Posted by: bmeverett | December 15, 2009

Science and Solidarity


So far, I’ve been avoiding comment on the “Climategate” scandal regarding leaked emails from The University of East Anglia, Penn State and other institutions. These emails, detailing statistical “tricks”, efforts to stifle opposing viewpoints and possibly criminal attempts to shield data from Freedom of Information requests, were so embarrassing that further commentary seemed like piling on. These emails do, however, give us a real glimpse into what is going on in the “climate change community”, and we ought to pay close attention.
At the center of the climate change debate is a conflict of interest. Scientists are supposed to be seekers of truth, using empirical methods to sort out reality from myth in the natural world. The core value of scientists is objectivity – the world is whatever the evidence says it is, regardless of social or political implications. This view is what differentiated science from religion during the Renaissance. The view of the Church was that the natural world must of necessity conform to a moral framework. For example, heavenly bodies, such as the Sun, the Moon and the planets were perfect. The Earth, on the other hand, was the only seat of sin and imperfection. Observations during Galileo’s time undermined this assumption, showing instead natural worlds much like our own, with all their imperfections. The way the world should be is not relevant to the way it is.
Unfortunately, most scientists are also academics, and most academics are very much on the left of the political spectrum. This orientation is not just a right-wing smear, but a clear conclusion from serious studies. In September of 2007, Neil Gross from Harvard and Solon Simmons of George Mason wrote a paper entitled “The Social and Political Views of American Professors” which can be found at http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~ngross/lounsbery_9-25.pdf. According to this study, 62.2% of faculty members identified themselves as Extremely Liberal, Liberal or Slightly Liberal, compared to only 23.3% of the general population. Only 19.7% of faculty members identified themselves as Extremely Conservative, Conservative or Slightly Conservative, compared to 31.9% of the general population. In other words, 5 out of every 8 academics are liberals, versus less than 2 out of 8 in the general population.
University professors are clearly entitled to their own political viewpoints. The problem with the left is that its core value is solidarity. Solidarity is the key to moving the society forward to the liberal vision of equality, pacifism and multiculturalism enforced by strong central government economic and political institutions. Everyone on the left is supposed to work together to defeat the enormously powerful forces of the right. Minor differences are to be suppressed, since internal squabbles can only delay progress. Solidarity is the reason feminists supported Bill Clinton despite his criminal and boorish behavior. Solidarity is the reason labor activists refuse to condemn union violence and corruption. Solidarity is the reason students protesting Israeli policies tolerate Palestinian activists shouting “Kill the Jews.” Solidarity is the reason President Obama embraces ACORN, despite its pattern of criminal acts. Most scientists live in university communities where left-wing solidarity is expected and reinforced. Faculty members who fail to support the proper causes risk at the very least social sanctions from their community.
The central argument of the left is that a free market economy is intolerable. Karl Marx and most leftists up to the 1980s based their arguments primarily on social and economic grounds. Markets, it was argued, enriched the few and impoverished the many, while central planning would provide high living standards for all. This argument failed miserably on empirical grounds, since by the 1980s, all the communist countries in the world were poverty-stricken police states, while free market economies were booming – and providing economic opportunities to most of their populations.
Environmentalism has now become the preferred criticism of free markets. Free markets and unrestrained consumption, so the argument goes, will render the planet uninhabitable, or, in current parlance, market economies are “unsustainable.” Only centrally planned economies can escape this fate.
Unfortunately, far too many scientists have opted for solidarity over objectivity, and that mindset is evident in the Climategate emails. To question the hypothesis of catastrophic man-made climate change is to undermine the central argument against free markets. To do so would be socially uncomfortable, not to mention financially difficult, for many scientists in the academic community. Some scientists nonetheless express their dissenting views and accept the consequences. Richard Lindzen at MIT is referred to on the website Climateprogress.org as “MIT’s uber-hypocritical unscientific scientist.” Other scientists are simply intimidated and quietly study esoteric scientific issues without commenting on the broader implications. In any case, scientist/academics must be very careful here. Their standing and authority in our society require objectivity – the selection of science over solidarity with leftist causes. If they fail to make this clear choice, respect for scientists, if not for science, will quickly decline. That would be a great tragedy.

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Responses

  1. This is well said. It cuts right to the ideological heart of the matter and succinctly lays it out. So, I agree with the substance, and with your conclusion that scientists have badly damaged their position, and their credibility on future issues. At the same time, I feel a faint solidarity with the majority of scientists myself, just as a fellow academic. I think the cloud of leftism that we live in is mostly implicit – few scientists would want to call themselves Marxists, and those who do are widely viewed as cranks. Instead, what’s shared among most scientists is limited to anxious environmentalism, plus a vague “progressive” sense of social justice, along with a clear sense of who is the enemy: oil companies and Republicans.

    On the corruption stuff, I agree with your view of how terrible it is, and am struck by how invisible it is to most of the participants. I think the base problem might be certainty itself. Once you have assigned a subjective probability of 1 to any proposition, you are thereafter utterly unable to count anything you see as evidence against it. If I were 100% convinced that you were dead, and then you showed up at my house, I literally couldn’t recognize you as yourself – you’d have to be a twin or an illusion of some sort. I suppose that this is the way that most committed global warming people perceive contrary evidence, i.e. not at all. In this way, some of the corruption you point out is kind of innocent: the mistake was scientists ever letting themselves get 100% convinced of *anything*. This turns out to be to a moral mistake in itself, not just an intellectual one.

  2. great blog, happy new year wishes!


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