far beyond the pale that I cannot imagine how this ever could have happened!” and not, “Well, he’s apologized and I really think it’s pretty crude and opportunistic to make a fuss about something that’s so unimportant in the grand scheme of things.”
After you have convinced people that you fervently believe your cause to be more important than telling the truth, you’ve lost the power to convince them of anything else.
UPDATE: Here is how the NYT initially covered the document release, and here is Heartland’s response. Here is the NYT‘s coverage of Gleick’s confession. David Appell also has an interview with AGU President Michael McPhaden on the controversy and its likely impact on climate science, and Judith Curry reflects on “Gleick’s ‘Integrity’.”
Heartland’s effort to force bloggers and others to take down the purloined documents seems like bluster to me. Unless they were to try and assert copyright, I don’t think they have much legal recourse. They may, however, be able to go after Gleick for his deception. Gleick seems aware of this possibility, as he has retained a lawyer (and a “crisis manager’) on this matter.
So-called “Plan-B” contraception is currently available for sale over-the-counter to women age 17 and older. Those younger than 17 may only obtain Plan B with a prescription.
Earlier this week, in response to a petition from Teva Pharmaceuticals, the manufacturer of Plan-B One Step, the Food and Drug Administration decided that the age limitations should be lifted. A review by the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research concluded that the drug is “safe and effective” for use by adolescents and that younger women of child-bearing age were able to follow the product’s instructions and use it properly. On this basis, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg decided to make Plan-B One Step available without a prescription to all women of child-bearing potential.
On Wednesday, Health & Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius overruled the FDA Commissioner. As Secretary Sebelius explained in a statement, “the data, submitted by Teva, do not conclusively establish that Plan B One-Step should be made available over the counter for all girls of reproductive age,” largely because a significant percentage of eleven-year olds are capable of bearing children, and that there “are significant cognitive and behavioral differences between older adolescent girls and the youngest girls of reproductive age.” Yesterday, President Obama said he supported the Secretary’s decision.
“I will say this, as the father of two daughters. I think it is important for us to make sure that we apply some common sense to various rules when it comes to over-the-counter medicine,” Mr. Obama said. The president’s daughters, Malia and Sasha, are 13 and 10. “I think most parents would probably feel the same way,” he said.
The usual suspects responded to the decision in the usual ways. Reproductive rights organizations condemned the Administration’s decision. Anti-abortion groups, which consider Plan-B an “abortifacient” because it can prevent a fertilized egg from coming to term, cheered the action.
Some of those critical of the Administration have characterized this decision as the triumph of politics over science. So is this part of an Obama Administration “war on science”? No. Medical science should — and apparently did — inform the Administration’s decision, but a decision of this sort is not — and cannot be — a purely scientific one. Science can illuminate the relevant trade-offs in a policy decision of this sort, but it does not determine how much weight should be placed on which concerns, such as whether it is more important to expand options and sexual autonomy for sixteen-year olds or “protect” girls who are only eleven or twelve. No amount of scientific research will resolve this sort of dispute.
Reproductive rights groups are not angry because the decision represents the politicization of science, but because it places a limitation on the sexual autonomy of young women. Similarly, those groups who support the decision are likewise motivated by something other than science. Insofar as either group frames their objections in scientific terms, they obscure what is really at stake. How much one values the ability of women and girls to control their own reproductive choices or believes in the ability of parents to influence if not control their daughters’ medical and sexual choices are relevant considerations, as is the weight one believes should be placed on the tail ends of the distributions — those most at risk of adverse effects or those girls of child-bearing age least able to make informed decisions for themselves — or the relevance that Plan-B contraception can prevent the implantation of an already fertilized egg. Science is relevant here, but it does not dictate the policy choice.
The NYT on the new release of climate scientists’ emails:
The new e-mails appeared remarkably similar to the ones released two years ago just ahead of a similar conference in Copenhagen. They involved the same scientists and many of the same issues, and some of them carried a similar tone: catty remarks by the scientists, often about papers written by others in the field. . . .
In one of the e-mails, Raymond S. Bradley, director of the Climate System Research Center at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, criticized a paper that Dr. [Michael] Mann wrote with the climate scientist Phil Jones, which used tree rings and similar markers to find that today’s climatic warming had no precedent in recent natural history. Dr. Bradley, who has often collaborated with Dr. Mann, wrote that the 2003 paper “was truly pathetic and should never have been published.”
Dr. Bradley confirmed in an interview that the e-mail was his, but said his comment had no bearing on whether global warming was really happening. “I did not like that paper at all, and I stand by that, and I am sure that I told Mike that” at the time, he said. But he added that a disagreement over a single paper had little to do with the overall validity of climate science. “There is no doubt we have a big problem with human-induced warming,” Dr. Bradley said. “Mike’s paper has no bearing on the fundamental physics of the problem that we are facing.”
Some of the other e-mails involved comments about problems with the computer programs used to forecast future climate, known as climate models. For instance, a cryptic e-mail apparently sent by Dr. Jones, a researcher at East Anglia, said, “Basic problem is that all models are wrong — not got enough middle and low level clouds.”
Gavin A. Schmidt, a climate modeler at NASA, said he found such exchanges unremarkable. He noted that difficulties in modeling were widely acknowledged and disclosed in the literature. Indeed, such problems are often discussed at scientific meetings in front of hundreds of people.
Roger Pielke also comments here, noting that the new e-mails confirm the politicization of decisions about what papers to cite (or omit) from the 2007 IPCC report.
As with the first ClimateGate release, I have yet to see anything in these e-mails that disproves, or even seriously undermines, the basic claim that human emissions of greenhouse gases have contributed to a gradual warming of the climate and will continue to do so in the future. They do, however, further confirm that “mainstream” climate scientists have contributed to the politicization of climate science and allowed political concerns to influence scientific judgments, exaggerating the reliability of climatic projections and downplaying scientific findings that undermine the claim that climate change presents an apocalyptic threat.
Last Thursday, at a congressional hearing, Assistant U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Gary Frazer said that the Interior Department’s Office of Science Integrity would conduct an independent evaluation of the work of FWS biologists accused by a federal judge of being dishonest with the court and acting in ‘”bad faith.” As the Los Angeles Times reports, Frazer said the FWS stands behind the work of its scientists but the Department will seek an independent assessment from outside experts nonetheless.
Frazer’s comments were delivered at a House Science Committee Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations hearing on “The Endangered Species Act: Reviewing the Nexus of Science and Policy” at which I was also a witness. In my testimony, I focused on the broader issue of how science is and should be used in under the ESA, and made three basic points.
First, it is important to ferret out genuine instances of scientific misconduct or science politicization. At the same time, it is essential to recognize that science merely informs, and does not dictate, policy. Species conservation is not – and cannot be – a wholly scientific exercise. Whether a given species is at risk of extinction may be a scientific question, but what to do about it is not. The likelihood that habitat loss or the introduction of an invasive species will compromise a species chance of survival in the wild is a question that can be answered by science. On the other hand, what conservation measures should be adopted to address such threats, and at what cost, are policy questions. Science can – indeed, must – inform such inquiries, but science alone does not tell us what to do. Insofar as debates over conservation policy are dressed up as scientific disputes — or instances of science abuse — we hamper our ability to assess competing policy options and pursue optimal conservation strategies.
Second, the structure of the ESA both undermines our ability to base conservation decisions on the best possible scientific information and creates substantial incentives to manipulate science so as to influence policy outcomes. The former occurs because the ESA makes the presence of endangered or threatened species a liability to private landowners. As a consequence, private landowners are often reluctant to allow government or other researchers to conduct surveys or engage in other species-related research on their land. This means the ESA makes it more difficult to know which species are most in need of help and where they are.
The ESA creates incentives for interest groups and others to try and manipulate science because certain science-based determinations, such as whether a species is “endangered,” are triggers for non-discretionary regulatory measures. This means that if an interest group wants to influence regulatory outcomes, it is in their interest to try and influence the initial scientific determination. This explains why there is so much controversy and conflict over species listing decisions. The Act itself turns what should be primarily a scientific inquiry — whether the best available science indicates that a species meets a given definition of what it means to be endangered or threatened — into a high stakes proxy battle over regulatory policy. This is not good for science, and further complicates the quest for optimal conservation measures.
For those interested, my full testimony is here. Portions of my testimony are based on my chapter in Rebuilding the Ark. An archived webcast and the written statements of the other witnesses should be available here, as are pictures from the hearing.
Today a federal judge threw out portions of the federal government’s plan to protect several fish species, including some salmon and steelhead in California, under the Endangered Species Act for the second time.
The Fresno Bee reports:
U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger invalidated parts of the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service’s so-called biological opinion, calling the plan “arbitrary, capricious, and unlawful.”
Wanger still held that pumping operations negatively impact the fish and adversely modify their critical habitat, but his decision means the agency will rewrite its plan again.
In the 279-page decision, Wanger wrote that some of the agency’s analyses relied on “equivocal or bad science” and didn’t clearly demonstrate why the measures it imposed were essential.
The opinion is quite critical of the scientists who helped develop the federal government’s biological opinion. [For those who don't want to wade through the entire opinion (I sure didn't), the concluding summary is posted here.] But the opinion in this case is nothing compared to what the judge reportedly said from the bench about the federal government’s biological opinion for delta smelt after the federal government sought to stay the judge’s injunction against some of its protective measures. E&E News (subscription required) reports:
“I have never seen anything like what has been placed before this court by these two witnesses,” U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger said in his ruling on the smelt case, according to a transcript obtained by E&ENews PM. “The only inference that the court can draw is that it is an attempt to mislead and to deceive the court.”
Wanger did not use the term “scientific misconduct,” or “lying,” but he used nearly every other adjective that describes deception by scientists as he built the record in his ruling for a finding of “bad faith.” He called their testimony “false,” “outrageous,” “incredible,” “unworthy of belief” and more. . . .
Wanger called a Fish and Wildlife Service scientist who had testified in the case a “zealot” who did not let facts get in the way of her goals.
“She may be a good scientist. She may be honest, but she has not been honest with this court,” he said.
He called a Bureau of Reclamation scientist “untrustworthy as a witness.”
“And I will note that he is a government agent,” Wanger said. “And the United States, as a sovereign, has a duty not only in dealing with the court, but in dealing with the public to always speak the truth, whether it’s good or bad.” . . .
“Protecting endangered species is crucially important,” Wanger said. “But when it overwhelms us to the point that we lose objectivity, we lose honesty, we’re all in a lot of trouble. Serious, serious trouble.”
Despite these conclusions, Judge Wanger still upheld large portions of the government’s plan. Here is another link to the transcript, and here and here are some more background on the judge’s prior finding in the delta smelt case.
UPDATE: In my original post I accidentally conflated the judge’s opinion in one case — involving the biological opinion for salmon, steelhead, and other fish species — and the judge’s comments in another case, involving the biological opinion for the delta smelt. I’ve revised the post to correct this error.
Going on the offensive against Texas Governor Rick Perry for issuing an executive mandate that young girls receive a vaccine against HPV, Rep. Michele Bachman embraced the fringe (and thoroughly discredited) claim that vaccination can cause mental retardation. Details here and here. It is understandable that a parent whose child experiences difficulties will be distraught and search for answers, but to give credence to the claim that vaccination causes mental retardation, autism, or other disabilities is thoroughly irresponsible. It is one thing to debate whether a state government should mandate that children are vaccinated against something like HPV, and whether a voluntary opt-out provision is protective enough of parental prerogatives. It is quite another to suggest that mandated vaccination creates serious health risks when there is no evidence to support such a claim.
For what it’s worth, I criticized Senator John McCain for a similar offense in 2008.
UPDATE: Henry Miller reports some additional things Rep. Bachmann should know about the HPV vaccine. Even if Gov. Perry was wrong to order the vaccinations, there’s absolutely no basis for suggesting the vaccine is a threat to children.
Grist reports on a class-action suit that is being filed against ConAgra for allegedly deceptive marketing of its various vegetable oils. The core of the complaint seems to be that some ConAgra products, such as Wesson corn oil, are labeled as “100% natural” even though they contain oil from genetically modified corn. If something comes from a GMO (genetically modified organism), they complainants allege, it cannot be “natural.” It’s an interesting argument, particularly as the federal government has not issued guidelines as to how companies may use the word “natural” in their marketing.
It’s somewhat ironic that the plaintiffs in this litigation have elected to go after corn oil, however. If the charge is that it is misleading to call something “natural” if it cannot occur naturally in nature, then no corn products would qualify, ever. This is because corn itself does not “occur naturally” in nature. Rather, it is the product of human cross-breeding and hybridization, albeit hybridization that occurred thousands of years ago. Indeed, nearly all crop varieties, so-called “GMOs” or otherwise, are human-modified strains that would not occur naturally in nature. Corn is simply a more extreme example in that it is farther removed from its natural cousins than other crops.
I don’t know whether the history of corn and other crops will affect the outcome of this suit. Even if it’s hard to argue (as a scientific matter) that “GMO corn” is less natural than “non-GMO corn,” other types of oil are also part of the suit and words like “natural” have common colloquial meanings quite apart from the scientific reality. But whatever the legal outcome, the suit illustrates how the conventional use of terms like “natural” to modern crops has little relationship to how those crops were actually developed.
Until last week, many conservatives considered New Jersey Governor Chris Christie a hero. Some were even clamoring for him to enter the presidential race. Now, however, some of the same conservatives are branding him a heretic, even as he embraces policy decisions they support. What’s going on?
Last week, Christie vetoed legislation that would have required New Jersey to remain in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a multi-state agreement to control greenhouse gas emissions through a regional cap-and-trade program. The bill was an effort to overturn Christie’s decision earlier this year to withdraw from the program. Given conservative opposition to greenhouse gas emission controls, the veto should have been something to cheer, right? Nope.
The problem, according to some conservatives, is that Christie accompanied his veto with a statement acknowledging that human activity is contributing to global climate change. Specifically, Christie explained that his original decision to withdraw from RGGI was not based upon any “quarrel” with the science.
While I acknowledge that the levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in our atmosphere are increasing, that climate change is real, that human activity plays a role in these changes and that these changes are impacting our state, I simply disagree that RGGI is an effective mechanism for addressing global warming.
As Christie explained, RGGI is based upon faulty economic assumptions and “does nothing more than impose a tax on electricity” for no real environmental benefit. As he noted, “To be effective, greenhouse gas emissions must be addressed on a national and international scale.”
Although Christie adopted the desired policy — withdrawing from RGGI — some conservatives are aghast that he would acknowledge a human contribution to global warming. According to one, this makes Christie “Part RINO. Part man. Only more RINO than man.” ["RINO" as in "Republican in Name Only."]
Those attacking Christie are suggesting there is only one politically acceptable position on climate science — that one’s ideological bona fides are to be determined by one’s scientific beliefs, and not simply one’s policy preferences. This is a problem on multiple levels. Among other things, it leads conservatives to embrace an anti-scientific know-nothingism whereby scientific claims are to be evaluated not by scientific evidence but their political implications. Thus climate science must be attacked because it provides a too ready justification for government regulation. This is the same reason some conservatives attack evolution — they fear it undermines religious belief — and it is just as wrong.
Writing at MichelleMalkin.com, Doug Powers warns that ” if some politicians think they can swim in the waters of AGW without getting wet or soaking taxpayers, they should think again.” In other words, once you accept that human activity may be contributing to global warming, embracing costly and ill-advised regulatory measures is inevitable. Yet it is actually Powers, not Christie, who is embracing a dangerous premise. As Christie’s veto shows, he understands that the threat of climate change does not justify any and all proposed policy responses. One can believe the threat is real, and still think cap-and-trade is a bad idea. Christie’s critics, on the other hand, seem to accept that once it can be shown that human activity may be having potentially negative environmental effects, this alone justifies government intervention. Yet the environmental effects of human behavior are ubiquitous. Human civilization necessarily entails remaking the world around it. So if recognizing negative environmental effects leads inevitably to governmental intervention, there is virtually no end to what government needs to do, global warming or no.
How inconvenient, then, that even the vast majority of warming “skeptics” within the scientific community would agree with Governor Christie’s statement that “human activity plays a role” in rising greenhouse gas levels and resulting changes in the climate. The Cato Institute’s Patrick Michaels, for instance, has written several books acknowledging human contributions to global warming. In Climate of Extremes: The Global Warming Science They Don’t Want You to Know (co-authored with Robert Balling, another “skeptic”) for example, he explained that there is an observable warming trend and that human activity shares some of the blame. Michaels and Balling are labeled “skeptics” because they don’t believe the warming is likely to be as severe or as disruptive as most other climate scientists, but they readily accept the reality of anthropogenic global warming. (See, e.g., p. 27.) Their rejection of a climate apocalypse — and not a denial of human contributions to climate change — is actually the view of most climate “skeptics,” and nothing Christie said is incompatible with that view.
As I’ve written before, it would be convenient if human activity did not contribute to global warming or otherwise create problems that are difficult to reconcile with libertarian preferences. But that’s not the world we live in, and politicians should not be criticized for recognizing that fact. Further, even if one accepts the “skeptic” perspective on climate change, there are still reasons to believe climate change is a problem, as I explain here. This does not require endorsing massive regulatory interventions or cap-and-trade schemes; there are alternatives. In the end, politicians should be evaluated on their policy proposals — and commended for the courage to acknowledge politically inconvenient truths.
Population growth and climate change demand increases in agricultural productivity — increases that can only be achieved through the use of modern biotechnology. Yet excessive and scientifically unjustified regulatory restrictions hamper the development of more productive crop strains, particularly where they are needed most. So argues Penn State biology professor Nina Federoff in today’s NYT, and she’s right.
In 2010, crops modified by molecular methods were grown in 29 countries on more than 360 million acres. Of the 15.4 million farmers growing these crops, 90 percent are poor, with small operations. The reason farmers turn to genetically modified crops is simple: yields increase and costs decrease.
Myths about the dire effects of genetically modified foods on health and the environment abound, but they have not held up to scientific scrutiny. And, although many concerns have been expressed about the potential for unexpected consequences, the unexpected effects that have been observed so far have been benign. Contamination by carcinogenic fungal toxins, for example, is as much as 90 percent lower in insect-resistant genetically modified corn than in nonmodified corn. This is because the fungi that make the toxins follow insects boring into the plants. No insect holes, no fungi, no toxins.
Yet today we have only a handful of genetically modified crops, primarily soybeans, corn, canola and cotton. All are commodity crops mainly used for feed or fiber and all were developed by big biotech companies. Only big companies can muster the money necessary to navigate the regulatory thicket woven by the government’s three oversight agencies: the E.P.A., the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration.
Conservatives are often criticized for adopting ideologically or politically motivated positions on scientific questions — and they should be. But the Right has no monopoly on the politicization of science. As the debate over agricultural biotechnology shows, progressives can be just as guilty, and the effects can be just as grave.
It has been clear for decades that the means through which a crop strain is developed has no bearing on the health or environmental risks such a crop could pose. The scientific consensus here is broader and more stable than on climate change and other contentious environmental questions. The National Academy of Sciences, British Royal Society and EU have all concluded that modern biotech techniques are no more dangerous than traditional crop modification methods. Nevertheless, due to progressive environmental activism and fear campaigns, crops developed with modern biotechnology are subject to greater regulatory scrutiny. As Federoff notes, a reactive precautionary stance may have been justified years ago when biotechnology was new, but there is no scientific justification for such a position today. Yet progressive environmentalists continue to oppose modern agricultural biotechnology — and the supposed defenders of scientific integrity have little to say about it.
UPDATE: Chris Mooney thinks I sideswiped him unfairly with the final link of this post. I disagree, and have responded in the comments to his post. My comment is reproduced below.
I’m sorry you thought it was a sideswipe, but I think the charge was justified. I ran a search on your blog for “biotechnology” on your blog and little of substance comes up. While you acknowledged the problem of anti-science anti-biotech activism in your book, you’ve had very little to say about it since. Why is this a problem? Because the anti-scientific anti-biotech view has very real consequences. You may like to think that liberals are open to science on this issue, but why do we see no evidence of this in actual policy? Why are GMOs subject to greater regulatory scrutiny than their non-GMO equivalents? Why has no “liberal” administration done anything about this? Sure, the anti-Greenpeace activism hasn’t prompted a broad social movement, but it hasn’t had to. As the article to which I linked discusses, the current regulatory process adopts the precise anti-GMO bias that the NAS and its foreign equivalents have warned against. Given this fact, I think it’s fair to find your relative quiet on this issue rather conspicuous.
The Guardian reports on a scenario analysis conducted by several scientists considering possible scenarios resulting from contact with alien life forms. The analysis covers many basic scenarios, such as basic communication or the possibility of disease transmission from physical contact, but also suggests global warming could give aliens an excuse to attack.
The authors warn that extraterrestrials may be wary of civilisations that expand very rapidly, as these may be prone to destroy other life as they grow, just as humans have pushed species to extinction on Earth. In the most extreme scenario, aliens might choose to destroy humanity to protect other civilisations.
“A preemptive strike would be particularly likely in the early phases of our expansion because a civilisation may become increasingly difficult to destroy as it continues to expand. Humanity may just now be entering the period in which its rapid civilisational expansion could be detected by an ETI because our expansion is changing the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere, via greenhouse gas emissions,” the report states.
“Green” aliens might object to the environmental damage humans have caused on Earth and wipe us out to save the planet. “These scenarios give us reason to limit our growth and reduce our impact on global ecosystems. It would be particularly important for us to limit our emissions of greenhouse gases, since atmospheric composition can be observed from other planets,” the authors write.
Somehow, I don’t think an alien race capable of interstellar space travel would consider humanity much of a threat — we have yet to put people on Mars — but the authors do characterize these scenarios as “highly speculative.” If we’re willing to accept the premise that aliens come to earth and care about what we’re doing, why should we assume the alien race embraces contemporary environmental ideology? It seems to me the scientists are engaged in a bit of projection.
We could just as easily speculate about an advanced alien race seeing things quite differently. Perhaps the aliens would come from a planet with a much warmer temperature and see global warming as our invitation for them to colonize the planet. Or maybe they’d see gradual warming as a sign that we are a productive civilization that has been able to conquer and subdue our natural environment and is therefore worth trading and cooperating with. Or maybe this race would follow something like the “Prime Directive” and see our expansion as a reason to just leave us alone. Or maybe they would watch cable television and conclude we are a primitive, debased species not worth their time.
[Note: Extra links added.]