Sunday, July 24, 2005

Skeptic Poseurs

I have a bumper sticker that says "Question Skepticism."  There's a reason for that.  Primary, it's my idea of a joke.  Secondarily, it is a reminder that skepticism can be mean-spirited.  Today I encountered a particularly good example of that.

In the one and a half years of the Corpus Callosum, there has been only one winner of the Yellow Hammer Award: Tom DeLay.  At the end of this post, I will announce the awarding of the second YHA.  

Like most topics in science, global warming started life as an hypothesis, underwent extensive testing, and has matured to the status of a well-established theory.  In other words, the only sensible course of action is to act as though it is the truth.  Sure, there's more work to be done.  Sure, mini-controversies will persist within the field.  Sure, from time to time, people with credentials will stand up and question the validity of the concept.  There always will be a shadow of doubt, of course; but by now, there is no room for reasonable doubt.

One of the favorite tactics of mean-spirited skeptics is to try to make use of unreasonable doubt.  We see this, for example, in the seemingly-endless debate over evolution.  (See Getting the Monkey off Darwin's Back for discussion.)  Politicians, lobbyists, and industry moguls likewise are using this tactic against the notion of global warming.  Only now, it gets ugly.  As reported in The Scientist:
Members of Congress probe climate researchers
Inquiry sparks Republican infighting and widespread scientific protest over 'intimidation'

By Alison McCook
Jul. 22, 2005

Scientists and a Republican member of Congress are protesting other members' attempts to investigate three researchers who have produced climate data that support global warming, arguing the investigation is designed to intimidate scientists who don't generate politically favorable data.

In 1998, Michael Mann of the University of Virginia, Raymond Bradley of the University of Massachusetts, and Malcolm Hughes of the University of Arizona published a paper in Nature showing that temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere rose precipitously in the 20th century. This, along with an additional report, created the so-called "hockey stick" graph of rising temperatures from global warming. The team's results were among the many included in the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's third assessment report in 2001, which found that the world is, indeed, experiencing global warming. In June 2004, the group published a Corrigendum to their paper.

Last month, Mann, Bradley, and Hughes received a letter from US Congressmen Joe Barton, chair of the House Committee of Energy and Commerce, and Ed Whitfield, chair of the subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, with a two-page list of requests for material to support their conclusions, such as all financial support for their research, including–but not limited to–honoraria and financial awards. [...]
At first glance, the action taken by Barton (R-Texas) and Whitfield (R - KY) may seem innocent enough.  But the fact is, Mann, Bradley, and Hughes have been working on climate change for thirty years.  It would take months for them to gather all that information.  During that time, they would not be able to do anything of any real use.  And the likelihood that Barton and Whitfield would even be able to understand any of the "supporting material" is rather small.  So just what, exactly, do they plan to do with boxcars full of papers that they do not understand?  

The obvious conclusion is that they are not planning to conduct any real investigation.  Congress already has established mechanisms for conducting investigations, and what these two are doing is unprecedented:
[S]ome experts noted that this is the first time they have seen individual congressmen question individual scientists. "I have never seen anything quite as egregious as this," Linda Rosenstock, director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health from 1994 through 2000, told The Scientist.
Both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academies of Science (The two most prestigious and influential scientific organizations in the USA) have joined Mann, Bradley, and Hughes in protest.  The consensus among scientists is that Barton and Whitfield are trying to intimidate the scientists, obstruct their work, and that it amounts to a "fishing expedition."  From the Stanford Center for Environmental Policy:
"I've never seen anything like this," said Stephen H. Schneider, co-director of the Stanford University Center for Environmental Science and Policy. "Congress is the last place to look for quality peer review. These guys (Barton and Whitfield) are conducting a fishing expedition in hopes they'll find some little thing that can be used to discredit and intimidate science."
David Appell, a freelance science writer and author of the blog Quark Soup, has collected several choice comments from the scientific community.  I especially like this one:

Schmidt Response

Here are Gavin Schmidt's thoughts on the Barton/Whitfield letters received by Mann, Bradley, and Hughes. He's a climate scientist at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies:
My only thoughts really relate to how appropriate it is for Congressional committees to get involved in reviewing technical details of scientific results. They obviously have valid jurisdiction over process, funding and how the IPCC functions, but asking individual researchers for specific statistical measures from their data seems excessive. However, the tone of the letters, and the extremely selective results that they cite are clearly indicative of a rather contrarian bias that does not speak highly for their 'scientific' advisors in this matter (if indeed they have any).

David Appell @ 06:50 AM EST [link]
The Kansas City Infozine reports:
Twenty leading climate scientists - including Nobel and National Medal of Science laureates, members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and other highly regarded researchers - sent a letter to Congress expressing concern over the approach of a Congressional investigation into a global warming study. Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), in his capacity as the chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, is conducting the investigation. [...]

The scientists' letter also notes "that much of the information that you have requested from the scientists involved is unrelated to the stated purpose of your investigation. Requests to provide all working materials related to hundreds of publications stretching back decades can be seen as intimidation - intentional or not - and thereby risks compromising the independence of scientific opinion that is vital to the preeminence of American science as well as to the flow of objective advice to the government."
We all are familiar with those poseurs who pretend to be patriotic, but are not; who pretend to be religious, but really are pressing a personal agenda; who pretend to have a romantic interest, but really have their mind in the gutter.  This is a reminder that there are those who would pretend to take on the prestigious mantle of the Skeptic, but who really are just a pain in the ass.

Based upon all of this evidence, it is clear that Barton and Whitfield easily meet the rigorous criteria* for the 2005 Yellow Hammer Award.  


*They piss me off.

Categories: Science, rants, idiot politicians
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I think so far you're batting 1,000 on the yellow hammer awardees ... keep up the good work! My personal inclination would have been to give Delay two of them, but them I'm likely just being ornery.
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