Thursday, December 10, 2015

Yes, Some Scientists....and Politicians...Are Dishonest

But very few, and that is the biggest fact here to remember.

The "oversight hearing" held by Senator Ted Cruz on Tuesday, December 8th, is a good example of dishonesty. More on that in a second.

First, let me define dishonesty for the purposes of this essay. While there may be legitimate differences of interpretation when evaluating any particular data set, what I'm talking about here is the intentional disregard of data that demonstrate your interpretation to be unsupportable. That is, when you continue to argue you are right and all the rest of the world is wrong despite overwhelming, unequivocal, and incontrovertible evidence of your wrongness. This is not to say that if your data shows something different you should just shut up and accept the consensus. Science is built on investigating results that were counter to expectations. But those data must be scientifically valid and presented through the peer-review process; and those data (and resulting interpretations) must stand up to scientific scrutiny.

Okay, now that we have a baseline, let's use the Cruz hearing as a microcosm of how the denial lobbying industry works.

First, the false premise. The title of the hearing is "Data or Dogma? Promoting Open Inquiry in the Debate over the Magnitude of Human Impact on Earth's Climate." This is right out of the denier lobbyist talking point memo. Deniers, who rarely if ever do actual scientific research (and rarely are climate scientists at all), like to claim that "alternative" science is somehow suppressed. The reality is that deniers don't attempt to publish much in peer-reviewed journals, preferring instead to publish opinion pieces in newspapers, online websites, and blogs. So here we have Senator Ted Cruz from Texas, who was elected predominantly because of support from the billionaire Koch brothers and the fossil fuel industry, and who receives significant funding from fossil fuel lobbyists, abusing his position as Senator to harass scientists and science at the behest of those lobbyists.

Second, the stacked deck. As is common for Republican-chaired hearings in the House and Senate, the witnesses called tend to be from the small handful of "scientists for hire" and, well, non-scientists. This hearing was actually a significant departure from the norm in that the Republican majority actually did have actual scientists as witnesses. But the choice of scientists - and the non-scientist - is revealing.

The scientists were Judith Curry, John Christy, William Happer, and David Titley. 

Curry and Christy are actual climate scientists but clearly in the "contrarian" viewpoint. The irony is that the actual published scientific work by both Curry and Christy absolutely support the unequivocal fact that humans are significantly warming the climate system. The reason they were called as witnesses is because their blog posts and previous testimonies argues that all the world's climate scientists (and their own published work) is somehow wrong. When someone claims the opposite in their non-peer-reviewed blogs than what their actual peer-reviewed papers say, well, you can draw your own conclusions about whether their associations with denier lobbyist associations influence their positions.

Christy, by the way, is most famous as being the colleague of Roy Spencer at the University of Alabama-Huntsville (UAH). It is the UAH satellite record that deniers solely rely on for the false graphics Senator Cruz displayed during his hearing. This is ironic given that other scientists had long ago documented the major Christy/Spencer satellite data errors that invalidated their most famous work). The UAH data set is the most uncertain and inappropriate of any data set (and hidden, since Christy/Spencer won't reveal their "adjustment" methods), but deniers use it because it tells them what they want to hear. Deniers have to deny the existence of all the other data sets and empirical data that overwhelmingly demonstrate the failure of the UAH data in order to make claims based on UAH. This is dishonesty. Spencer is a Board member of the George C. Marshall Institute, an infamous lobbyist group at the front of every science denial lobbying activity for decades and profiled in the book Merchants of Doubt. Spencer is also a creationist, which is only relevant because it demonstrates his ability to ignore scientific evidence he finds inconvenient. Again, it's easy to draw conclusions about the influence of those lobbyists when everything presented is so easily shown to be specious.

Which gets us to William Happer. Why was Happer invited by Republicans as a witness, as he has been invited before? Happer has zero climate expertise and has done no climate change research. His specialty is atomic physics and nuclear arms. He is on the Board, and former Chair, of the aforementioned George C. Marshall Institute lobbying organization. He is associated with a variety of anti-science lobbying groups who pay him considerable sums to misrepresent the science. His credibility on climate science is zero, which would convince any honest Senator not to have him highlight your climate hearing. In fact, just this week the environmental advocacy group Greenpeace revealed a sting operation it had conducted in which William Happer and another scientist-for-hire agreed to provide "reports" supporting the anti-science views of what they thought were fossil fuel lobbyists. This is, unfortunately, relatively routine practice for these lobbyist-associated "scientists."

The final scientist on the witness list was David Titley, a PhD in meteorological sciences and retired Admiral in the U.S. Navy. Titley was invited by the Democratic minority of the committee (the only witness the minority was allowed to invite). When he was in charge of the Navy's assessment of climate change, Titley found that man-made climate change was both a real scientific issue and a significant national security issue. As we move toward ice-free Arctic summers we are exposed to greater dangers from foreign forces. Unlike Curry and Christy, Titley's presentation was consistent with actual scientific data. Once again, he was the sole witness allowed to be called by the Democratic minority. [To put this in context, Democrats generally call scientists to climate hearings while Republicans have called fiction writer Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park); the fake Lord, politician, and right wing speaker-for-hire, Christopher Monckley; and a variety of other non-scientists and lobbyists.]

To put the emphasis on the charade of Senator Ted Cruz's hearing, the other witness was a guy by the name of Mark Steyn. Steyn is a Canadian shock jock, i.e., a right wing zealot akin to Rush Limbaugh. The fact that a bloviating right wing radio talk show host from Canada was a "witness" in a U.S. Senate hearing on climate change tells you all you need to know about the farce (and dishonesty) of Cruz's side show. A nice discussion of Steyn's involvement is given here by scientist Greg Laden.

To end, let's circle back around to the first sentence of this piece. Yes, there are some scientists and politicians who are dishonest. But this is a rarity. Virtually all scientists are honest and diligently work without fanfare trying to discover the truth about scientific issues. More than 100,000 scientific research papers have been published in thousands of peer-reviewed journals in the more than 100 years of scientific research related to climate change. When questions and conflicts in the data arise, scientists delve into them voraciously to determine what is what. That is how science works. Scientists are driven by the need to understand. Mostly you never hear about scientists because their work is published in scientific journals.

There are a very small number of scientists-for-hire. Most famous are people like Fred Singer, who has in turn been paid to be an "expert" in everything from smoking to acid rain to climate change, none of which he has any significant research expertise in. For decades Singer has carried the water for whatever lobbying organization was paying him, as the climate denial lobbying industry continues to do today. There are a few others who are paid to write reports that say what lobbyists want them to say (e.g., see the linked sting piece about William Happer above). And then there are a few who just like the notoriety (and financial gain) of being "contrarian." Again, this is a tiny number of scientists.

Hearings such as the one held by Ted Cruz this week are designed not to provide oversight or fact-finding; they are designed to showcase people like Cruz to keep his base energized with false indignation. Cruz is abusing the public trust and hurting his own constituents in Texas, all because he is running for president and wants his most zealous followers to vote for him. The fact that he knows he is being blatantly dishonest is immaterial to him, as is his violation of his oath of office. In this age of cynicism we've almost come to accept such dishonesty from certain politicians. That is a shame but a topic for another post.

The scientists who participate in the charade, on the other hand, must remind themselves they have an ethical obligation to seek the scientific truth. As mentioned before, there can be legitimate differences in interpretation of data. In fact, legitimate data that seem to contradict other data are always a source of excitement among scientists because it gives them something cool to study (which, by the way, completely invalidates the premise of Cruz's hearing). But knowingly ignoring 99% of the data and relying on the 1% of already debunked data to push a viewpoint you know to be specious is another matter altogether. Those rare scientists who do this need some soul searching.

Meanwhile, science moves on. Hundreds of new scientific papers are published each week that further our knowledge of man-made climate change. Those papers, and millions of empirical data points, overwhelmingly, unequivocally, and undeniably tell us that human activity is warming the climate and that substantive action is necessary to deal with that reality. And that is why every country in the world has been in Paris these two weeks - to find a solution.