Posted by: bmeverett | February 27, 2015

The New York Times Still Doesn’t Understand Science


The New York Times had another troubling article on climate change last week by reporters Justin Gillis and John Schwartz entitled “Deeper Ties to Corporate Cash for Doubtful Climate Researcher”. The article raises concerns about the climate research conducted by Wei-Hock (Willie) Soon, a scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Dr. Soon has argued that solar energy, rather than anthropogenic carbon emissions, is primarily responsible for observed temperature variations in the Earth’s atmosphere. The Times reveals that some of Dr. Soon’s work was funded by grants from Southern Company, a major coal-burning electric power company, and by the Koch brothers. On the surface, the Times is asking a legitimate question about whether such funding is ethical and appropriate. The reporters, however, are not satisfied with a straightforward, factual piece. The paper just can’t pass up an opportunity to advance its overall climate agenda.

Here’s how the article starts, “For years, politicians wanting to block legislation on climate change have bolstered their arguments by pointing to the work of a handful of scientists who claim that greenhouse gases pose little risk to humanity.” The article falls afoul of two fundamental fallacies.

The first is that “climate deniers” are an organized group of political hacks, dishonest scientists and their fossil fuel company paymasters, working together and coordinating their activities to undermine legitimate climate science. In this sense, climate denial supposedly has a single organizational identity and any dent in its armor undermines the credibility of the whole enterprise. We assume, for example, that members of the White House staff develop a political strategy to meet their objectives, that they speak from a common script and that their public statements are carefully coordinated. When Josh Earnest or Susan Rice speaks publicly, we can be reasonably sure that their views and actions reflect President Obama’s wishes.

However, neither “climate deniers” nor the “fossil fuel industry” is an organization. There are, of course, various industry associations, such as the American Petroleum Institute, the American Gas Association and the National Mining Association which do represent companies in their various industries. The views of these companies on climate change, however, are all over the map. Shell and BP, two of the largest oil companies in the world, have been publicly supportive of both the catastrophic climate hypothesis and of strong government actions to reduce carbon emissions. The Times article cites Southern Company, a major coal-burning electric power company, as the funder of Dr. Soon’s work. This may well be so, but other power companies have very different views. Duke Energy, for example, a major electric utility in the Carolinas states that they are “committed to finding new ways to confront one of our industry’s biggest challenges – global climate change.”

The implication of the Times article is that undermining the credentials of one scientist somehow calls into question what the paper sees as a coordinated effort. The article includes a photo of Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), a long-time opponent of efforts to decarbonize the economy. The caption is “Senator James M. Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma, praising scientists like Dr. Soon.” What does “like Dr. Soon” mean? Are the reporters claiming that all scientists who oppose the climate agenda must be unethical like Dr. Soon or that Senator Inhofe praises unethical scientists?

I have been studying climate change policy for nearly 20 years, and I was only vaguely aware of Dr. Soon. His arguments have never been a central part of the climate policy critique.

The second major fallacy is the Times usual mischaracterization of science. Climate change is a hypothesis: increasing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases will cause temperatures not only to rise but to accelerate with catastrophic results, including rising sea levels, loss of cropland, the spread of disease and others. This hypothesis can be evaluated only by testing it against empirical evidence. If atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations increase by x, then y will happen. In other words, the ability to make predictions is the key to science. The Times, on the other hand, argues that scientific questions are determined by “consensus”. Therefore, the number of scientists supporting the hypothesis determines its validity. By implication, if you can undermine the credibility of an opponent, then the number of “real” scientists opposing the hypothesis is reduced.

Here’s an interesting analogy. Let’s assume that you are the captain of your high school debate team and that you have successfully competed your way to the state championships. The championship round will address the proposition “The Earth is flat”, and your team will be arguing the affirmative. Just prior to the debate, you discover that the captain of the opposing team does not in fact attend the school he is representing, but was brought in as a “ringer.” You bring this clear violation to the attention of the debate organizers who immediately disqualify your opponents, allowing you to bring home the trophy and enjoy your victory parade.

This is all well and good, but you need to bear in mind that the disqualification of your opponent has absolutely nothing to do with whether the Earth is flat. In my analogy, this doesn’t really matter because nothing of substance is at stake in the debate. Suppose, however, that a victory for the affirmative team in the debate would result in a tax surcharge of $10,000 per family to build a fence on the edge of the world to keep people from falling off. Now there are real stakes to the debate, and your success in disqualifying your opponents will have serious adverse consequences for the society.

This problem highlights why we use science and not “consensus” as a mechanism for resolving scientific questions. The “scientific community” is wrong on many issues at any given point in time. The problem is we don’t know which ones until we apply the scientific method – testing hypotheses against evidence. The Times just doesn’t seem able to grasp this distinction.

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