by Bruce Dunlavy (My blog home page and index of other posts may be found here.)
The last week of April, 2015, in a show vote devised by Democrats to put their Republican counterparts on record as opposing the almost unanimous opinion of climatologists, earth scientists, and geophysicists, the United States Senate voted 50-49 to defeat a measure stating that climate change is a real phenomenon and is “significantly” the product of human activity (the term is “anthropogenic,” meaning “man-made”) . The Senate did, however, pass a bill that acknowledges climate change is occurring but omits the suggestion of human influence on climate change.
The votes had no direct effect on policy-making or government response to climate change. It was merely a ploy to get anti-science senators to state their position on the issue. The chair of the Senate Environment Committee, James Inhofe (R-OK) makes no effort to conceal his rejection of the scientific consensus on climate change, which he considers – and titled his book on the subject – “the greatest hoax.” His point of view is Bible-based, attributing hubristic arrogance to those who would suggest that anyone but God can change climate.
Inhofe’s position differs from that of most Senatorial climate-change skeptics and deniers in that the others are more likely to hedge their position by saying that the matter is unresolved, scientists are not in agreement, and they themselves are not scientists and are therefore not qualified to say whether climate change is real or, if real, whether it is anthropogenic.
The notion that the science is unsettled is refuted by the 2013 study of 4000 peer-reviewed articles on climate change published from 1991 to 2011 in scientific journals. That study found that, of articles on climate change that expressed a conclusion regarding human causation, 97 percent agreed that climate change is being caused by human activities.
Scientists like nothing better than a good fight, so the lack of a sharp disagreement is an indication that the science is indeed settled, and settled clearly, on the side of anthropogenic climate change.
The science may be settled, but the politics is not. That is a dangerous situation. Politicians should not be in the practice of deciding which scientific consensus they will believe and act on and which they will not.
There are also some politicians and political commentators who take an anti-intellectual tack, saying that, although there may be scientific consensus, scientific consensus cannot be trusted. Political pundit George Will has stated that the research of climate scientists is unreliable because in the 1970s they were all saying that a new Ice Age was imminent. In fact, this often-repeated bunch of hokum is utterly untrue and has been debunked many times. Will and Charles Krauthammer have also raised the point that scientific consensus has sometimes changed throughout history, so why should we believe it this time? The forms of argument Will and Krauthammer employ are of the sort they would not have been allowed to get away with when they were undergraduates at the widely-respected Trinity College and McGill University, respectively.
When politics pretends to defeat science in science’s own arena, something truly frightening is underway. If mistaken scientific opinion becomes political orthodoxy, it is unwise to allow politicians to be in a position to direct scientific inquiry or to control the decisions and actions made under color of science.
That has happened before, often with disastrous consequences. The modern epitome of such occurrences took place in Russia during the days of the old USSR. One of the most (wrongly) influential geneticists in history is without respect today, and virtually unremembered except for his status as the central figure in a horrifying example of politics interfering with science.
Trofim Lysenko began his career in obscurity, but after achieving notable success with a new method for increasing the yield from grain crops, he quickly gained the approval and sponsorship of Soviet leader Josef Stalin. His discovery, announced in 1928 and known as vernalization, involved chilling the seeds of cold-weather crops such as winter wheat to make them behave more like spring crops. This allowed for ripening and harvesting at more propitious times, thus increasing yield.
Stalin, rightly concerned about the potential for famine as yields declined during the agricultural collectivization period, seized on Lysenko and vernalization as the answer to his fears. He quickly appointed Lysenko leader of the Academy of Agricultural Sciences, a post which gave Lysenko irreproachable authority and the imprimatur of Stalin’s favor.
The Marxist-Leninist ideology on which the USSR was founded holds that all science must be evaluated and implemented in the context of political and economic theory, and anyone who thinks otherwise must be mentally ill. No deviation from the Communist Party line was tolerated in the pursuit of scientific advancement. “One product for the masses” was extended from the material to the intellectual, and Stalin’s preferences could scarcely be disregarded. With Stalin’s backing, Lysenko became the source of knowledge in Soviet genetic science.
There was a problem with institutionalizing Lysenkoism, however. While vernalization holds some merit, the rest of Lysenko’s science was erroneous, sometimes laughably so. Based on the pre-Darwinian theories of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who believed that organisms could pass on characteristics they acquired during life to their offspring, Lysenkoism denied the otherwise universally accepted genetic theories of Gregor Mendel.
Mendelian theory was dismissed as a corrupt product of bourgeois capitalism, in that it attributed inherited characteristics to preceding generations, who inherited them from preceding generations, ad infinitum. Marxist-Leninists saw this as implying that there are “superior” specimens who pass their superior characteristics to their descendants, much as tsars and nobles had claimed to do.
Among Lysenko and his disciples’ more bizarre claims were that his practices could change rye plants into wheat, that plants could be “trained” to flourish outside their natural climate range, and that organisms could produce offspring of a completely different species. Since Lysenko had the backing of Stalin and political orthodoxy, no one dared oppose him. The few who did were banished, stripped of their positions, or imprisoned. Although Lysenko was questioned in the 1950s and finally discredited in 1964, Russian genetic science did not recover for the rest of the century.
Political control over scientific theory is now prominent in American government. In any other developed country in the world, denying Darwinian evolution would get a politician marginalized, if not laughed out of the business. Yet, in the Republican Party of the USA, it is essentially a requirement. The documentation of anthropogenic climate change denial was mentioned at the beginning of this essay.
At the State level, two notorious examples have occurred in Oklahoma and Florida. Oklahoma used to experience two or three modest earthquakes a year. Since the widespread implementation of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) to obtain oil and gas, Oklahoma now has the most earthquakes of any State, including California. The Oklahoma Geological Survey (OGS), however, was under implicit orders not to publicly connect earthquakes to fracking, even though the U.S. Geological Survey and nearly all seismologists agreed on a connection between the two. The OGS is a branch of the University of Oklahoma, whose president, David Boren, is a former governor and U.S. senator. Boren, a Democrat, has close ties to the petroleum industry and, as University president, must be mindful of the significant donations made to the institution by oil interests. The OGS refused to acknowledge a connection between fracking and seismic activity for nearly five years.
Florida has in recent years seen a similar situation, one that developed into a bit of a scandal. The Miami Herald published an investigative report in March of 2015, revealing that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection has an enforced – though unwritten – rule prohibiting its employees from using the terms “climate change,” “global warming,” or “sustainability” in any agency documents, emails, or other communications. “Sea level rise,” though, was recently removed from the no-mention list, and the terms “climate drivers” and “climate-driven change” are allowed, as is “nuisance flooding.”.
A frightening echo of the aforementioned Marxist ideology struck one Florida DEP employee who used the term “climate change” in his notes from a meeting. He was suspended from his job and ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation to determine his fitness to return to work.
The ban on climate change terminology began under current governor Rick Scott, a Republican who succeeded Charlie Crist, a Republican as governor who then became an Independent and now is a Democrat. Crist had taken the climate change issue seriously and even convened a summit to consider it. All that changed when Scott succeeded Crist, and was solidified when Scott defeated Crist in the 2014 gubernatorial race.
Science ought to be free inquiry. Civilization exists because scientists have pursued knowledge independently. When required, they have done so secretly to escape official repression or even arrest (Copernicus, for example). But this is the Twenty-First Century. Science can no longer effectively be pursued by a tiny group working out of sight of government officials. The validity of scientific findings must no longer be judged by political or economic rubrics.
The throttling of scientific inquiry and the placing of politically-motivated controls on scientific expression are counter not only to the best interests of the world, but also to the founding beliefs of the United States. It must stop now.
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